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National Lacrosse League continues sponsorship streak with AT&T deal

Buffalo Bandits Josh Byrne (22) gets airborne but misses the net as Rock goalie Nick Rose covers the far side. Toronto Rock vs Buffalo Bandits in 1st half action of regular season play of National Lacrosse League schedule at Air Canada Centre.Rick Madonik | Toronto Star | Getty Images

The National Lacrosse League has reached a new six-figure sponsorship deal with entertainment and telecom giant AT&T as it tries to increase its revenue and fan base, league officials told CNBC.

The agreement, expected to be announced next week, is the 14th such deal in the last four months.

The pact with AT&T will give the company the rights to the NLL MVP Award. The deal comes only weeks after the leaguestruck a gambling partnership with MGM Resorts International and GVC Holdings. Other deals include a renewed agreement with Team 22, the manufacturer of sporting apparel company Under Armour.

"Lacrosse is a fast-paced, high scoring, and growing sport that presents exciting sports betting opportunities," Scott Butera, president of interactive gaming at MGM Resorts, said in a statement announcing the deal earlier this month. "The NLL is the ideal partner for BetMGM in accessing a fast-growing Lacrosse fan base." BetMGM is MGM's online sports betting platform.

With the new sponsorships, the NLL increased its annual ad revenue projection per season to roughly $6 million, an increase from roughly $2 million per season dating back to 2016, sources tell CNBC, adding that about five to six other deals are in the works for 2020. If those deals, including another major sponsorship in the automotive category, are finalized, the league's revenue projection could increase to roughly $9 million per season.

NLL commissioner Nick Sakiewicz said sponsors continue to be attracted by the league's demographic of viewers, which he described as young and tech-savvy.

"These are the future buyers and wealth creators over the next 30 to 50 years," Sakiewicz said in an interview. "The MGMs of the world and Geicos, and these companies see investing now in speaking to that demographic is a way to capture the money that they are going to spend for a long period of time."

"There is a bubble-up going on at the grassroots level that [is] causing our momentum," Sakiewicz added. "And that's going to continue for the next 20, 30 years. As long as we keep paying attention to that bubble-up and what those kids are doing, because those kids are going to be adults someday."

What makes the NLL's partnerships intriguing is the format that calls for sponsors also to pick up sales, marketing, and promotional responsibilities for the league, unlike bigger sports leagues such as the NFL. With the NLL still operating as a small league, handling sales and marketing alone would be too much of a financial strain.

The league's media pact with Turner Sports is also proving beneficial. The AT&T-owned company represents the NLL in the sponsorship marketplace and helps the league identify top companies such as Geico and MGM. Once sponsorships are in place, Turner and NLL split profits from advertising and subscription revenue via their media partnership with Bleacher Report's B/R Live, which runs through 2021. The incentive for Turner to be involved in the NLL's sponsorships is to grow the league's brand in hopes that their streaming partnership will extend beyond its current contract.

"They're the experts on lacrosse," said Will Funk, Turner Sports executive vice president of property marketing and corporate partnerships, "but we have relationships with any brands. So, we're able to connect to the brands, and they're able to come in and apply their expertise. It's a win-win."

Funk said the challenge with connecting top brands to the NLL stems around education, as many still are unaware of the sport. Hence, Funk will advise potential partners to attend an NLL game to get informed about what the league is and how it's growing, especially among younger fans.

"Once they sit in the stands, and they see the electricity in the venue, and the energy and engagement from the fans, they're sold," Funk said.

He declined to comment on viewership numbers for NLL games streamed on Bleacher Report but said they had "exceeded expectations."

Added Kevin Morgan, the NLL chief revenue officer: "When we have crowds of 15,000 people in an arena, [sponsors] take notice."

Partners do want to see more growth from the NLL, which grosses roughly $50 million a year, before upgrading their investments, according to sources familiar with league operations. The NLL is aiming to expand at the rate Major League Soccer did with "responsible growth," hoping to add one team per season.

The league currently stands at 13 teams, with two added recently: the New York Riptide and Halifax Thunderbirds. In 15 years, the NLL is hoping to operate with 30 teams, which officials told CNBC could transform the league into a nearly $1 billion per year operation.

"We're on a hot streak," Morgan said. "We've got our heads down, and we've got more to come."

CNBC

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