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Lacrosse franchises use community outreach to build loyal fan base

Lacrosse franchises use community outreach to build loyal fan base

By Adam Stern, Staff Writer

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The Swarm, buoyed by its NLL title run last month, looks to fill Infinite Energy Arena in Duluth.
Photo by: GEORGIA SWARM
In a state with a strong affinity for football, two nascent professional lacrosse teams hope to find some converts in Greater Atlanta. Statistics show they have a receptive audience.

Spencer Ford, general manager of the Major League Lacrosse team Atlanta Blaze, knows from the experience of other pro franchises in Atlanta that building a fan base can take time.

“I think we expected it to be bigger and better considering that when they had the MLL championship game there [in 2014] it was like … 8,000 people — we thought we could do that for seven, eight games, and it’s been a challenge,” he said.

Atlanta is a growing hotbed for lacrosse, according to U.S. Lacrosse statistics and interviews with around half a dozen executives around the sport. In 2016, Georgia was one of 14 states with at least 10,000 participants at the youth level. Andy Arlotta, co-owner and president of the National Lacrosse League’s champion Georgia Swarm, believes that number is even higher. New York led the way with 59,834 youth players.

“In terms of it being a hotbed, yes — when we look at our numbers and participation, they’re pretty strong in the Atlanta area, so it didn’t surprise us,” Brett Hurwitz, managing director of partnerships for U.S. Lacrosse, said of both pro leagues landing in Atlanta. “Whether two teams can survive, I’d say that has to do with how they market their teams and how they perform for their audience, but I definitely think it’s possible.”

The Swarm relocated from Minnesota to Georgia for the 2016 season. It averaged about 4,700 fans at Infinite Energy Arena in Duluth, about 28 miles northeast of downtown Atlanta, before decreasing slightly to 4,500 this past season. Arlotta said the team, which won the NLL championship last month, averaged about 6,400 fans during the last three games of this past season.

Nick Sakiewicz, commissioner of the NLL, described the Swarm as “really like an expansion team,” given that the team was announced less than half a year before its first season in Georgia. “It’s tough to build a season-ticket base in four months … [and] on the field, they’ve been really good,” Sakiewicz said. “Off the floor, they’ve got a lot of work to do to really make that team relevant.”

Arlotta said the Swarm has been particularly buoyed by its title run, which has vaulted the team to forthcoming prospect meetings with the likes of Chick-fil-A, Dunkin’ Donuts, Mitsubishi Electric and T-Mobile, plus locally based companies like Kauffman Tire. And Arlotta said the team is growing its Atlanta roots by meeting executives from other teams, working with athletes on those teams to get social media shoutouts, and even bringing out Atlanta rapper Ludacris to perform at a recent game.

“A lot of it is getting out in the community in Atlanta and the surrounding areas and building those relationships, so there is a lot of time put into this,” Arlotta said. “You’re not just going to pick up the phone and sell someone a season ticket; with the championship, we’ve already had a lot more interest than I’ve been exposed to in my nine years in the business.”

The Blaze, which plays at Fifth Third Bank Stadium in northwest suburban Kennesaw, averaged between 3,500 to 4,000 fans in its inaugural season in 2016, but that has slipped to between 2,500 and 3,000 this season, said Ford, who added that he would like to see the league’s schedule tweaked to help the issue.

“We have to figure out the challenge of when to schedule these games,” he said. “We had four of our first five games at home so we had three straight weeks at home, and it’s hard for people to come and spend $100 every Saturday. … Think about how much lacrosse is being played and the energy these moms and dads have to bring their kids. There is no energy; they’re exhausted, and for us to expect thousands of kids to come from a tournament to come watch our game, it’s a good expectation and it is reality but … . We have to start to work with more people.”

Ford pointed out that even with Georgia’s love of football, a high crossover rate has started to form in the Atlanta region between football players and lacrosse players. “We’re trying to meet as many people as we can,” he said. “There’s a lot of trust that needs to happen first before you win.”


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