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NLL moves towards goal of becoming next major league

Youth Lacrosse Youth Lacrosse - NLL/Toronto Rock

The National Lacrosse League may be coming to a city near you.

The League has announced NLL UnBOXed, a new grassroots youth participation and fan engagement initiative designed to bring the NLL’s fast-paced lacrosse game play to more young boys and girls in more communities across North America.

Nine new “NLL UnBOXed Lacrosse Communities” will join the 15 existing NLL teams for the 2024 launch of the multi-tiered campaign: Baltimore, Charlotte, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Montréal, Ottawa, Salt Lake City, Seattle, St. Louis, and the Tampa Bay area.

The NLL will practice innovation and unique activation when engaging these non-franchise markets and grassroots participants, by creating community-relevant “team names” and brand identities to illustrate the League’s commitment to growing box lacrosse across Canada and the United States.

No, these aren’t expansion franchises – yet, anyway. But growing a fan base from the ground up gives the NLL an advantage when it looks to future expansion. The goal is to introduce box lacrosse to more than 100,000 kids a year – and make them fall in love with it.

“NLL UnBOXed is the culmination of decades of foundation-laying work the League, its teams, its players, coaches, executives, and long-time fans have been building towards,” said Kurt Hunzeker, Executive Vice President, Commercial Operations. “We’ve been around for almost 40 years; some could say we were ahead of our time by launching the League in the late 1980s. With lacrosse participation rapidly expanding in ‘non-traditional’ lacrosse markets such as Montréal, Seattle, St. Louis, and Tampa Bay, it’s the NLL’s obligation as pro lacrosse’s established brand, leader, and community champion to take an even more prominent role bringing the fun, fast-paced game we’re known for to new markets across North America.”

All of this is in line with the NLL’s ambition to become “The Next Major League.”

“We’re thinking ‘nowhere near the box’ by creating eye-catching, community-centric brands for our expanding NLL footprint, and that this is truly only ‘Chapter One’ of a very long but very exciting new journey we are all taking together to advance our Olympic-worthy sport to great heights,” Hunzeker said.

In early 2024, each new community will have the opportunity to purchase specially designed merchandize, with retail sales directly reinvested into each respective community’s NLL UnBOXed programming.

It’s a bold move to brand a non-franchise market, but Hunzeker believes it’s the right move.

“The uniqueness of the NLL’s box lacrosse game play extends into every aspect of our DNA, and we love opportunities to bring awareness to box lacrosse and our fast-paced, fun-focused game. Since our current roster of NLL teams have well-known brand names and iconic logos, we already had a solid creative foundation as we began to brainstorm fun opportunities to create community-relevant ‘team brands’ versus just using the NLL logo on t-shirts, sticks, and promotional items.”

The first phase of NLL UnBOXed focuses entirely on elementary and middle school-aged boys and girls with a physical education curriculum to help overcome traditional obstacles and make our game more accessible to more communities across North America, while growing the next wave of future NLL stars and future Olympians.

“NLL UnBOXed At School” includes a lacrosse equipment endowment program as the NLL and its partners will provide an assortment of sticks, balls, and goals to participating schools to participating schools’ physical education departments.

“The NLL is thrilled and honored to partner with NLL Hall of Famer Casey Powell and his SPEED Lacrosse platform to serve as the official curriculum of NLL UnBOXed,” explained Hunzeker. “Once Casey retired from professional lacrosse, he committed himself to growing the game in new and innovative ways, traits that closely align with the NLL, so the partnership was a natural fit.”

Schools and teachers will be able to immediately implement Powell’s curriculum into their lesson plans for students of all ages and skill levels.

Hunzeker was part of a similar launch with Minor League Baseball several years ago, one that helped bridge the divide between the league and Latino fans of the game.

“We had to find out why they weren’t converting their MiLB fandom, and quickly realized that they didn’t feel invited because we weren’t ‘speaking’ to them. This led to the development of Spanish-language brand names and team identities that MiLB teams proudly wore across their jerseys and on their caps, and instantly, we welcomed a massive fan base who simply wanted us to connect with them in a relevant way that truly resonated with them.”

He said that they key learnings, and areas of opportunity that were uncovered, played a key role in the development of NLL UnBOXed.

“One, be authentic to the specific community you want to be part of your family. Two, break through and do the unexpected, but in a way that is authentic. And three, express that you are in this for the long haul. You must be creative to break through in thoughtful, authentic ways. Fans are too savvy to fall for cheap tricks and/or window dressing. Potentially transformative initiatives like NLL UnBOXed only work if the entire organization believes in AND embodies what you want to accomplish, and if you find a uniquely ownable solution that truly resonates with your intended audience.”

Hunzeker went on to say that while the League would love to add more markets right now, but that “we are cognizant to not do too much too soon. This inaugural class coupled with our amazing 15 current teams will show us what works best, what we could improve, and new opportunities to make a positive impact, all while introducing an exciting sport rooted in teamwork, camaraderie, and fun.”