Nick Sakiewicz never left town, he just changed jobs.
The former Philadelphia Union executive resurfaced as National Lacrosse League Commissioner last January following 21 seasons in Major League Soccer.
That was three months after his split with Union majority owner and principal investor Jay Sugarman. The pair brought soccer to Philadelphia in 2008, but parted ways at the end of 2015 when their relationship became strained following years of on-field struggles and disagreement on how to move the franchise forward.
For some of that time, Sakiewicz was seen as public enemy number one in Chester, a CEO and Operating Partner who became the face of an underachieving club. In fairness, that was something he never really disputed.
“Someone has to answer and take the heat, I guess,” he told the Delco Times a few months back.
To that point, I viewed Nick as a person who covered for Sugarman’s shortcomings by repeatedly falling on the sword. There was never a doubt that Sakiewicz was a smart businessman, but a lack of resources stunted early Union gains and quickly brought an end to the club’s honeymoon period. Whether he helped his cause or not, most people realized that this was a thrifty franchise with a young coach, no scouting department, and no general manager.
But those days are long gone, and Sakiewicz is now building a new foundation for the NLL.
Attendance is up and expansion is underway. There seems to be stability and foresight for a league that has existed for quite a while now, but for most of that time just spinning its wheels. In many ways, Sakiewicz’s experiences with a rapidly growing MLS made him an ideal candidate to oversee the growth of another niche sport with similar upside.
I ran into Sakiewicz for the first time in two years at last Thursday’s NLL Philadelphia expansion announcement. He agreed to speak further about his lacrosse gig and Union departure, and we followed up on the phone this week.
Crossing Broad: Some big things are happening for the NLL right now. We saw you in South Philly for the expansion announcement last week. San Diego joins the league in 2019. What’s the big picture, macro outlook for the league?
Nick Sakiewicz: We’ve got a lot of momentum going, as you can probably tell. That was our second big expansion announcement in less than a month. We announced Joe Tsai, the co-founder of the Alibaba Group, as the owner of San Diego back in August. Comcast Spectacor will own our 11th franchise in Philadelphia. Those are two blue chip, five-star, whatever you want to call them owners. They’re really quality entities and two different ones. One is an individual and one is a big sports and entertainment company. I think, in a nutshell, that was really the culmination of about 12 to 18 months of planning and hard work, sort of ‘resetting’ the league after 30 years of stops and starts. The good thing is that the league has been around for 30 years. The bad news is that they hadn’t really grown or created any traction in a very competitive sports landscape. What you’re starting to see right now is a culmination of all of that planning and hard work and a great product to stand behind it, with the best lacrosse in the world. We have the best athletes in our sport playing in our league. There are more great things to come, for sure.
— NLL (@NLL) September 14, 2017
CB: What’s the best way to move forward? Is it expansion? Is it growing the fan base? Is looking more into digital broadcasting? Is it all of those things at the same time?
Sakiewicz: We created this ‘five pillar’ plan 18 months ago, one of them being expansion. Obviously we need a bigger footprint and we need more teams and more games. We need a better competitive landscape. Expansion is a very high priority. Digital marketing and broadcasting is another one. How do we get the games out? It’s fantastic content. There are great games to watch. Everyone knows I’m a hardcore soccer guy but I fell in love watching this sport. The problem is that we needed to get it out en masse. So we created NLL TV and a new digital streaming platform along with a new website and a new social media strategy. Digital marketing and broadcast was that second pillar.
The third pillar is commercial sales. The league never really had any commercial sponsorship sales. We hired a former NHL executive and someone I’ve known for a while (Kevin Morgan) and he’s a built a whole new commercial sales 2.0 platform and has really done a tremendous job attracting some big names in the sports business into our family of corporate sponsors.
The fourth pillar is team services. We created a department in-house that (ex-Union CRO) Dave Rowan leads up. I brought him over from the Union to help develop a team services function. That’s really about working with each of our teams to make them better with their business operations and, in some cases, their lacrosse operations, with helping their technical staff. The NBA and MLS have team services functions. That was a great success this year. We had a 12% attendance increase at the gate. We’re seeing some big things come out of it.
And the fifth and final pillar is grassroots. That’s a long-term strategy to develop programming across the U.S. and Canada to bring box lacrosse – and lacrosse in general – to inner cities, and to communities that might not be aware of the NLL, and working with existing teams in their own markets, developing small-sided games, tournaments, camps, clinics, referee development, and potentially more combine players. We have our annual combine in Toronto and we’d like to do more in the U.S. and Canada as part of that effort.
CB: You and I spoke about expansion last week at the Philly press conference. You said you’re not going to do it without solid ownership that shows commitment and has a feasible arena situation in the right market. That was the idea in Major League Soccer, but you would run into situations like New York City FC, which has rich owners in a great city, but they’re borrowing a baseball stadium. What did you learn from MLS expansion and how important was it to stick to your guns in having NLL candidates meet all of that criteria?
Sakiewicz: I really enjoyed my time in MLS – 21 years – and learned a lot, built a couple of stadiums, helped launch the league, ran a couple of teams and owned a piece of one at the end. What I learned most, first and foremost, is that it’s about a great owner. You have to have the right owners around the board table. They have to have the depth of wealth to be able to invest in infrastructure, in a front office, and in a competitive team to deliver for the fans what they deserve. It starts with the owner.
The second component is the venue they play in. It’s gotta be a great venue, and one that the owner can make a good business in. You have to own it, and if you don’t own it, you need to have a lease that is at least reasonable enough to turn a profit and run the team in a sustainable way.
The third one we talked about was market, whether it be a market with great sports fans that are willing to embrace the team, lacrosse fans or not. The beauty about our league is that we don’t depend on just the lacrosse community. 60% of the audience that sits in our arena is non-lacrosse fans. They come for the spectacle and the great athletes on the floor and to have a great time in the stands. Many of our teams market as, ‘come for the party, stay for the game,’ and do very well with that approach. Those are the three boxes to check. I learned in MLS that we’re not going to compromise on any of those three. If you miss one, you risk this not becoming a long-term strategy. No sports team should leave a market or suffer in a market. No owner should lose boatloads of money that way.
CB: Philadelphia expansion checks all of those boxes. When you took this job, how important was it to bring Philly back into the fold and did you know right away that you wanted to pursue it?
Sakiewicz: It was top of the list because the team existed in the league when it first started. It was around for 25 years. It was kind of sad at the time that ownership was put into a situation where they had to move the team to New England. That team now is the Black Wolves and they’re flourishing with the Mohegan Sun tribe along with (ex-Wings owner) Mike French and his group. But it was sad that they left Philly. So when I became commissioner, after doing all of the research and looking at attendance numbers and seeing all of the video of those great Philadelphia memories, it was, ‘we have to be back in Philadelphia again.’ That was a cornerstone of our expansion strategy. We got the right owner, in the right building, in the right marketplace.
CB: Why did you take this job in the first place? You had been involved with soccer for so many years. I imagine you could have stayed in the sport, but you chose to do something different.
Sakiewicz: I didn’t expect to, to be honest. I was looking at a lot of opportunities overseas. There wasn’t much more I could do in Major League Soccer. I’d done pretty much everything on the business side that could possibly be done. I wanted a new challenge and there really wasn’t anything that got me excited in those overseas soccer projects, so I decided to take a little time off.
During that time off, Mike French actually called me up to Allentown to watch a preseason game between the Buffalo Bandits and the Black Wolves, and there were 4,000 people there for a meaningless run around. I couldn’t believe my eyes. These were elite athletes playing a sport I had never seen before at an extremely high level. I had to watch some of the replays to really understand what Shawn Evans or Billy O’Brien were doing with a lacrosse stick. They’re phenomenal athletes. I looked at Mike and said, ‘this is the best kept secret in sports.’ I dug a little deeper and did about a month, two months of research and realized that this could potentially be huge. I decided to take the job. I met with a lot of the owners. They’re a great bunch with tons of resources between them. Three of them are NHL owners. They got really excited about the product, the ownership, the commitment to growing the game, and they gave me a lot of resources. I’m deploying those resources now and we’ve got a lot of wind in our sails. If you look at Major League Soccer as the fifth major sport, there’s no reason at all why the NLL can’t be the sixth. We have the best athletes in the world and we sell a lot of tickets to the games. When you can do that, you should be able to make a good business out of it.
CB: What were your emotions when you left the Union? Was there disappointment? Did you feel like you had unfinished business with the team or more to offer to MLS?
Sakiewicz: No, not at all. I have no regrets. I had to leave, the way I had to leave, for personal reasons mostly. I really enjoyed my time there. I was a little tired, to be honest with you. We had done a lot. I’m really proud of building that stadium and proud to bring soccer to Philadelphia. I worked in MLS for 21 years and it was time to move on. I’m very pleased with my exit from the Union and the rest is history. It’s time for something new. I’m a builder and I like to build stuff. This is another huge challenge and it’s exciting to be in the NLL.
CB: I’m not going to sit here and ask you to throw Jay Sugarman or the current Union staff under the bus, but you did a couple of interviews after leaving the team where you spoke about philosophical differences and alluded to budget issues. Spending more money would have obviously made a huge difference. Can you speak to that with regard to where you and Jay were during those later years?
Sakiewicz: I was pretty clear that I didn’t see things the same way that Jay and other members of ownership did. I’d say that was building for the last three years. I really wanted to bring in a Sporting Director of high quality. I tried to bring in Rene Meulensteen. I tried to bring in Rodolfo Borrell and Carlos Carvalhal. I tried to bring in Juan Carlos Osorio way, way before that, after Peter Nowak had left and, of course, that didn’t get done. I tried to bring in Octavio Zambrano to be the head of our youth development academy. Now he’s the Canadian national team coach. I tried to bring in Omid Namazi to be head coach at Bethlehem Steel. He would have been a great addition to the coaching staff. For a variety of reasons, I couldn’t get that done with ownership.
They were seeing things very differently on the soccer side than I was. That was a real clash of philosophy and vision. I thought after we launched the team in 2010 – we made the playoffs the second year – but after that, focus really needed to be on the team on the field and investing heavily, because the rest of MLS was investing heavily in the on-field product. I began to get frustrated because that investment just wasn’t there. We tried to make it work. We didn’t make it back to the playoffs but got to the U.S. Open Cup final twice (laughs). I guess we walked away with a couple of second-place medals, but who cares about second place? I’m proud we got there, but that team just was not good enough and needed investment on both the coaching side of things and player side of things.
Nick Sakiewicz teamed up with iStar Financial Chairman Jay Sugarman to bring MLS to Philadelphia in 2008 (Earl Gardner/Philly Soccer Page)
CB: Jay has come out a few times and said he’s not going to spend five million dollars on a Designated Player, and 10 million dollars on another one, and 15 million on a third. But other teams are; and you look at what a franchise like Toronto is doing, or Atlanta this year as an expansion club. Can the Union – or anyone really – be competitive in MLS right now if you’re focused primarily on youth development and the academy, or is it inevitable that you’re just going to have to spend more money?
Sakiewicz: I think it’s inevitable. I think that statement of not spending five million on a DP in 2010 or 2011 probably held true, but in 2017, when you look around, a lot has changed in MLS. It’s all for the better. I’ve got to hand it to the league and the owners and everyone in the league office. It’s come so far. Things have changed and evolved. You have to be able to change and evolve with it in order to stay relevant, stay competitive, and win. Today, in 2017, I think teams need to spend the money, not just on players, but on coaching.
One of the biggest reasons I wanted Meulensteen, or Borrell, or Carvalhal is because that was a huge investment in (Union head coach) Jim Curtin and his staff and the technical side, and also with what’s going on at the academy. Having that level of expertise – just look at Atlanta – they’re packing the house and playing great soccer. They’re an expansion team but Tata Martino is an amazing coach. He plays a brand of soccer that makes you want to watch. That team is only going to get better. Arthur Blank is an unbelievable owner and he’s always going to invest in that team and deliver. I mean, they had 70,000 people in that stadium the other day. MLS today is very different than it was in 2010 and 2011 when I brought the Union to Philly.
CB: I always found it interesting, that when I talk to old-school fans or those Sons of Ben originals, that they have a lot of respect for you and what you did bringing this team here. That runs counterproductive to the strained relationship you had with the rest of the fan base, and the media, during those later years. Is that your legacy, the founding of this team and those early days back in 2008 and 2009?
Sakiewicz: Yeah, I’m proud of that, but I don’t talk about legacy. Legacy is for someone else to determine. That’s something for other people to talk about. My legacy is my two boys and my family. But I’m very proud of what I created. I brought soccer to Philly with a band of awesome Sons of Ben, many of whom are still my friends to this day. When I had heard the news that Kenny Hanson passed away, I immediately texted his wife Amy and I was heartbroken. It was very sad.
You know, along with some of those original Sons of Ben, we got Major League Soccer to Philadelphia. I’m very proud of that, and for building that stadium through the teeth of a recession. That stadium could have failed a hundred times before the ribbon was cut. I’m proud that we were able to find a way to make that happen. If you want to call that a legacy, I guess you could, but I just call it a really cool project that I’m proud of. I worked with some great people, some of whom are still with me and helping me build lacrosse. I have no regrets whatsoever, it was a great project. The media and the fans, they don’t always know the truth of what’s going on behind the scenes, so I’ll just leave it at that. It really doesn’t matter at the end of the day.
Happy Father's Day to all the Dads today. Nothing like being with my sons on a beautiful day in a stadium and team we built from scratch. pic.twitter.com/u9ySMrZCcm
— Nick Sakiewicz (@NLLcommish) June 18, 2017