The National Lacrosse League (NLL) named Jessica Berman their new Deputy Commissioner and EVP of Business Affairs making her the first women to hold the title of Commish in a men’s professional sports league. The Sports Techie community blog chatted with Berman today about being a pioneer for females in both sport and business along with her extensive 13-year experience in the front office of the NHL culminating as the Vice President, Community Development, Culture and Growth, and how these work experiences will help her succeed for the NLL. In the short amount of time we spoke and as someone that’s been around lacrosse since 1983 as a a gigh school, college and adult player, high school coach and referee of all ages, I can see why she earned this role because of her intelligence, professionalism, work ethic, and vision, in addition to being the busy Mom of two boys. NLL Commissioner Nick Sakiewicz will lean on Jessica at the league’s HQ in Philadelphia for all legal matters while she manages team services and helps plan strategic growth opportunities. We touched on many topics including their digital relationship with Turner Sports here in Atlanta, the importance of relationship building, and all the on-boarding she undertaking to get up to speed so she can begin to make an impact for an indigenous sport I truly love known as the fastest game on two feet.
Women Sportsbiz Pioneer
I was honored when Jessica told me I was the only other person besides her 11-year old son that called her a ‘pioneer.’ She does acknowledge the responsibility and feels the importance of a career path both women and girls can aspire to. I asked her Jess if she ever thought one day she would be a commissioner. She replied, “As a teenager, I aspired to do something like this.” After working in pro sports she was realistic and knew it would be hard to achieve.
She feels more men like me need be a champion of women. Jessica calls her sons, “He for she’s” because they are also sensitive to advocating for female equality. Her boys take pride in respecting women and girls as do many likeminded people. It was better for all when our President did too.
Jessica is a Fordham University School of Law graduate and was Editor-in-Chief of the Fordham Sports Law Forum as well as an Associate Editor of the Urban Law Journal. She also graduated from the University of Michigan School of Kinesiology earning an undergraduate degree in Sports Management and Communications with distinction. Berman made the 2014 Sports Business Journal’s “40 Under 40” class, and in 2015 she was granted the Burke Award, the highest honor alloted by the Board of Directors of the Burke Medical Research Institute and Burke Rehabilitation Hospital for her commitment to assisting people with brain injuries.
“I would like to thank both Nick for this opportunity and Gary and the NHL for putting me in a position where I can help make a difference both with the NLL and the sport of lacrosse,” Berman said. “Lacrosse is constantly mentioned as ‘fast growing,’ and I am looking forward to helping accelerate that pace, especially given all the work that has gone into helping the NLL expand and increase market share under Nick’s tenure.”
Berman’s first day of work for the league is on September, 9. On boarding with what works and doesn’t work is a major focus for Berman and the veteran NLL management team.
“It takes the brightest and best to build great leagues and teams and, we are very proud to welcome one of the brightest, best and most progressive minds in sports business to the National Lacrosse League,” Commissioner Sakiewicz said. “Her wide-ranging background fits exactly with the growth trajectory we are on, and her addition to our veteran team is a perfect cultural fit and win for the league, our member clubs and for the sport of lacrosse.”
She likes what US Lacrosse has going on with their curriculum which is setting the stage for improved culture for players and fans alike. The NGB has education, training and policies in place that foster community. I was a certified by US Lacrosse as the head coach of Redmond High Lacrosse and agree with Berman that the organization has done a superior job with creating inclusive initiates as well as embracing technology to assist with the execution of corporate goals and end-user access via their web site and app.
Berman also believes she better understands marginalized communities after her work with the NHL. It is important to provide access to sport. Allowing opportunities to contribute is important to her. Projects at schools like growing the sport at recess are ways to get sticks in the hands of youth.
Lacrosse is an indigenous sport to North America. I brought up the local Atlanta Blaze team led by the Thomson brothers who hail from the Onondaga Nation, one of the six Iroquois Confederacy nations. Native American communities are high on radar according to Berman. She feels the NLL can leverage the history of game and its indigenous community. Demographics are shifting across America as they are with many pro players. Providing access and not preventing them from earning a college lacrosse scholarship and education, or playing in the NLL are key initiatives for these underserved communities. She has worked alongside pioneering indigenous NHL players, Ted Nolan and Brain Trottier. Her goal is to take these kinds of relationships to the NLL to build and fortify the nations.
The African-American community is also important to the future of the NLL. At the NHL, they identified three barriers to entry – cultural, financial and infrastructure. By addressing these barriers with initiatives and equipment, the burden of cost can be eased allowing new players the opportunity to play lacrosse.
The perception of white, affluent communities as the backbone of lacrosse is real. She plans to peel that away as is being done in hockey.
Digital Media Rise
Berman likes the investment in technology made by the league supporting Nick’s vision and the “deep functionality.” With the support of Turner and their BR Live app, fans are watching NLL action on their digital devices in record numbers as viewership metrics show a 151 percent increase in total unit sales from last season while increasing 27 percent in average unique views. Berman likes what Turner has done with the league’s digital property bundling every NLL match with the UEFA Champions League, UEFA Europe League, and more content such as the NLL Headquarters, Chase the Championship documentary, all for a monthly fee of $9.99 or the annual pass rate at $79.99 a year.
Berman said, “Fans can watch any games they want at their fingertips, for a reasonable price.” Meeting fan expectations with an OTT subscription model will help grow the subscriber base.
The NLL Entry Draft is broadcasting for free on B/R Live at 6:30pm ET on Sept 17. This season features the inaugural draft classes for both the New York Riptide and Rochester Knighthawks as they begin play during the 2019-20 season.
I also did my due diligence and saw on the NLL Facebook fan page comments about an impeding TV broadcast deal for the league. Berman differed discussing this until her on-boarding is complete allowing her business experience with the NHL to help shape future digital and possibly television growth for the NLL. Come on TNT or TBS, step right up.
She plans to present new ideas for future growth using technologies as a driver, revenue generator and fan experience enhancer.
The National Hockey League groomed Jessica to be a Commissioner one day and she will be missed.
“Jessica Berman has been an invaluable member of the NHL league office for more than 13 years,” said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. “As a colleague it is easy to recognize that she is whip-smart, enthusiastic and collaborative and we wish her all the best as she takes on this new role.”
As VP, she helped design and execute new league-wide initiatives that impacted communities, enhanced the League’s culture and ensured growth for the game of hockey, and for NHL clubs, partners and their passionate fanbase. Berman felt that community, culture and growth for the NHL is interrelated. On the culture side, she worked for league-wide diversity, the inclusion of stakeholders, and developing policies and practices whether watching or playing the game.
When we spoke about growth and community, Berman gave me examples of NHL culture campaigns, cause marketing and purpose driven marketing to the next gen of fans. In the past five years, NHL has focused on changing how fans talk about the game through the ‘Hockey Forever’ campaign. Using storytelling, PSA and in-game messaging are tools to integrate into the NLL as well as the values of lacrosse.
Berman was also the Executive Director of the NHL Foundation having a hand in defining social responsibility as a corporation while fostering polices that reflected the League’s changing image.
Before that role, she was the Vice President & Deputy General Counsel for the NHL. Berman was a member of the collective bargaining team for the 2012 NHL/NHLPA Collective Bargaining Agreement, which involved crafting the League’s labor strategy, negotiating with the NHLPA to draft the agreement, as well as analyzing the impact of the proposed changes.
Prior to working for the NHL, Jessica was an Associate in the Labor & Employment Department at Proskauer Rose LLP. At Proskauer, she represented employers in collective bargaining, mediations, arbitrations and litigations.
Because she is a labor lawyer and has done CBA work, Berman will participate in the next round of labor relations and collective bargaining for the NLL which excites her. She said Nick was impressed that she had read their CBA before the interview process. Building relationships and ensuring the credibility of the union makes her tick.
NLL Biz Dev
The NLL was founded in 1986. The League’s 13 franchises are located throughout the U.S. and Canada, including the Buffalo Bandits, Calgary Roughnecks, Colorado Mammoth, Georgia Swarm, Halifax Thunderbirds, New England Black Wolves, New York Riptide, Philadelphia Wings, Rochester Knighthawks, San Diego Seals, Saskatchewan Rush, Toronto Rock, and Vancouver Warriors.
The NLL ranks third in average attendance for all pro indoor sports. Attendance is near 15,000 for three teams and nearly 10,000 for 5 in total while several teams average just slightly more than 3,000 in tickets sales. NLL witnessed significant growth last season as nearly one million total ticket sales occurred resulting in a 28-percent increase over 2017-18. A reported 60 percent of ticket sales came from patrons that never played lax before.
Berman understands that attendance and gate receipts are a key revenue stream for teams. Because it is a core element, the NLL can support and build capacity to meet the needs whether that is via improved facilities or grassroots programs to help generate ticket sales.
Berman told me she did her due diligence on the league and said, “The amount of growth is remarkable, from an outsiders perspective, if I didn’t belief in the future of NLL I would not have taken the offer.” She feels the work performed over the last 3 years since Nick took over has been outstanding. This past season was delayed because of labor negotiations an area she feels prepared to help with in the future. The league’s upside is to be more mainstream.
I spoke to a ticketing agent at the Vancouver Warriors yesterday and he said the rumor is because the NHL coming to Seattle, the NLL is not far behind with a new, state-of-the-art facility to play in. I concur even if Berman would not.
I asked her if International expansion by the NLL was a possibility beyond American and Canadian borders even though I knew I would get the same answer about her focus being on-boarding for now. I personally like the idea when the time is ripe.
I also tossed out the concept of one day there being a women’s professional indoor lacrosse league. Jessica does have a focus on girls and youth hockey. She says participation data across the US and Canada backs it up. There needs to be more accessibility and a change culturally. These ground-breaking times for lacrosse are teachable moments for girls and young women alike.
All this business development traction means more corporate sponsorship too. Sponsorship revenues project a 29-percent increase from 2018 to 2019. With Berman in the mix, the NLL has plans to become even more of an established pro sports league.
For league information, breaking news and season updates, sign up for the NLL newsletter at NLL.com. NLL social media handles are on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Follow Deputy Commissioner Berman and Commissioner Sakiewicz on Twitter @JessicaBerman1 and @NLLcommish.
Sports Techie, as a proud Wolverine, Berman tries to make it the Big House for one football game, and a hockey game with plans to add a collegiate lacrosse game to the yearly visit.
I told Jessica she is the second Deputy Commissioner I have ever spoken with, NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum being the other when I was an official blogger at the Global Sports Forum Barcelona 2012.
Women sports are at an all-time high with regard to participation and growth. Just this year alone we had the USWNT win the World Cup followed by one of their soccer players kicking some field goals for an NFL franchise with possible aspirations of a tryout in 2020. Doesn’t matter if it is eSports, drone racing, netball or rugby, woman and girls are in the sports club with men and boys, now and forever.
A woman has broken the Commish barrier. Might Jessica be in line for a full Commissionership position someday? I believe so and so does the NLL.
See you later sportstechie in Seattle, Atlanta and around the world!
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