National Lacrosse League Elevates First Virtual Draft With Athlete-Driven Content

The National Lacrosse League increased engagement and fan reach using athlete-driven social media during its first virtual live draft.

Two opposing NLL player at goal during game.

Header photo by: Candice Ward / Calgary Roughnecks home photographer

This dynamic time in sports is giving rise to fan engagement innovation by digital-first leagues and teams. Savvy sports marketers are focused on athlete-produced content in and out of season play and during live events.

Take the National Lacrosse League (NLL) — the longest-running and most successful professional lacrosse league in the world.

The league’s full season with playoffs typically runs from December through June, with nearly 300 athletes playing indoor box lacrosse for 13 club franchises across the U.S. and Canada.

With its 2020 season shortened due to the global health crisis, the NLL knew it needed to get creative to keep its passionate fans engaged and stay relevant to them while play was on hold.

The NLL immediately took action and doubled-down on its digital-first fan-focused strategy to create new content with its teams and players. Keeping the focus on engaging content, the NLL was able to successfully connect its players and fans in new and unique ways.

As the crisis continued into the Fall, the league had to apply its successful strategy to build excitement and viewership for its 2020 Draft Selection Show. For the first time in the league’s 35-year history, this live draft needed to be a fully virtual event, broadcast across B/R Live and the NLL’s YouTube and Facebook channels. With a large roster of new, promising young athletes, primed to connect with their new team and fans they needed a new outlet to engage in this milestone moment.

Athletes as Brand Advocates

The NLL has a younger-skewing audience than almost every North American professional sports league. These fans enjoy the fast-paced, high entertainment value games, clips, and highlights that the NLL provides — the league ranks third in average attendance for pro indoor sports in the U.S..

With a digital and fan-first mindset, coupled with high-growth metrics across the brand’s social channels, the NLL marketing team knew how important high-quality social content was in satisfying this fanbase. Through social media, the league could share compelling box lacrosse stories, promote ticket sales and B/R Live subscriptions, and optimize the advertising budget.

The league also recognized that it had a secret weapon to keep lacrosse fans engaged with content and expand its social reach and storytelling capabilities: its diverse roster of elite athletes.

League executives saw how athletes were interacting directly with their wide-ranging lacrosse fans on social media and, in turn, building both their personal brands and the league’s as well. Authentic player posts with photos and videos drove high impressions and engagement on the player’s social channels and, when shared on the league channels, garnered more fan reach and social engagement than custom league content.

The NLL’s marketing and content team wanted to drive more interest and tune-in for the 2020 Entry Draft broadcast and promote the new group of athletes to fans hungry for more lacrosse content and information.

The opportunity for increasing connection with fans was apparent: collect original content from its existing roster of the league’s digital-native players, broadcast partners, and analysts, and marketable incoming players, and capture their personal photos and videos. Their personal stories — before and after matches — give fans insights that linear video just can’t deliver. And, the collection must be done in an efficient and mutually beneficial way. It needed to be easy for athletes and the league to manage this content and share with their fans on social networks.

Empowering athletes to become both content creators and brand advocates played into an effective content strategy for the NLL to accomplish the marketing team’s goals around the virtual draft.

An Advanced Content Distribution Solution

Heading into the 2019-20 season, the NLL’s social team first started working with Greenfly. The team used Greenfly’s brand advocacy technology to streamline communication for their digital marketing initiatives and develop their athletes into true brand advocates. They wanted to automatically distribute real-time content to these athletes as soon as they stepped off the playing floor, to give them real-time content making it easier for them to interact with their fans and see immediate lift in engagement.

The NLL team found traditional content workflows were not built to mesh with the lives of top, on-the-go athletes who rely on mobile devices to communicate effectively. Nor could they support the hundreds of thousands of visual assets the league was collecting and curating during the season.

During the 2020 season play, the NLL ingested photographer content captured at each game and automatically routed these visual assets through PhotoShelter integrated with Greenfly +Connect. The NLL social team curated this media into Greenfly galleries by game, which players accessed directly through the Greenfly mobile app. These galleries included game day highlights, and high-quality photos and videos of warmups and other on- and off-floor activities that keep fans connected to their favorite players, teams and NLL moments.

By March 2020, the NLL had routed over 12,000 assets to over 150 players.

When the league was forced to suspend the season that month, the marketing team pivoted to using Greenfly’s content collection feature to capture original photos and videos from these same athletes: messages to fans and teammates, stories of their training routines at home, and more. NLL athletes have been able to use Greenfly to quickly create and submit the content they most want to share with their fans during this unexpected hiatus.

Armed with this success of efficiently collecting and distributing content to NLL players, the league knew it had a built-in solution to maximizing promotion for its first live, virtual draft event in September 2020.

“Our live draft is a major moment for the league, where we rely on fast-paced, high entertainment games, clips and highlights to engage fans. When we were forced to suspend the season due to COVID, we knew we had to double-down on our digital strategy to power a live draft that would be fully virtual. Having already experienced high-impact social engagement with Greenfly, we knew that getting as many short videos into the hands of athletes would provide a significant organic lift across social media. We immediately turned to our marketing and creative teams to work together to help us connect with our loyal community of fans, teams and players.” — Nick Sakiewicz, Commissioner, National Lacrosse League 

Promoting the Entry Draft

The NLL used Greenfly as the primary communication and social content tool before, during and after the 2020 Entry Draft.

The NLL marketing team supported the lead-up to the Entry Draft by requesting photos and videos from the incoming draftees on the Greenfly platform. This was the first time the league onboarded future players to Greenfly before they were added to active team rosters. A process that was met with no friction and a lot of enthusiasm.

The NLL team asked these draftees for content, including clips of their college game highlights with their personal commentaries, videos of what it meant to them to be drafted, and messages to other players and NLL fans. Every draftee submitted multiple pieces of content from these requests. The marketing and content team also collected draft-day analysis from NLL broadcasters and team executives which was aggregated into long form content. Using Greenfly to message with players and broadcasters directly helped them strengthen these relationships as well.

The team shared this media on NLL social channels and provided it to the athletes for their own social sharing. During the draft, the league solicited NLL player and draftee reaction videos, behind-the-scenes moments, and other unique content.

The NLL also used live clipping and editing platform Grabyo, seamlessly integrated with Greenfly +Connect, to send personalized galleries of draftee selection moment videos and clips to them for immediate posting to their social media profiles, as the draft was still in progress.

Post-draft, the league sent draftees Entry Draft highlights and content branded with their new NLL team graphics to share with the league’s social followers, building excitement for what is next in their career and the NLL’s next season.

“Our draft leveraged the future NLL players to use Greenfly to curate the league’s content leading up to the event as well as provide real-time video and photo reactions to their draft night experience. In addition, through Greenfly, they shared post-draft thoughts, reactions, interviews and other media moments. The NLL used Greenfly and their integration with Grabyo to create and post highlights and clips across our site and social, all of which performed really well with our fans.” — Katie Lavin, VP of Marketing, National Lacrosse League

Growth in Fan Connections

The collaboration with Greenfly exceeded the NLL’s goals for the Entry Draft event. NLL player content posted through Greenfly generated 65% higher average Instagram reach and 7% higher average Instagram engagement than general NLL Draft content.

Leveraging the power of Greenfly, the NLL drove increased viewership for this virtual draft event, expanded its digital footprint and audience reach, and built deeper fan and athlete relationships.

The league plans to continue working with these new players to create and deliver content throughout training camp, preseason, and other NLL events and marquee moments — bringing more content and first-hand storytelling opportunities.

The momentum that the NLL created from this Greenfly partnership has fans everywhere anticipating the moment when they can once again return to watching their favorite sport.

The league’s success offers lessons for all sports marketers who are seeking new ways to keep fans thinking about and talking about their brand — during season play and year round.

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