The Chesapeake Bayhawks’ New Strategy: A Model for the Future of the MLL

After years of stagnation, we are finally seeing some “outside of the box” thinking going on inside Major League Lacrosse. The Chesapeake Bayhawks new management is showing much needed creativity in their franchise’s business strategy. To entice ticket sales and interest in a league which has seen little of either, new president Brendan Kelly and General Manager Spencer Ford are introducing some radical new ideas based on an effort to build a foundation for fans to grab hold of. This ambitious path for their newly acquired franchise will be tested this summer and I believe they could be setting the wheels in motion for new found success.

Strategies are, as Walter Kiechell highlights in his new book about the consulting industry Lords of Strategy, “what companies use to decide what it wants to be and where to compete. Strategies allow companies to invent the framework for pulling together what it needs to know about its costs, customers, and competitors”. In this case, MLL franchises are functioning as companies and the Bayhawks are in the process of figuring out what it needs to do to develop a framework encompassing those “three C’s” (costs, customers, and competitors).

Until now, MLL franchises have been operating without this type of strategic purpose. Both the league and its members have attempted to improve their product by implementing relocations, rule changes, and both expansion & contraction. Unfortunately, few of these ideas have been successful. The Bayhawks management is implanting their new strategic vision with the intention of establishing a sustainable home market and building a loyal fan base.

Finding a home market to expand from has been difficult for the Bayhawks, evident by their brief stops in Baltimore and then Washington. Baltimore is a proven lacrosse “hotbed”, but not necessarily for a pro team. The Charm City’s original indoor team, the Baltimore Thunder left town after dwindling attendance figures and the Bayhawks didn’t find success either as the team had trouble attracting fans to either Homewood Field (Johns Hopkins University) or at Johnny Unitas Stadium (Towson University). As the saying goes, “don’t fight city hall”. The Bayhawks chose this approach and packed their bags in 2007 for a move to Washington DC.

Unfortunately, the move to the District was doomed from the start. Georgetown University was the first place the Bayhawks called home and proved to be a poor venue due to its urban location with very little parking. The heat didn’t help matters either. Having grown up in the DC suburbs, I experienced this DC heat and know that most Washingtonians head out of the city in the summer. This Georgetown experience lasted one season before shifting gears and relocating to George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia in order to tap into the growing Northern Virginia lacrosse population. The problem with this move was that it was done with little promotion or fanfare and, as a result, did not lead to the success they were looking for.

Finally, this “team without a home” looks to have found a home in Annapolis, Maryland and the proper name to go by, the Chesapeake Bayhawks. Annapolis is the quintessential American lacrosse town. Summers in the state capital are hard to top with the Severn River and its endless activities. Another key is that Annapolitans tend to spend their summers at home because in their minds, “where else would you want to be?” For people outside of Annapolis, the opportunity to visit Annapolis and see and Bayhawks game while in town would be considered an attractive weekend activity. One thing is for sure, it is certainly a better option than travelling to the humidity of DC or Baltimore.

Now that the Bayhawks have found their new home, they are expanding on this by devising a marketing strategy of attempting to draw fans from the entire Mid Atlantic Region. The first step was renaming the team “The Chesapeake Bayhawks”. The strategic purpose of this is to encompass the entire region rather than a particular city. Washington DC and Baltimore have their own franchise loyalties and it was unlikely that residents of either city would travel up or down I-95 to attend a Bayhawks game. By renaming the team the Chesapeake Bayhawks, management is attempting to incorporate the entire region. The pitch? Come and spend a Saturday afternoon in the great town of Annapolis cheering on the entire region’s pro lacrosse team. This currently exists in many of the pro sports leagues, but the most prominent example is NFL’s New England Patriots. By referring to their franchise as the “New England”, they attract fans not only from Boston, but from Connecticut, Rhode Island, and the rest of the northeast. The Bayhawks hope to make this the case for Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, and the District of Columbia.

While the name change was a good start, the new Bayhawks management understands it alone cannot fix the deeper underlying issues. This is where their “outside the box” thinking and riskier moves come in to play. A challenge for the MLL has been trying to figure out how to capitalize on the massive growth and popularity that the college lacrosse game has achieved but which has escaped the pro game. For the most part, players who dominate the headlines while playing in the college ranks fade away when they turn professional. This is the exact opposite of what typically happens in other sports. The remedy for lacrosse? As the old saying goes, “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”! Bayhawks management have come up with a radical new idea to use the college game to highlight the pro game.

Since the college and pro game are played in different seasons (spring and summer) and with NCAA bylaws most likely preventing a combined event, the Bayhawks are introducing “The College Alumni Rivalry Series” consisting of remakes of the “War on the Shore” (Washington College v Salisbury), the “Longest Rivalry in Lacrosse” (MD v Hopkins), the “Hoos v Heels” (UVA v UNC), and the “Battle for Baltimore” (Towson v UMBC). Alumni from these universities will field teams and compete against each other prior to Bayhawk’s home games. Kelly described his intentions on the team website:

“We wanted to make a connection between the traditional college game that is so popular in the area to the professional game. This is a different concept from the traditional alumni games because the players get to go against their archrivals. That adds a level of competitiveness to the game that should bring out the best in everybody.”

This idea encompasses what devising strategy is all about: it doesn’t add to their costs as the alumni are participating free of charge; it brings an added dimension to their product for their customers to enjoy; and it separates the Bayhawks from their competitors because no other teams employ such a strategy. The focus attempts to bring the success that NCAA college lacrosse is enjoying to the professional ranks.

The key here is that the Bayhawks strategy has a foundation. It is not a ploy or a quick fix scheme. This is not like former Major League Baseball owner Bill Veeck staging publicity stunts to attract fans like signing midgets to one day contracts or holding “Fans Manager Night” allowing fans to vote on game time decisions. This is an actual strategy. The Bayhawks new leadership’s vision is well thought-out and creates a possible blueprint for the MLL and its other teams. Companies and organizations are constantly reinventing themselves in pursuit of success. This time, Brendan Kelly, Spencer Ford, and the Bayhawks might finally be on to something.
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