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Major League Lacrosse looks to enhance digital presence with new Chief Digital Officer

With previous stops at ESPN and Baseball America, Tom Johnson looks to push more digital content for lacrosse fans.

Donnie Riggs / Pretty Instant

When Sandy Brown became commissioner early last year, he saw a ton of potential in expanding Major League Lacrosse and what they do. It needed a fresh start.

As part of their ongoing re-brand, Major League Lacrosse is bringing in new personnel to help with those effort as they prepare for the 2019 season.

Enter Tom Johnson, MLL’s new Chief Digital Officer. Johnson came over from Baseball America after a nearly two years as their Director of Digital Content. Prior to that, he worked at ESPN for nearly 10 years as a senior digital producer on college football recruiting.

“Growing the league and knowing what our goals are at the league, we recognized the opportunity to grow the business of the league,” said Carrie Gamper, MLL’s Director of Marketing. “Tom is a numbers guy, he has unbelievable experience, and he understood what out goals were and how to get us there. He was able to exactly understand what Sandy Brown has led out and he was able to articulate what the market is and what the opportunities are. A direct and clear path of a way we can improve what we’ve already started and what we’re already working on to create a greater opportunity for the league, the teams, the players, and the fans.”

With lacrosse still a niche sport, the vast majority of fans get their info and content online. The first thing on Johnson’s agenda is to build a brand new website, which is currently outdated. The end result will be mobile-first and responsive site with vertical integration that fans can interact with and make it easy for get information. In 2010, 27% of visitors to MLL’s website came from their phones. That number is currently at 55% with Johnson projecting mobile visitors to increase to 66% for this year and perhaps to 75% in 2020.

Despite the number of people that have smartphones, an app is in their long-term plans.

Lacrosse is also big in the social sphere. For Johnson, he’ll have a specific strategy based on different social media platforms, including in-game highlights and pre-made content for some players. Facebook and Twitter are not his main focus, but identified Instagram and YouTube as growth channels, as well as Snapchat.

“Instagram and YouTube is where the younger demographics live,” Johnson said. “If they’re looking for a specific type of content, a specific type of video content, that’s where they’ll be and where we can try to engage with them. We have 140,000 followers on Instagram, which is our strongest following, and 50,000 followers on YouTube. Both of those platforms are still growing and work hand-in-hand.”

Johnson also didn’t rule out exploring new opportunities to grow their audience on platforms such as Twitch, Spotify, and even TikTok and find strategies for those and maximize their reach and better empower the teams and engage in their respective markets.

“Social’s supposed to be social, so I really want to connect with the fans,” Johnson said. “Interact with them, see what content they like, they’re pushing, and they’re sharing, and give that right back to them.”

In a sport that is also player-driven on social channels, including the potential that the Premier Lacrosse League has with their players, Johnson will encourage MLLers to do the same and have them show off their personalities. Current lacrosse athletes are gaining more followers daily because there’s passion digitally for content.

“Players are the stars of the league,” Johnson said. “We want to put them in the best position to market themselves and I am going to work with them to institute best practices, create the best content, and create in-house, high quality, compelling content for them to use on their social channels. It’s probably my number one goal to empower the players to take advantage of all the digital tools out there, and basically allow them to know what works and what doesn’t so they can market themselves the best way.”

Johnson mentioned cross-promotional videos with Major League Soccer players and teams as a possible idea to profile their personalities to their audience. He also threw out the idea of creating a studio in the MLL league offices.

Along with the MLL and PLL directly competing with each other, both leagues will also be competing for new lacrosse fans with their seasons now beginning in June and ending in September. For the first half of the year, it won’t be as bad with the MLB and MLS in full-swing. With his experience at Baseball America, Johnson mentioned that the MLB All-Star break is a great time to get content out there since there’s no big four leagues competing for a few days. He also found out that after July 31, baseball tempers down in interest if teams aren’t in playoff contention. That could be a good way to get content and awareness out there, especially with the good weather.

Overall for Johnson, his overall goal is to see explosive growth on all lacrosse channels, maximize eyeballs, and explode the digital side. But that will mean central coordination and being organized, along with maximizing the tent-pole events such as draft and MLL Championship.

Similar to Brown’s vision, Johnson wants to make the MLL a 12-month league, producing content that’s also evergreen to get rid of the offseason. The challenge is going beyond the game itself and marketing the participants. Storytelling and humanizing players is big, so he wants to focus on the athletes so they can tell their story in the offseason and get excited about the regular season.