A whole new ball game: Fitness guru Steinfeld places bet on lacrosse league

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Jake Steinfeld knows how to get results.

The man behind "Body by Jake" and FitTV morphed a small personal training business into a fitness empire. He sold millions of dollars in exercise equipment by flexing his trademark biceps in late-night infomercials. He even whipped some of Hollywood's hottest stars into tip-top shape.

Now the workout maven puts his muscle power behind a new venture: Major League Lacrosse. The new league moves the fast-action ball game onto its first outdoor professional turf.

In a locker room pep talk before an exhibition game in June in Ohio, Mr. Steinfeld reminded players that success meant more than winning. A start-up needs some marketing savvy behind it. "Put on a show out there," he said. "If you guys are the hitters, hit hard. Scorers go nuts. You guys are making history."

As history has proven, a new league needs more than hard-hitting players to score big. Sponsorships and TV deals are key components to success. Those are two areas where Mr. Steinfeld is confident MLL will flourish. He's in talks with outlets such as Fox Sports Net and ESPN to air the June to August 2001 inaugural pro season. On the sponsorship front, SoBe Beverages and Yahoo! Sports each inked multiyear deals with the league.


Mr. Steinfeld decided to bankroll the lacrosse venture two years ago after reading a Swing magazine article about the growth of the game. The personal trainer to the likes of Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford and Michael J. Fox utilized his vast connections to gain some prominent partners. MLL is now supported by Mr. Steinfeld; sports and live events powerhouse SFX; equipment maker Warrior Lacrosse; and Timothy Robertson, former Family Channel CEO and current chairman of Bay Shore Enterprises. All were involved in making the six-game summer barnstorming tour, called the Summer Showcase, a fan-pleasing experience.

The lacrosse exhibition-game tour featured microphoned players and midgame sideline interviews. All the while, seven on-field TV cameras recorded the action for regional programs, as well as ESPN2 and Fox Sports Net. The league's founders altered some of lacrosse's traditional rules -- including creating a 2-point play -- to foster more high-scoring action. Mr. Steinfeld also considered putting cameras on player's helmets. "We have the steak" he said. "It's just a matter of putting the sizzle around it."

But with all its tinkering, the new league still has its challenges. The rough-play game is tough to follow for those who don't know the rules. In addition, many of its 250,000 U.S. participants are rooted in the East Coast.

Mr. Steinfeld counters that the game has universal appeal. "This country loves sports," he said. "America loves hitting, scoring and speed." He added that last summer's Summer Showcase game in Columbus, Ohio, had a positive turnout -- with 4,853 spectators. On average, the tour drew 5,000 fans per game.


Still, of the eight team locations being considered, only one -- Columbus -- isn't on the East Coast. Cities already awarded franchises include Baltimore, Philadelphia and Buffalo and Rochester, N.Y. Even the National Lacrosse League, an already established indoor lacrosse league, has most of its teams on the East Coast and in Canada.

But if the NLL is any indicator, the outdoor-played MLL may have a fighting chance. NLL's 1999 league attendance was 384,761, up 18% from 1998, and up 54% from 1995. In 2000, attendance grew just slightly, up 2.9% to 395,967.

"This is purely a response to what has happened for the sport of lacrosse. The growth numbers are great," said MLL Executive Director Gabby Roe.

Now the league hopes to find more sponsors. Mr. Roe wants to fill six open, category-exclusive sponsorship slots. SoBe has the "official performance beverage" designation, while Yahoo! is the official Internet service provider. Mr. Roe would like to fill other niches such as financial services, snack foods and apparel. League executives say that money will talk to sponsors.

"The demographic of people playing and people watching is very appealing for corporate sponsors,"said Mr. Roe. "This is the cool sport for upscale families." Mr. Steinfeld likens the audience to "an upscale minor-league baseball crowd."

They do have a point. According to U.S. Lacrosse, the sport's governing body, 86% of people identified as lacrosse fans graduated from a four-year college, 75% earn $50,000 or more a year, and nearly 50% estimate the value of their home at more than $200,000.

High-end demographics and big-budget TV production aside, Mr. Steinfeld says he has yet another tactic to draw in sponsors and fans. "On top of it all, we've got a bunch of good-looking players," he said. "That's a big selling point."

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