REEBOK BACKS LACROSSE LEAGUE: PRO TEAMS PROPOSED BY TWO CABLE TV VETERANS

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Two cable TV heavyweights, trying to lift the sport of lacrosse out of obscurity, are backing a new pro league sponsored by Reebok International.

Jake Steinfeld, the bodybuilding founder of Fit TV cable network, and Tim Robertson, a former owner of the Family Channel, are linking with SFX Entertianment to fund Major League Lacrosse, a professional regional league starting up in June. It will launch initially with eight teams in the Northeast as a spring-summer league, with ambitions to expand to Denver, Los Angeles, San Diego and other western cities.

The only other league dedicated to the sport, National League Lacrosse, operates in winter with teams limited to the Northeast.

"The West Coast cities are the fastest-growing markets," said Mr. Steinfeld. He added that lacrosse is on the rise among players in high schools and colleges, where he himself played it.

Bringing lacrosse into the sports mainstream will be a stretch. The league's viability will be contingent on the visibility a TV partner would bring.

SOME INTEREST

No TV deal has yet been signed, but "we have a couple of interested parties," said Frank Vuono, president of Integrated Sports International. ISI is the sports marketing unit of SFX Entertainment, an equity partner in MLL and the group credited with creating successful sports and licensing programs for Burger King Corp. and ABC's "Wild World of Sports."

"It's a very difficult market for new sports leagues," said Neil Pilson, president of sports marketing company Pilson Communications. "TV time is hard to get. But the SFX combination gives them a good head start. If you can cover your costs with spectator revenue and sponsorships, you are ahead of the game for a start-up league."

Mr. Steinfeld said the league plans to give its TV partner a financial stake. Even without TV coverage, however, the league has found a believer in Reebok.

"We have always done well in showcasing sports that are authentic and unique," said Angel Martinez, Reebok exec VP-chief marketing officer. "La-crosse could be another hockey -- it could be bigger than hockey."

Currently, Ree-bok's commitment is for equipment design.

Building a fan base for lacrosse will take work, Mr. Steinfeld admitted, noting he wants to speed up the game.

"We are looking at 2-point shots, as well as having a shot clock" like basketball, he said. "We hope to translate it for the box."

It's also hedging its bets by not competing for viewers with more established sports, aiming to conclude its season by Labor Day, well before baseball

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