Twenty-eight years ago in 1986, the National Lacrosse League launched and George Daniel was grinding out his first year at Temple Law School. At no point did this young law student ever imagine he would one day find himself at the helm of one of the most popular professional indoor sports in the world.
Yet after a brief stint as a practicing lawyer in Easton, Pennsylvania, Daniel wound up taking a career detour into sports when he founded the Scranton Miners of the Atlantic Basketball Association in 1993. Daniel also founded the Black Hills Posse of the International Basketball Association in 1995. Through his basketball connections, Daniel was eventually recruited to join the NLL as general counsel and deputy commissioner. Daniel then became interim commissioner in 2009. Now in his sixth season as the head honcho of the NLL, Daniel recently helped negotiate a new, seven-year collective bargaining agreement with the players’ association that he hopes will help the league expand into more markets.
With the first week of the season just wrapping up, Commissioner Daniel took a few moments to talk about CBAs, concussions, the daily minutia of running a sports league and his long, strange career path.
How did you end up at Temple Law School?
I’m a native of Easton, Pennsylvania. My brother had gone to Temple Law and I went to Temple undergrad after having visited my brother when he was there. Temple was one of the colleges that was on my list. I had also enjoyed the campus and liked Philadelphia. As I was getting ready for graduation I applied to several law schools. I had options to go to New York and other locations, but decided to stay at Temple. I loved the school and I loved Philadelphia. It was a great experience. Temple is tremendous.
Were there sports law classes at the time?
There was one by Professor Joe Marshall. But you didn’t have the concentrations in undergrad or in law school that you have now. There was not a sports law society and you see that now at a lot of law schools. I’ve had the privilege to speak at a number of institutions over the years and I’ve seen how sports law as a concentration has grown significantly. We had one course in the 80s, but now you see so much more attention being paid to the industry.
How did being a lawyer help when you jumped into the sports world?
I got involved in professional sports through minor league basketball. There was a start-up league called the Atlantic Basketball Association. I went to some meetings and because I was a lawyer they decided to anoint me the league president – with no salary of course. So I really started getting a lot of hands on experience on the administrative side of things. I learned a lot about selling tickets, sponsorships, team operations as well as league administration like handling officials, player contracts, and even some regional broadcasting deals. So I really learned a lot about the business from all sides. That experience enabled me to get involved with the National Lacrosse League as General Counsel and Deputy Commissioner some years later. That was in September of 2000 and now I’m the Commissioner.
What would be a typical day in the shoes of the NLL Commissioner?
I deal with a variety of issues on a day to day to basis. Certainly one part is dealing with player and labor relations. We had a collective bargaining negotiation that we just concluded and that is one thing I’ve learned on the job that I probably didn’t have a lot of legal experience in coming in, which is labor negotiations. I’ve now been involved in six different collective bargaining agreement negotiations in thirteen years, which is a lot. But we now have a seven year deal and I think that is one piece of what we do. Now that the deal is done we have a luxury tax too. So a good chunk of my time is also dealing with player contracts and managing and administrating the new luxury tax system. Another part of my day involves league development and business development whether that involves cultivating new sponsorship opportunities, new media opportunities, and future growth of the league. Then another chunk of the day goes to corporate governance and administering the league bylaws. We have a board like the NFL and the NHL. The NLL is a not for profit trade association so we are governed by a board of governors. Each team has one vote so I report to the board. But I also enforce the rules of the league, the bylaws, and the constitution for the benefit of all the members. We administer trade, player suspensions, fines, appeals and other administrative issues. So our days are quite busy.
We became aware that Carlo was doing his original game and at some point we connected with us and we thought it would be a great idea to get a game on the market. We had a game once many years ago made by Acclaim and we had been in discussions with some other companies to make a game. At this point the largest companies like EA haven’t jump in yet as lacrosse is still growing. So we thought Carlo’s company would provide an interesting opportunity to have a fun game for our fans and so we did a deal with him.
Aside from additional revenue, what does having a video game mean for the league?
It allows fans to have fun and video games can be great branding tools for a league as well as the players. It is really fun for our existing fans but might also reach some fans of the game that are new to the league, so from a branding standpoint it is a valuable tool.
I imagine lacrosse is not immune to head injuries so what is the NLL doing in terms of concussion awareness and protocol?
Like all leagues we are trying to adhere to best practices and continue to try to learn about concussions and put player safety first. Every year we toughen our rules to limit head shots and clamp down on player discipline to act as a deterrent. We try to use best care from a medical standpoint and make sure we are following all the proper protocols. Lacrosse is a little different from other sports in that players generally participate in other organized lacrosse games in the offseason which makes it harder from a league perspective. They play in summer leagues or the outdoor league so they are playing other games and concussions can lead to a cumulative effect. So for us it is very challenging and we have to be cognizant of players suffering head injuries in other leagues or games.
From a workers’ compensation or litigation standpoint, how do you deal with players who suffer injuries outside of the NLL that might be exacerbated by an injury during NLL play?
It is an evolving issue and one we have to continue to try to monitor. Certainly with the outdoor league they also have a responsible program and we have discussed with them the ability to share information as long as a player consents so we can understand what treatments have been done. Again, lacrosse is a not a full-time year-round sport so players playing outside the two professional leagues is an issue. In a perfect world we would have the players in a much more controlled and monitored situation. However in the CBA, the players association wants the players to have the freedom to play in other events and we understand that it is not a full-time business. So at this point it is what it is.
The NLL seems to have a stronghold in cold-weather cities. Is that on purpose?
Well we certainly fish where the fish are. The indoor game is one that originated in Canada so certainly having Canadian teams is natural. Buffalo has been one of our great markets from an attendance standpoint with about 15,000 fans per game. The Philadelphia Wings have been with the league since its inception and we have had great success in Colorado too. I don’t think that it is only a cold weather sport. I think we have the opportunity to succeed in some nontraditional markets over time and we will continue to explore additional markets in warm weather climates as well. In the not too distant future I think we will be expanding into some of those markets.
What do you think it will take to grow the NLL?
I think the first step is what we just achieved in our new CBA. We needed to tweak our business model. We had some roster cut downs from 23 to 20. We have a luxury tax and we increased the number of games. Those things are going to help improve the business model and with an improved business model I think we have a much more favorable story to tell perspective franchise owners. That is key because in order for us to grow the sponsorship and television exposure and revenue we are going to need more cities than anything else. We currently have five in the US and four in Canada. Really in the United States we need more cities than that. So the first step was getting the CBA done and we already having favorable conversations with perspective franchise owners. It is only a matter of time before we start to see the league expand. With expansion we’ll be able to grow on the television and sponsorship front too.
Any advice to current law students hoping to make it into your shoes one day?
I took a very nontraditional route and I would urge students to gain whatever experience they can. Go volunteer. There are so many minor league professional teams out there. Go volunteer and gain experience. People will always take free legal advice. It cost me money to gain my experience. I was an investor in a minor league basketball team. So that is how I got started. It actually cost me money. So it was very nontraditional. But the advice I always tell people is get the experience and volunteer if you have to.
So who is going to win the championship this year?
I’d be a madman to try to predict that. We have the most competitive league in the world. Our nine teams are all pretty equal. It is highly competitive. Last season we were one game away from all the teams finishing between 9-7 and 7-9. There is no other league that is that competitive. I have no idea who will win, but I know it is going to be an unbelievable season.