Ian Frenette is a veteran executive for big-time professional sports organizations. He worked for years as the vice president of corporate sponsorships for the Boston Celtics and, before that, in a similar role for the Deutsche Bank Championship golf tournament. But last October, Frenette left the bright lights behind and signed on as president of the Boston Cannons, the city’s humble and little-known Major League Lacrosse team. Now, he says he’s on a mission to garner a larger audience and increased revenues for the sport. He spoke about the job.
1. Unlike the highly paid athletes in the NBA, most Cannons players work day jobs during the week. They report to practice Friday nights, then play games Saturdays at Harvard Stadium in Allston. Frenette said they’re a different breed from the superstars he knew on the Celtics.
“Personality-wise, our players are extremely approachable, much more so than the NBA guys. There’s a lot of humility there. Many of them are living and breathing lacrosse — they coach clubs or college teams during the week — but we also have some people who are pharmaceutical salesmen or work in financial services. They’re highly educated, very well-spoken, easy to work with.”
2. Frenette also received offers from Major League Baseball and the National Football League but decided to take the Cannons job because it allowed him to stay in the Boston area, where his wife is an elementary school teacher. It also offered flexibility — important for the father of two boys under the age of 3 — and gives him more individual influence as the president of one of just nine teams in the 15-year-old league.
“In terms of life-family balance, being at the [Boston] Garden for 43 games, plus road games and travel for corporate events, it was getting more and more challenging to be a dad as well. And I also saw a ton of opportunity to take the practices that I’ve learned over my career in sports and to bring it to such a fast and growing business in the game of lacrosse. The league is so young, we have that ability to take some risk. There aren’t as many restrictions being pushed down from the league.”
3. Frenette said his biggest challenge is to increase attendance, in particular by using digital content to connect with youth leagues, former high school and college players, and their families. He’s also working to sign up corporate sponsors. To that end, the Cannons last week inked a deal with Dunkin’ Donuts that includes signs at Harvard Stadium, in-game promotions, and naming rights for skills competitions the team hosts.
“We have several hundred youth lacrosse teams come to our games throughout the year, and that was important to Dunkin’. They don’t always want to be the 800-pound gorilla; they want to be grass-roots and authentic as well. The sponsorship game has changed a ton — it isn’t just about having a sign and a bunch of tickets and suite anymore. It’s about creating custom platforms from scratch.”
4. Frenette grew up in Canada’s Nova Scotia province, playing hockey and worshiping Wayne Gretzky. He never played lacrosse himself but said he’s quickly learning to love the sport.
“It’s fast paced, high scoring, and there’s contact. It’s a back-and-forth game, just like the NBA. I think if people come check us out and give us one chance, they’re going to be blown away by the physicality and the speed of the game and how athletic our players are. There’s a wow factor — these guys are very impressive, the best lacrosse players on the planet.”
5. Some in the Boston Cannons organization were skeptical of Frenette because of his lack of lacrosse experience. But he said much of the Cannons’ leadership also came from other professional sports teams, and that he’s staying focused on the business side of the team.
“I’m not a lacrosse person myself. I have zero experience outside of being here. So there was a little bit of caution. But most people understood what they were getting. At the end of the day, I look at myself as an entrepreneur who works in the sports business, and I think of the Cannons as a startup. I really try to let people run their [departments] without me looking over their shoulders all the time.”Dan Adams can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielAdams86.