This article was originally published on May 1st, 2019.
After playing in 10 years of Major League Lacrosse's (MLL) 18-year history, Paul Rabil (@PaulRabil) has decided that he is finished with the sports highest level competition.
However, this year along with his brother, Mike, and investment from Raine Group, Chernin Group, CAA, and Blum Capital are launching their own rival lacrosse competition, the Premier Lacrosse League (PLL), with its inaugural game on June 1st.
So, what does this mean for the sport of lacrosse?
Rabil is the closest the sport of lacrosse has to a recognizable figure. Lacrosse players and fans talk about Rabil in the same way that NBA players and fans speak of LeBron James.
Last year, Rabil also broke MLL's all-time points record.
Earlier in his career, Rabil was making just $6,000 as a rookie midfielder with the Boston Cannons.
Due to this low income, he would take a job at a commercial real estate company in Washington, D.C. Although he would quit after only nine months after signing a sponsorship with Under Armour.
With his newfound income, Rabil would find himself with a lot of free time, due to MLL teams only practicing one day a week along with games at the weekend. "The rest of the week," says Rabil, "is just figuring shit out."
During this free time, Rabil figured out how to make a living as a professional lacrosse player, by viewing himself as a startup.
"I began building a media company, essentially," Rabil says. He decided to produce instructional videos and vlogs, and share them on social media platforms, gaining nearly 650,000 combined followers across Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram.
With his success on social media, Rabil would find himself signing new sponsorship deals with companies such as Red Bull, Polk Audio, and Snap Fitness.
Furthermore, Rabil would launch a business that conducts clinics and camps, as well as a podcast, Suiting Up, in which he interviews athletes, executives, and entertainers.
All the while, Paul was constantly communicating with his brother, Mike, stating how distraught he was with the state of the MLL.
After constantly hearing from other star players about no longer wishing to compete within the MLL, due to stagnant wages and feeling that the organization did not have their best interests at heart, Rabil decided he had had enough.
On October 22nd, Paul sitting alongside his brother announced that they will be launching their own professional lacrosse league.
Paul Rabil added, "This is an open canvas to reimagine how team sports leagues should be."
When reviewing the new PLL, you have to start with the current MLL competition. The problem with the MLL, in the eyes of Rabil, is player salaries and player marketing.
In a PLL press release, the organization stated that it “will provide players with full-time wages, equity in PLL, and benefits.” Rabil has stated that the new full-time salary offered by the PLL will be four times higher than the average paid by MLL, which is around $8,000.
This announcement resonated with players, with 152 players already signing with the fledgling league, more than 90% of the players coming directly from MLL. This includes most of the sports biggest stars: 10 winners of the Tewaaraton Trophy (lacrosse's equivalent of the Heisman), 86 All-Americas, and 25 members of the national team.
The new league's schedule does not overlap the indoor National Lacrosse League, in the winter, meaning players can continue to compete during the PLL offseason.
Ryan Flanagan, a teammate of Rabil's with the New York Lizards, said that "People are excited about the compensation, but at least 80% of it is that we want to be part of something special, and we're absolutely going to follow Paul because of all the success he's had. Guys look up to him a ton."
Along with the salaries, players have been offered equity in the PLL. This certainly is a very unique feature and one that is not present in MLL contracts. As the league grows it offers each individual player an incentive to grow revenue for the league.
As for player marketing, the PLL will offer athletes open-source access to digital content like game images and highlight films. The use of this type of content is often restricted, by leagues such as the NFL and NBA.
However, Rabil believes this would help players build themselves into brands, similar to himself, making them marketable stars."We’re kind of injecting rocket fuel into their social platforms,” added Rabil.
Alongside opening up its library of highlights for players to use, the league will also operate a full-time studio that will churn out other player-centric content, such as docuseries, reality shows. Further giving the athletes the opportunity to increase their exposure and supplement their salaries.
There is hope from the PLL that this could tackle the sports problem with a lack of awareness at the professional level, despite the sports rapid growth at the youth level.
According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, 2.2 million Americans picked up a lax stick in 2017, a 35% increase over just five years.
“We looked at it much like a Silicon Valley technology startup would for their early-stage employees,” Rabil says. “Our athletes are employees and builders and owners of this business.”
While developing the future of professional lacrosse, Rabil looked towards the World Surf League (WSL) and Professional Bull Riders (PBR), as examples of the same structure.
Utilizing the idea of athletes marketing the events along with a tour-based model.
This means that the PLL will be geographically fluid, as the league's six teams, which consist of rosters of 28 players each, are not tied to cities. Instead the league will roam across 12 different major cities and venues, across 14 weekends during the summer. This includes an All-Star game and Championship game, which will return to one of two of the cities.
The PLL also announced that they would be coordinate travel, housing, and practice sites during the season. Meaning teammates would not need to live in or near the same city.
"Major League Baseball, say, was built on the core principle of fans growing up and living in one market for their entire lives," said Rabil. "There was no national radio, no television. It was hyperlocalized. That's not the world anymore. By going tour-based, overnight you're a national league. And fans can choose the teams they support either by their favorite player, or by the coach, or by the branding we create."
This tour-based approach is further intended to solve the problem of venues. As this is something that the MLL has to worry about as they are forced to design its schedule around the availability of stadiums of disparate capacities and quality—the Denver Outlaws usually fills about one-tenth of the 76,125 seats at Broncos Stadium at Mile High, while the Lizards drew 4,701 last season to Hofstra's 11,929-seat James M. Shuart Stadium.
Now the PLL will be able to utilize more appropriately sized stadiums, one weekend at a time. Opening up the opportunity to focus on creating an infectious atmosphere, which will connect with the modern audience.
Moreover, Rabil has made broadcasting a priority, "If the game isn't on broadcast television, people will continue to say it's not a real sport."
In recent years MLL's games have been primarily available on the digital Lax Sports Network, restricting the league's availability to a larger audience. The PLL made the decision to focus on reach, signing a deal with NBC. The deal will see 17 games broadcast on NBC Sports Network, stream 20 games on NBC Sports Gold service, and air two on its main network. The two games on the NBC network will offer the league incredible exposure.
Rabil and the PLL team have also been listening to feedback about the difficulties of watching a standard lacrosse game. "We've heard enough feedback that it's tough to watch lacrosse with just three cameras because you can't follow the ball," Rabil says. "We're going to change that." Therefore, PLL games will be covered by 7 to 10 cameras, rather than the standard 3, while some players will wear helmet cameras and microphones.
"We've heard enough feedback that it's tough to watch lacrosse with just three cameras because you can't follow the ball," Rabil says. "We're going to change that."
Elsewhere in the league, PLL is also looking to leverage technology, so that they can keep account of match statistics.
"Lacrosse has fumbled around stats—errors in accounting for ground balls, assists," says Rabil. "We're going to solve that."
Along with improving the fan experience at match days, the ability to keep statistics would open the league to the possibility of entering the highly profitable world of fantasy sports, while also opening the league to gambling companies.
"We're going to work with casinos and sports betting platforms early," Rabil added. "But for [casinos] to get comfortable with it, they have to be able to predict the consistency of our statistics. We have to prove that in year one."
One week after Rabil announced the launch of the PLL, the MLL decided to announce a “comprehensive rebranding effort,” promising a brand new look for the league. This included a new logo, website, and all-league apparel.
In February of 2018, the league preemptively also hired a new commissioner, former ESPN executive Alexander 'Sandy' Brown.
Brown would say “I’ve gotten the owners to agree to invest in digital. I want to create more content that allows for greater sponsor opportunities, greater engagement by fans. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but I think you’re going to see a much different flavor of MLL next season.”
While talking about the new PLL, Brown said: “He didn’t want to be part of an org chart. But a rising tide lifts all boats. And we have a different model from PLL, they’re looking at individual players, we look at things through the lens of our teams and our cities.”
Furthermore, the MLL announced a 51% increase in its salary cap and the addition of two games to each team's schedule.
Brown would add, "a rising tide lifts all boats. Our view is that we're interested in the promotion of the sport and that ultimately is going to be the arbiter of success for us all. Anything that happens that is going to expose the game to more people, that's a good thing."
For many sports fans in the U.S., the idea of a professional lacrosse league could seem like new information.
So, it would seem unlikely that the country could have two competing competitions that could flourish.
However, if Rabil's PLL is a success straight away, it could start to cut into the MLL's current fan base, while inviting in new audiences.
With a structure that will focus on players, rather than teams, the PLL may see the success which followed the NBA, after David Stern took over as commissioner in the mid-1980's.
Now it is up to Rabil and his team to see if they can deliver on their ideas.
Returning to the original question, what does this mean for the sport of lacrosse? In one word, exposure. The two games being broadcast on NBC are going to reach a larger potential audience than anything that is ever shown by the MLL.