Refreshing. Disruptive. Risky. The inaugural season of the Premier Lacrosse League (PLL) is all of those. The 14-week tour-based, 14-city, 6-team model that focuses heavily on its players officially begins on June 1st in Boston. This weekend’s premier not only brings together a plethora of lacrosse’s biggest stars over a 2-day period, it also bridges the men’s and women’s game. The brainchild of two brothers, Paul and Mike Rabil, the PLL is the culmination of years of trying to transform a sport often viewed as exclusive and elitist. It is a response to a stagnant 20-year-old Major League Lacrosse (MLL) and a yearning to capitalize on the fact that lacrosse, unlike many American sports, has shown a 35% growth in participation since 2012. Paul Rabil isn’t just the co-founder of PLL, he’s one of 160 players in the traveling league. He also brings with his stamp of authenticity, a long list of accolades as one of lacrosse’s most recognizable veterans amassing awards like two-time MVP and all-time leading scorer during his 11 season career in the MLL. He was one of the lucky ones to call lacrosse his full-time career because of sponsors.
Most people have ingrained stereotypes when they think of lacrosse. Some that come to mind: privilege, east coast, college, and to put it as delicately as I can, white upper-middle class. It’s a bit obscure for a lot of sports fans who haven’t been surrounded by the culture. I grew up in suburban northern NJ where lacrosse was almost as popular (if not more) than soccer and baseball were, for kids in athletics. But busting stereotypes and breaking that wall is inherent to the growth and change that Paul envisions.
Rather than focusing on developing local fan bases, lacrosse-specific stadiums, typical suite marketing and intercity rivalries, the PLL’s tour-based system partners strategically with media, long-term investors, players and uses common-sense logistics with the goal of instilling lasting development. In lieu of regional media market politics, all games will be aired by their national partner NBC. Billy Rebman, former U.S. Lacrosse team General Manager, works in NBC in sports research and helped lay the foundation for a 3-year deal with PLL and NBC during the slow summer slots. Instead of dwelling on a lack of roots and history, PLL teams will be playing in mostly MLS-specific stadiums. Investments came from dark-horse contacts. Much of the early investment and strategizing came courtesy of a deep dive into a network of former players. Mike Levine, head of sports at CAA, a leading entertainment agency, was an attackman at Cornell University. Colin Neville, another former attackman, is the managing director of The Raine Group.
Moreover, PLL has partnered with the Women’s Professional Lacrosse League (a 5-team league founded in 2018) and includes WPLL games at some of their events, like the opening weekend in Boston. Bringing the two together is novel and smart way to bridge fan bases rather than splintering them. It also means later on, if the PLL is a success, the perception of the men’s game supporting the women’s game is unnecessary. Both will have grown together. Notably, women’s lacrosse’s beginnings are steeped in history. By 1900, the men’s game was already evolving in the English-speaking countries of the world. The first women’s lacrosse game dates back to 1890 in Scotland. The first U.S. women’s lacrosse team was founded at Bryn Mawr School, the first college-preparatory school for girls in the U.S., in 1926. Men’s and women’s lacrosse rules didn’t diverge until the 1930s. Both fledgling leagues, the WPPL and PLL will exchange best business practices, collaborate on youth community events and share content in order to best unify the sport.
As a whole, the players will make four times, on average, what they were compensated while in MLL. Perhaps in response to the growing sense of competition for players (most MLL players signed 1-year contracts so PLL technically had access to them all), MLL just shrunk their team number from 9 to 6, increased their salary cap by 51% (there is no salary cap in PLL) and added healthcare access and stock options. That, even before the PLL debut, represents a market disruption. Nearly everywhere you look, strategic decision-making surrounds the PLL.
The Rabil brothers didn’t choose to hoist their flag in the heart of lacrosse’s traditional stronghold. Rather than focus on east coast, they packed up and moved westward to picturesque Manhattan Beach to embrace the possibilities. Lacrosse was California’s fastest-growing high school sport in 2017. Considering that, it is easy to imagine the social media implications and the league has already seen engagement numbers over 10% shatter other league records. Even the new uniforms are a departure from the standards, selecting more of a soccer kit than the bulky old school lacrosse jerseys.
There is an adage that states “a goal without a plan is just a wish,” and whether you believe in this or not, it is a simple truth for the world’s greatest innovators and investors. Applicable to many disciplines and fields, it is one ideology that Paul and Mike Rabil have embraced. They dove in with both eyes open and only began this course of action when their original plan to purchase MLL hit a wall. No matter what the outcome, PLL is changing lacrosse’s trajectory in the U.S. and likely the world. They have three years to make an impact and each of the 14 weekends counts. Tune in this weekend!
photo via Awful Announcing