Can a New Barnstorming, Player-Centric Lacrosse League Serve as a Template for Other Sports?
This story appears in the FUTURE ISSUE, the Nov. 19–26, 2018, edition of Sports Illustrated.
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Lacrosse players talk about Paul Rabil in the same way that basketball players speak of LeBron James: as a mold-breaker, one whose unprecedented athletic gifts promise new levels of success and stardom. "He's bigger, faster, stronger," says Kyle Harrison, Rabil's former teammate at Johns Hopkins and himself one of the game's greatest players. "Smarter. More efficient. Someone at his size within our sport, it was the first time it had all come together."
The 6'4", 220-pound Rabil won two national championships at Hopkins, in 2005 and '07, and was the No. 1 pick in the '08 Major League Lacrosse draft. And he became the LeBron of MLL: In 2013, Bloomberg.com touted him as LACROSSE'S MILLION DOLLAR MAN. (Of course, the LeBron of Lax was earning as much, in total, as the LeBron of Hoops takes in on and off the court every four days or so.)
Only a small fraction of Rabil's haul came from his MLL contract. He made just $6,000 as a rookie midfielder with the Boston Cannons, so he took a job at a commercial real estate company in Washington, D.C. He quit after nine months when he signed a sponsorship deal with Under Armour, but then he found himself with a lot of time on his hands. MLL teams practice on Fridays—sometimes in public parks—and have games on Saturdays, and that's about it. "The rest of the week," says the 32-year-old Rabil, "is just figuring s--- out."
What Rabil figured out was how to make a living from pro lacrosse. He viewed himself as a startup. "I began building a media company, essentially," he says. Rabil produced instructional videos and vlogs on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram, gaining nearly 650,000 combined followers. That drew a half-dozen more sponsors, from Red Bull to Polk Audio to Snap Fitness. He launched a business that conducts clinics and camps, as well as a podcast, Suiting Up, in which he interviews athletes, executives and entertainers. With his older brother, Mike, a former defensive tackle at Dartmouth, he founded Rabil Ventures, which invests in other startups. In short, Rabil became the bearded face of lacrosse—one whose contacts include Bill Belichick, Steph Curry, Steve Nash and founders across Silicon Valley—and proved that it was possible to turn a niche sport into a lucrative business platform.
Meanwhile, lacrosse was moving beyond its coastal, prep school confines. 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. "I remember being on flights with my stick head attached to my backpack and people would ask me, What is that?" Rabil says. "Is that a version of jai alai? They didn't know what lacrosse was. That never happens anymore."
Yet even as Rabil was earning a pair of MVP awards and two titles as a pro, he says "the peak of stardom remains the Final Four"—the NCAA championship that draws tens of thousands of fans over Memorial Day weekend. "I won a national title in front of 50,000 people at Lincoln Financial Field [in Philadelphia]," says Harrison. "The next week I'm playing on a back field at Rutgers in front of 400."
Last season average attendance in the nine-team MLL was 3,619, the lowest since 2003, and the average salary was $8,000, forcing players who hadn't been able to replicate Rabil's bootstrapping to hold down other jobs. In May defenseman Ryan Flanagan—a teammate of Rabil's with the New York Lizards—was fined a game check by the league for tweeting that the visitors' locker room in Boca Raton, Fla., was a tent with no showers, and that the postgame spread consisted of pizza and beer.
Finally, after 11 seasons in MLL—during which he became the all-time scoring leader—Rabil decided he'd had enough. Last month he announced the formation of his own circuit: the Premier Lacrosse League, which will begin play next June 1. The PLL's leadership also includes Mike Rabil, along with the 35-year-old Harrison and the 26-year-old two-time MLL MVP Tom Schreiber, and it is backed by major venture capitalists—the Raine Group, Chernin Group, CAA and Blum Capital. For Paul Rabil, it represents more than just the chance to further professionalize the sport he loves. "This is an open canvas to reimagine how team sports leagues should be," he says.
If lacrosse is the sport of the future, then Rabil intends the PLL to represent the league of the future. But what would the NFL or the NBA or MLB look like if it were launched today? Rabil has some ideas.
Geographic fluidity. The PLL will consist of six teams with rosters of 28 players each, but none will have a home. Rather, for 14 weekends this summer (which will include an All-Star Game and a championship), the whole league will barnstorm through 12 major cities, playing in two of them twice—a tour-based model that is standard for individual sports (golf, tennis, MMA). The league will coordinate travel, housing and practice sites; teammates won't 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," says 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."
The tour-based model is also intended to solve a problem faced by any startup league: venues. While MLL is 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—the PLL will be able to rent more appropriate stadiums one weekend at a time, and focus all its resources on building a festival-like atmosphere around the three games it will play there. The league has yet to announce its destinations, but it is focusing on Major League Soccer stadiums, which mostly have around 20,000 seats and tend to be less than two decades old.
Reaching modern consumers. In recent years MLL's games have been primarily available on the digital Lax Sports Network, but the PLL has already signed a deal with NBC, which will broadcast 17 games on NBC Sports Network, stream 20 on NBC Sports Gold service and air two on its main network. "That partnership is really important," Rabil says. "If the game isn't on broadcast television, people will continue to say it's not a real sport." At a time when sports are consumed on screens of all sizes, production values also matter: PLL games will be covered by seven to 10 cameras, and some players will wear helmet cams 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."
The league will also leverage tech to address what has been a significant drawback in lacrosse: the keeping of statistics. "Lacrosse has fumbled around stats—errors in accounting for ground balls, assists," says Rabil. "We're going to solve that." Rabil believes this will not only improve the fan experience but will also allow the league to enter the highly profitable realms of fantasy and gambling. "We're going to work with casinos and sports betting platforms early," he says. "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."
Players first. A central component of pro sports leagues is missing from the PLL: owners, whose interests are often opposed to those of their players. "It's a players-first mentality," says Schreiber. "Hearing players out and treating them much better." That means paying them more—minimum salaries will be $25,000, or $19,000 more than MLL's in 2018—giving them equity in the league on a vesting schedule and providing them health benefits, which MLL does not.
It also means that players will be encouraged to build their personal brands, sometimes over their teams' or the league's. "People follow players now," says Schreiber. "They're not following LeBron James because he played for Cleveland." In fact, while James is now a media magnate whose Instagram following of 44.4 million is nearly seven times more than either of his two most recent teams', the Cavaliers and the Lakers, his account features virtually no clips of him playing basketball—those are the property of the NBA, meaning its owners. The PLL will not only open-source its highlights for players to use, but it will also operate a full-time studio that will churn out other player-centric content—docuseries, reality shows—so that they can increase their exposure and supplement their salaries, as Rabil has.
Will the sport's players—who are a more diverse and progressive group than the shopworn LaxBro stereotype suggests—be allowed to express themselves politically, even during the national anthem? "Of course," says Rabil. "Athletes' having the courage to speak up for something they believe in is something we want to get behind. We are with our players."
Rabil has been embedded in tech and media circles for so long that his speech is now peppered with Silicon Valley buzzwords: endemic, ideation, best in class, mission critical. But he persuasively contends that his new venture is mostly driven by a desire to spread the gospel of a sport he took up as a 12-year-old in Gaithersburg, Md. "It's got the contact of football, the agility and speed of basketball, the hand-eye coordination of baseball and hockey, the endurance of soccer," he says. "It's got everything."
What it hasn't had—until now, Rabil hopes—is a way for players to maximize their potential as professionals. "I want to see what the lacrosse athlete in his prime looks like when he's a full-time pro," says Harrison. "What does that guy look like at 28 years old? We don't know. Paul probably was the closest thing to it, and he was running around all over the place doing all his projects."
In the midst of launching his grand project, Rabil intends to remain a star player; he sometimes begins his daily two-hour training sessions at 10:30 p.m., often in the gym of his Brooklyn apartment building after a day packed with travel and meetings.
On Oct. 22, the day of the PLL's official announcement, Rabil sat next to his brother at yet another conference table, in a shared workspace in midtown Manhattan—the league's temporary headquarters until it sets up permanent shop in Los Angeles. Its early employees, including Harrison and Schreiber, issued reports on the progress they'd made in their assigned departments: legal, marketing, media. The 18-year-old MLL, whose owners include Jake Steinfeld (of Body by Jake) and Jim Davis (owner and chairman of New Balance), have tried to counter the upstart league; in September it preemptively announced a 51% increase in its salary cap, and the addition of two games to each team's schedule. Still, says MLL commissioner Sandy Brown, "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."
Brown took the job nine months ago and soon found himself dealing with suddenly thin rosters. The PLL has already signed 152 players—more than 90% of them from MLL—including most of the biggest stars: 10 winners of the Tewaaraton Trophy (lacrosse's equivalent of the Heisman), 86 All-Americas and 25 members of the national team. (In the winter, many players will continue to compete in the indoor National Lacrosse League, whose schedule won't overlap with the PLL's.) Says Flanagan of the new league, "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."
One of the PLL's employees, tapping away on his laptop, interrupted the proceedings. "We are a revenue business!" he exclaimed, looking up. "Just crossed $300 on our merch store."
Much, of course, could go wrong. It might turn out that there simply is no appreciable appetite for the professional version of the fastest sport on grass—or for players who are not named Paul Rabil, no matter how they are packaged or empowered. A lack of success could lead its players-first ethos to be overwhelmed by the wishes of PLL's investors, who might then become like most team owners, obsessed with returns on their capital.
For the moment, though, it felt as if the future had just arrived.