Quarantined Group Stage, Single Elimination Tournament to Replace PLL’s Tour Based Schedule
Less than one month (April 10th) after Premier Lacrosse League (PLL) suspended its 2020 season indefinitely, the outdoor lax outfit announced plans for a two-week long competition (the PLL 'Championship Series' Powered by Ticketmaster) that will crown the league’s 2020 champion. The Coronavirus outbreak (and the social distancing measures that have been enacted to fight against its spread) dictated the need to pivot from a tour and academy based model to a fully quarantined (think: venue, housing) and fan-free one. While the location of the 'Series' remains to be determined, the 14-game group play schedule and subsequent single-elimination tournament will take place between July 25th and August 9th. NBC will carry all 20 contests live on NBC, NBCSN or NBC Sports Gold in time slots previously held for the Tokyo Summer Olympics (which have been moved to '21).
Howie Long-Short: The PLL explored upwards of 15 potential alternatives to starting their season in May (including: a delayed start date and playing a consolidated slate) before opting to proceed with the ‘Championship Series’ in July. While the idea of holding a quarantined tournament in place of the scheduled road show was initially pitched as a solution in a “worst case scenario where everything was shut down”, Mike Rabil says “our new reality” dictated the decision to pursue it. The PLL co-founder said that the league “just didn’t see a scenario in which fans would be returning to stadiums - in any meaningful way (i.e. not 25% capacity) - anytime soon.” And even they had the option to - and would be willing to (which surveys indicate is no sure thing) - concerns about player and staff safety within a tour format remained. Remember, there are no charter plane rides in the PLL; everyone is flying commercial on a weekly basis.
Playing games sans fans means the league will “lose a lot on ticket sales, on-site merch and concessions” - it's also going to be forced to do without much of the revenue generated by its academy business (the PLL is doing some virtual training/coaching). But with sponsorship sales helping to prop up the business (keep reading) and the 'Championship Series' eliminating some of the league's largest expenses (think: travel, multiple venue rentals) Rabil insists the revamped format is a “financially prudent decision” (he would not commit to stating the tournament would be profitable). Even if it's not, the quarantined competition should enable the PLL to maintain any momentum it's built thus far (they certainly didn’t want to take a year totally off - even if the 'Championship Series' just serves a bridge to Year 3) and to “capture the opportunity [with other leagues still on hiatus] to bring lacrosse to the forefront” (see: demand for live sports).
It’s worth mentioning that the PLL will not experience cash flow issues related to the refunding of tickets purchased. Rabil explained that “all game tickets are bought through the venues and the venues hold the revenue generated from those sales until there is a settlement (where they’ll net out expenses and costs) at the end of the year.” In other words, while the PLL will facilitate refunds it’s the venues that are actually responsible for returning the fan’s money.
The varying needs of the league's corporate partners required Rabil and Co. to take a bespoke approach to sponsorship conversations, ensuring all obligations were fulfilled and enhanced (critical considering it's their largest revenue source). To ensure the league could properly service its existing partners (and to help bring on new ones), the PLL doubled down and resourced additional sponsorship sales and support personnel during the sports hiatus. The investment - which runs counter to the layoffs and furloughs we're seeing across the industry - has seemingly paid off. “Sponsorship dollars were up +250% YoY before the outbreak and it now appears as if in a worst case scenario [the league] will be able to retain 90% of those commitments" (including: title sponsor Ticketmaster). That’s newsworthy considering it’s widely expected “sponsorship spending will decrease or be re-evaluated [by brand partners]” in Coronavirus’ wake.
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