HARRISON, N.J. – A boy with scrawny arms and knees so bony they remind me of bookends stands, half-hidden behind his father’s right knee, with a stick as tall as he is in his hands. Draped in a bright summer sky blue Atlas jersey that swallows his small shoulders, the child can’t be more than four. Five letters—R-A-B-I-L—live on the back of his jersey, but the writing is so wide on his fragile frame that the ‘R’ and the ‘L’ drip off his shoulders.
“It’s his brother’s, but he insisted on wearing it,” his dad tells its owner when he finally gets Paul Rabil’s attention among the clamoring hands and children calling out to their lacrosse idol. “We’ll have to get him his own on our way out!”
The child is too shy–the words too stuck in his throat–to ask for an autograph, so his father does the honors for him. Rabil readily complies, as do all the players filing off the field around him. Redwoods midfielder Sergio Salcido signs autographs to his left as his teammate Sergio Perkovic strides across the field shirtless to come do the same, sweaty jersey in hand. Deemer Class didn’t play in Chaos’s season-ending loss due to injury, but he still stands to Rabil’s right, inspiring the next generation of lacrosse players with his Sharpie. Pat Harbeson takes a photo with someone that someone else wanted him to meet, a photographer snaps a post-playoff-win shot of Kyle Harrison and his parents in the middle of the field.
The scene is buzzing with life but when you look up past the sidelines and signing and screaming fans, the rest of Red Bull Arena is breathless. Spectators in the stands are spotty at best. All who came to watch the league’s playoff clash streamed toward the front rows when the buzzer sounded but even when the organized chaos was, well, more organized and people were seated, attendance still wasn’t striking.
The league seemingly strategically placed fans on one side of the field–as they did much of this season when ticket sales weren’t high enough to fill a whole venue–to optimize the experience for fans, yes, so they’re not spaced out throughout an entire stadium, but also to make for better backgrounds for photo ops and a more enticing television broadcast. Even with the New York City commuters and Long Island lacrossies doing their part to fill the stands, even with Steve McLendon and a few of his Jets teammates showing up to support the sport before their Monday Night Football game against the Browns, empty seats still far outnumber the filled. The atmosphere feels a bit ambitious for the newborn league’s first season, but the energy this small crowd creates is still enough to survive.
The Premier Lacrosse League’s two sellout weekends this season came in Baltimore and Albany–at two college stadiums at Johns Hopkins and at Albany–both venues nearly three times smaller than Red Bull’s 25,000 seat stadium. But bold is what Rabil does. The empty seats simultaneously represent overaggressive goals set before the season and the standard Rabil expects his sport to reach someday. Each red chair represents room for expansion, each embodies opportunity for growth. Despite the emptiness that silently cries out when you survey the stadium during the PLL’s playoff double-header, the excitement about the sport’s future still palpable tonight, even despite a lack of the most tangible sign of success: sufficient spectators.
“The first time we were here [the PLL’s second week of regular season play also took place at Red Bull Arena] I was so nervous I couldn’t stand still,” Rabil says after the crowd dissipates and we step to the side. “I’m much better this time around. My expectations then were just so high at the start, but I’ve settled in as the season has gone on.”
The PLL—for whatever attendance struggles and other growing pains the young league still must grapple with as it finishes year one and looks toward two—has stayed true to what Rabil said this spring before the season even began: “This league is about the players and the people, the fans and the future.”
The question of whether or not the landscape has changed or whether or not the Rabil brothers [Paul co-founded the league with his brother, Mike, who serves as the PLL’s CEO] new system is sustainable doesn’t come with an obvious or easy answer quite yet, but they haven’t crashed and burned. An AAF-esque catastrophe has been avoided. And on a Saturday night in September, under shining stadium lights, some several thousand ticket sales short of anything close to a sellout, Rabil still oozes the same almost-indulgent confidence in his Premier Lacrosse League as he did when the summer started at Gillette Stadium–and the fans who are here reflect the same.
As Rabil says in an Instagram story a few days later from a train heading south to Pennsylvania for championship weekend, “It was just four months ago that this guy [Mike] and I were on this same Amtrak going from New York City up to Boston for Week 1. This ride is a lot like the one we’ve been taking all year: smooth, bumpy, but headed in the right direction.”
The bumps haven’t, however, swayed Rabil, nor were they unexpected. Despite their perpetual positivity and optimistic soundbites, both brothers understand the realities of running a business. Startups are bound to struggle as they get off the ground, but the bumps on the road this season didn’t stop Rabil from finding a four-wheeler and making it work. And they certainly haven’t sidelined any of the PLL’s plans for the future: Rabil is already talking and thinking about expansion and how to improve for next season.
“As we look into the future, we're going to continue to evaluate the ways we can improve,” Rabil says. “From our game coverage, to corporate partners, to the fan experience, and of course, the product on-field. We weren't anticipating expanding this early in our life cycle, but given the aforementioned, we're planning to run critical analysis and know by the end of the year.”
Rabil says the league’s focus in 2020 is on “advantageous upgrades to our strategy.” In working with their broadcast partner, NBC, Rabil wants to target getting more evening and night network game time slots so the PLL can increase viewership. They want fully integrated partnerships with youth lacrosse tournaments and leagues, so they can play a tour schedule strategically planned to now conflict with the youth circuit to maximize in-person attendance at each city they visit. New York attendance was higher at September’s playoff games than it was when the PLL first visited the city in the early summer–a number which Rabil attributes to growth but that is also likely linked to a youth tournament that made much of their young audience unavailable to attend the league’s games in June. The league wants to change its ticketing strategy, add even more talent to teams–all as they consider already expanding, ahead of schedule.
Rabil has grown accustomed to thinking along this many lines for his league, wearing as many hats as need be since he began building the PLL almost two years ago. And for 14 weekends this summer (not counting the bye weeks and breaks) lacrosse’s million-dollar star took turns serving as everything from co-founder to chief strategy officer, from player to youth clinic coach to commentator and NBC analyst. He’s been a ball signer, vlogger and perpetual PLL hype man. His fingerprints are on everything from business to design to on-field product and programming. He’s been an athlete and entrepreneur, a Kentucky Derby attendee and a Facebook panelist. He’s scored zero points one week and four the very next on a pair of goals and assists. His league has seen a sellout at Hopkins' Homewood Field in Baltimore, a lacrosse hotbed, followed by hours of rain delays in D.C. on Independence Day weekend that sent fans scattering before the primetime teams were able to play. Rabil has seen as many highs and lows as the league itself this season, but you can still see the satisfaction in his smile as he reflects on it all.
He–and the PLL–will have done and seen it all by the time the league’s inaugural season wraps up this weekend. And he’s not alone. Several other players (Kyle Harrison, Matt McMahon, Tom Schreiber and more) also hold jobs within the league’s front office, bringing the startup hustle to a sport that already moves quickly.
The pace won’t slow anytime soon, even after a champion is crowned. The Rabil brothers pitched this league to their impressive assembly of investors as a 10-year plan. At a minimum, they’re only 10% done. There is much more work still to come.
“We're beating our projections, our investors are happy, players seemingly limitless on what they can accomplish on the field, and our fans keep pouring in–through attendance and viewership,” Rabil says. “But we won't stop. The expectation of sport is to exceed expectations. To outperform. And we're focused on doing that this offseason, which we've dubbed internally, our on-season.”
And after an exhausting inaugural summer, the ‘on-season’ will begin this weekend. As the league prepares to take a breath for the first time in more than four months, there’s no room for relaxation. The end of season one means it's already time to look to the next, time to stop only to strategize for how to continue charging forward and changing the lacrosse landscape–at least in the world of the seemingly never-slowing Rabil brothers.