Lacrosse superstar Paul Rabil hopes his brainchild, the PLL, can alter the course of pro lacrosse in the U.S.
NEW YORK — Paul Rabil juggles the empty San Pellegrino bottle on the table in front of him from his left hand to right, and back again, and then pauses for a minute or two as he rattles off the statistics and studies he’s pitched to investors over the course of the last 18 months. His words are carefully crafted to convince the listener that each innovative element of his fledgling professional sports startup is legitimate and clearly rooted in conviction and commitment. The subconscious fidgeting is a sign of Rabil’s restlessness—it’s an unsurprising tic for a co-founder on the verge of launch, but also somewhat contradictory to the confidence he exudes as he explains the intricate business of building the Premier Lacrosse League. Every last detail of the league is as inked into Rabil’s being as the PLL logo onto his grey shirt.
Rabil, 33, with his bullish entrepreneurial bravado and his signature scruff, is less than a month away from his tour-based league’s inaugural weekend. He’s only in New York City for 26 more hours and has probably just as many meetings to attend in that time, yet he seems perpetually unphased by the enormity of it all.
“I’ve just been going at full-speed since we started this thing in stealth,” says Rabil, a Gaithersburg, Md., native and Hopkins alum who recently made the cross-country move to Los Angeles. “It will be nice to be home for a stretch.”
By a stretch, Rabil means a matter of weeks. The PLL will host its first festival-style weekend on June 1 in Boston before moving on to 12 other cities over the course of the 14-week season. He’ll return to L.A. with the league once when the PLL’s All-Star weekend takes place at Los Angeles FC’s 22,000-person Banc of California Stadium. But before any of the first games can begin, there’s still work to be done.
The PLL is structured more similarly to a Silicon Valley startup than a traditional American sports league. In the NFL or NBA, an owner (or ownership group) holds the keys to an individual franchise that operates as its own business, independent of other teams in the league. Instead, the PLL was introduced as a single-entity league backed by venture capital. But when Rabil and his brother Mike, now serving as the PLL’s CEO, decided that they wanted to change the current professional lacrosse climate, they didn’t initially intend to start an entirely new league. They first attempted to buy the existing entity: Major League Lacrosse, who declined to speak with Sports Illustrated for this story.
For the better part of 2017, the Rabil brothers worked on securing a series of capital partners to purchase MLL. Their plan was to turn the existing league tour-based to grow the sport, an idea birthed by the studies that show that tour-based models can optimize and amplify a non-core sport quicker than a city-based model. They met with MLL decision makers in Boston and spent months in talks but there “was just never enough of a serious interest or engagement on their side,” Mike says.
The two parties were still in conversations until a month before the new league announced its launch—even after their first capital raise—but it was in January 2018 that the Rabil’s realized an overhaul of the existing league probably wouldn’t happen.
“When you spent enough time on something—you build a business plan on something and you really believe in it—if the other group says they don’t want to do it with you, you’re just going to do it regardless,” Mike says. “We never like to break eggs but sometimes you have to [in order] to make an omelet. One of our investors, Mike Levine [co-head of Creative Artists Agency Sports] says that all the time. It’s not easy to do that. There are always repercussions of building something new but this needed to happen.”
And so they began breaking an enormous amount of eggs. In 2018, the brothers shifted their focus to building the new league. The process began with raising capital but early success was also largely contingent upon securing the right players—athletes that fans would want to watch, who would create the highest caliber of competition and who the league could also capitalize on.
With almost 95% of MLL players under one-year contracts, much of the league’s top talent was available for the PLL to approach about their alternate option once the existing league’s season concluded. Rabil is one of the few professional players to successfully make a living off the sport—one of the key problems the PLL sought to solve—so they offered players base contracts four times larger than MLL previously had (MLL has since upped its salary cap by 51% for the upcoming season) and added access to health care and stock options, treating players like full-time employees.
In addition to the economic enticements, the league also offered media exposure through a deal with NBC. It was “a drastically different scenario economically but at the core of it, athletes compete in sports at the highest level because of the competition and then the distribution, which is all the allure attached to professional sports,” says Paul.
In order to sustain such a system, the league had to innovate. The PLL has to achieve several things simultaneously to succeed, but the most important is reaching profitability.
To be able to afford to pay players the kind of living wage it offers, as opposed to the sort of supplemental salary that MLL offered most of its athletes, the league will need sufficient and eventually self-sustaining capital. The PLL’s tour-based nature also dictates that it must generate enough to do so while taking the entire league on the road each weekend, functioning without a single home team all season long, at least for the first few years before it can consider settling in designated cities. It has to accomplish all of this while generating returns for investors—something many major and aspiring professional sports franchises, outside of the NFL, have struggled to accomplish. And so league leaders put together a pioneering plan for its business model, which fittingly reflects the same inventive ideology behind its inception.
Revenue for modern sports teams primarily comes from media contracts, the sale of club seats and luxury suites at the stadium and arena, and the associated corporate sponsorships, sports economist Andrew Zimbalist of Smith College explains. Traditional media rights are distributed regionally but the PLL’s model operates agnostic of location, promoting a national streaming that again, like much of the league, deviates from the norm. Corporate sponsorships also have to be structured differently, given that the PLL cannot sell one company a box or luxury suite for the entirety of a season at the same venue.
“When you’re not a [core sport] like lacrosse, it’s very, very hard to generate those sources of revenue. It takes a long time,” Zimbalist says. “Lacrosse is obviously a sport that’s been growing significantly in popularity in youth sports, so more and more people are playing it. If you have more people playing it, you have more people who will be interested in following it as they age, either at a college level or at a professional level. But that doesn’t happen automatically.”
Lacrosse has seen 35% participation growth since 2012, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, but you wouldn’t know it if you attended a professional lacrosse event last year. The season average attendance in the then-nine-team MLL was 3,619, the lowest since 2003. (MLL has since shrunk to six teams for ’19.)
Zimbalist draws a comparison to MLS in the United States, which, he argues, has struggled largely due to a lack of talent but also an insufficient connection to each team that stems from the lack of history of the league. PLL believes it has an advantage over MLL in terms of talent, but the league must figure out how to compensate for its youth and the absence of city connections that comes with a tour-based model.
“If you look at soccer fans today, they’re primarily watching in Europe because that’s where the historical franchises and historical rivalries are. All of that, which happens over the course of decades and decades, is what builds a brand and the image of the sports league,” he said. “Even though lacrosse has taken on a very positive growth trajectory for people playing it, it still could be decades—and maybe never—before it’s able to reach the pinnacle of the major leagues. Any capital put into developing this league has to be very patient and has to be committed to the sport.”
The history hiccup isn’t something that scares the PLL.
“We have a competitive edge,” says Head of Marketing Divya Goel, who spent four-and-a-half years working for the NFL in a similar role prior to joining the PLL. “A lot of the attachment we’re leveraging here is the way we’re changing sports and the avenue we’re going about it. People are very excited about the concept of the PLL in terms of empowering the players and the fans who make every sport what it is—giving the power back to them to allow them to really influence the way we interact with them."
Altering the power structures within professional sports, however, started with finding the right financiers. The league was intentional about securing investors who “align with their values and are committed to growing the game,” Mike says.
The Rabil-led venture announced a first round of funding in September and an additional round of Series A funding in February. Backed by an impressive amalgam of non-endemic investors (including The Raine Group, who joined the brothers in Boston during conversations with MLL; Chernin Group; CAA; and Blum Capital) the league’s financiers also include Alibaba billionaire Joe Tsai (who owns a stake in the Brooklyn Nets, the National Lacrosse League’s San Diego Seals, the WNBA’s New York Liberty, and also played college lacrosse at Yale); a few family offices and angel investors; and numerous former college players turned investors, like former Patriots wide receiver Chris Hogan, who played lacrosse for Penn State.
The abundant investor connections to the sport could help solve the patience problem. That was something the Alliance of American Football—the other investor-backed startup sports league to steal headlines this spring—could not. The short existence of the AAF culminated in an incomplete inaugural season, which shocked many, including its players. Without sufficient capital from the start and funds depleting rapidly, AAF co-founder Charlie Ebersol sold controlling interest in the league to billionaire Tom Dundon, owner of the Carolina Hurricanes. Dundon invested $250 million into the NFL alternative just 10 days after its first game but backed out in Week 8 after having only paid some $70 million, as his vision for the AAF’s future clashed with league leadership. Another of their key investors, Reggie Fowler, was recently arrested on charges of bank fraud, which had frozen $25 million in funds the league desperately needed.
But beyond investor issues, the business models also differ in ways that Mike believes put his startup league in a better position to succeed. The AAF offered its athletes higher base salaries than the PLL and had to pay for players to live in market, a financial burden the tour-based model eliminates. Similar to MLL, the new league will only have to pay for players to travel on weekends. Distinctions like these—and the fact that the PLL is not competing with a behemoth of a league like the NFL or trying to feed into a preexisting system—stand out.
“The cost structure, the player caliber, the scarcity that we’re creating as a tour-based model, it’s those differences that matter,” Mike says. “What the AAF was able to pull off in the amount of time and with the resources they had was impressive. Charlie [Ebersol] and Bill [Polian, AAF co-founders] weren’t the first people to go launch a product without being fully capitalized. People do it all the time in Silicon Valley. It just so happens that it happened now in professional sports.”
While the league declined to reveal how much capital it has raised in total, it has enough to feel confident that it won’t end up in the same position the AAF did midway through this summer’s first season.
“We’re also making a bet on ourselves, it just isn’t quite as risky because we have the capital to get us going,” Mike adds.
In order to turn a profit to supplement its initial influx of funds, the league will look to its five core business fundamentals, which are essentially five separate revenue streams under the overarching PLL umbrella.
Media is the first, as both a tool to raise awareness and viewership for the league but also to eventually generate revenue. The Rabil brothers knew broadcasting would also be alluring to the athletes they wanted to sign. A partnership with NBC Sports helped with the media hurdle, as did investing in their own in-house media team to capitalize on the sport’s highly engaged social audience (the PLL has seen 10-12% engagement across its social platforms, as opposed to the 1% or less that other leagues average. The NFL’s average engagement rate, for example, across all 32 teams sits at just 0.22% according to Rival IQ). Rights, ad purchasing and sponsored assets during the game—halftime show, pregame, post-game, etc.—and profit from original and social programming sit high among the league’s anticipated revenue streams.
Funds are also expected to come from corporate sponsorships, which, in a travelling league, will have to slightly diverge from the traditional path. Third is the physical product: ticket sales and overall revenue generation from the experience (the league’s 14 weekends). Individualized experiential marketing at each event and first-party data sharing are among the access points to modern money makers that the league is attempting to tap into by creating a festival-style atmosphere for fans in every city. The fourth bucket is merchandise–self-explanatory, yet not without its own challenges given that gear only sells if a fan feels connected enough to a team, a player or the entire PLL to purchase.
The league’s youth business serves as the last sort of mini-business within the larger league. It generates revenue through camps and clinics and includes numerous non-profit initiatives hoping to help lower the barrier to entry into the sport and grow the game.
The PLL is also paying attention to the smaller details. Take uniforms, for example. Working with its apparel partner, Adidas, the league created what they see as a more “wearable” product by changing the cut and fit of their jerseys. They veered away from the traditional boxy, baggy lacrosse look and instead mirrored the t-shirt style look in professional soccer.
While specifics are still under wraps, there are also changes being made to the on-field product in order to feed the audience’s appetite. “Chiefs-Rams was the highest-rated NFL game last season because it was the highest scoring, that was what fans wanted,” Mike says.
They brought their coaches into the league’s inaugural draft in an attempt to breathe life to what otherwise could have been a repetitive broadcast. With the Stanley Cup Playoff double header as its lead-in programming, the show piggybacked off the NHL’s popularity and reaped the benefits in the form of 168,500 viewers during the 2 a.m. broadcast, according to Nielsen. Mass appeal is the main goal of almost every element of the Rabil brothers’ barnstorming brainchild, and they’ve already shown that they’re not afraid to make alterations on the road to maximum reach. Now they have to wait and see whether or not those risks payoff.
Reach and profit go hand-in-hand for the young league, but Paul adds that if they have to raise another round of capital, they’ll do it. “Our investors have even encouraged that,” he says. “But we firmly believe that if we can begin growing the game with this tour-based model, taking lacrosse to new cities and tapping into the expanding fan base, getting them excited about the sport before settling it down, and with our business model, we can reach profitability. 100%.”
But it all hinges on two crucial factors: first, that fans come out, and second, that they form that crucial connection that will keep them linked to the league—into the next weekend, the next season and in the years that follow.
“What we’re really trying to hone in on is that every weekend is a unique experience to that city for them to get excited about,” Goel says. “And then get them connected to a team through a college affiliation or to their favorite player or just because they really enjoyed the experience.”
While going tour-based centralizes costs, it creates a new challenge in fostering those relationships for fans. Getting a fan to commit to a team isn’t as simple as linking them to a location for the PLL. But with 56% of their fans falling under the age of 18 and the tendency for younger sports viewers to connect to a player as opposed to a team, the league is making another gamble, this time on their personnel.
“City affiliation matters in sports, we’ve never said that it doesn’t. But what has emerged, and in many studies emerged past the connection to place, is players,” Paul says, drawing comparisons to sports like UFC and NASCAR. “We do understand that a lot of sports uniforms and merchandise is sold through some type of origin connection and that’s why we have put a lot of emphasis on the design and the story of our lacrosse clubs and building affinity for a club based on the players or the amalgam of the players on that team or the coach leading it. We’re making a bet on our players.”
From their first pitch to investors to the final pushes before opening weekend begins in just three short weeks in Boston, the building of this league has largely been just that: making a bet—on the sport, on its growth trajectory, on its stars, on its potential but more broadly, on the Rabil brothers and the team they’ve assembled around them.
“If this business doesn’t make it because we have increased what we are paying players, provided more benefits and given them ownership and challenged the status quo for this sport, then I’m willing to die on that because that’s what these players and this game deserves,” Mike says.