Lacrosse's history may predate the arrival of Europeans in North America but its future will be influenced by the momentum of the 21st century, according to the sport's most prominent superstar.
Paul Rabil, the spectacular Johns Hopkins University midfielder who scored 111 goals from 2005-2008 and went on to an MVP career in the Major Lacrosse League, is taking on a new role within the sport -- league founder.
Rabil, 33, and his older brother Mike Rabil are set to launch the Premier Lacrosse League in June with a business approach befitting a Silicon Valley startup and a strategy that will try to take advantage of digital technology and even the changing tastes of young fans.
Rabil said the new league, which will feature six teams playing in a touring format throughout 14 weekends in 12 major markets, will try to "optimize the modern sports environment where there is new stadiums, new distribution with [both] the major broadcast networks and new tech platforms … as well as the modern athletes who have become celebrities."
Among the differences between the PLL and many other new league startups is how it's being funded.
The new lacrosse league is being backed by cash from some of the most impressive names in venture capital, including The Raine Group, Creative Artists Agency, The Chernin Group and Blum Capital.
While declining to disclose exactly how much money was raised, Rabil said the new league is "well funded."
But perhaps the biggest difference between the PLL and other nascent sports enterprises is how its players are compensated. Players are employed by the league rather than individual teams.
"When we built the PLL, we did it with the athletes first and we did it in three ways," Rabil said. "First, we increased their [compensation] -- from a cash standpoint -- than what was, on average, being distributed to the players. We gave them access to health care for the first time in pro lacrosse. And we gave them stock options in the business so our players are actually equity owners in the league."
Still another difference is that while the league will feature six teams, none will represent a specific city or location. They simply have nicknames: Archers, Atlas, Chaos, Chrome, Redwoods and Whipsnakes.
One reason for that decision was so fans in locations not represented by a team wouldn't feel isolated and left out. But the non-geographic specific strategy is also part of a broader recognition that younger fans identify with and engage with spectator sports differently than fans who grew up with the traditions of the 20th century that were rooted in hometown loyalties.
"What we're seeing more than ever -- and there's data to support it through Google and Facebook and Instagram -- that especially with Millennials and Gen Z, they are choosing their favorite player over their team [by a wide margin]," Rabil said.
"A fan on the East Coast can be a Golden State Warrior supporter because they like Steph Curry, and they can watch Steph Curry play live on their mobile device or even on their television any time they want and they can engage with Steph Curry on social media where he's speaking directly to them."
The new league will be boosted by a media deal that will see games broadcast on network, cable and over-the-top (internet) channels.
NBC will broadcast three games. Sixteen games will be broadcast on NBCSN. And an additional 19 games will be carried on NBC digital platforms.
Play will begin June 1-2 with games at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., followed by stops in New York (June 8-9, Red Bull Arena) and Chicago (June 15-16, SeatGeek Stadium). The PLL and Women's Profesional Lacrosse League will co-host games at Johns Hopkins' Homewood Field June 22-23.
Local lacrosse fans will recognize many of the players who have already been announced to fill the PLL's rosters. Along with Rabil, a few of the familiar names are Kyle Harrison (Johns Hopkins), Kyle Hartzell (Salisbury), Matt Rambo (Maryland) and Tucker Durkin (Johns Hopkins).
In all, the league boasts 10 Tewaaraton Award winners, more than 10 pro lacrosse MVPs, 21 Team USA players and 17 Team Canada players.
In addition to offering world-class play on the field, the league plans to conduct instructional sessions for youth players through a PLL Academy.
"On any given weekend, when we have 120 of the best players in the world and in a major market city leading into that weekend and out of it, we'll be able to offer … contact between future lacrosse players and the top players in the world," Rabil said.
"It's a high-impact program and a lot of our players want to participate in it," he added.
Already the PLL has been creating buzz for its inaugural season on Twitter and Instagram knowing that's where it'll best reach the young fans it hopes to attract.
"We're already demonstrating," Rabil said, "that we have the ability to tell the story of our league, our teams, our coaches and our players."
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Johns Hopkins Athletics
Issue 252: March 2019
Originally published March 15, 2019