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Long-Term Questions Abound For PLL, But Homewood Field Sellout A Good Start

June 24, 2019
This is nothing more than a gut feeling. I have no science to back this up. I have not conducted a series of interviews, I have no polling data to fall back on and I did not even stay at a Holiday Inn Express at any point recently. 

That said, my gut tells me that if a number of the most significant former Maryland and Johns Hopkins lacrosse players got together to play a formal game on a Saturday night at Homewood Field, they could draw a massive crowd at Baltimore's Homewood Field every single summer.

I don't say that to try to minimize the significance of the Premier Lacrosse League claiming its first-ever sellout crowd, which happened when 8,500 fans packed Homewood Field for the Atlas-Whipsnakes contest June 22. Those teams are littered with former Blue Jays and Terrapins, including former national champions Paul Rabil (also a co-founder of the league) and Matt Rambo (the 2017 Tewaaraton Award winner). 

I have experienced a number of magical nights watching lacrosse at Homewood Field. This one was certainly worthy of being remembered in a similar way. The crowd was massive, the atmosphere was electric and the fans were clearly engaged to the point where they were genuinely interested in individual players. 

I say it because it's obviously important to note that a single huge crowd or important game does not alone a league make. The professional version of the Hopkins-Maryland rivalry was the only one of the three games of the weekend to draw such an incredible crowd, and none of the games have individually performed that well in other cities. This was absolutely a unique circumstance.

But that doesn't mean there ISN'T something special happening with the PLL, either. 

For the purpose of full disclosure, I inform you that after hearing I intended to make it out to Homewood to check out the league, Rabil invited my family to not only attend, but for my kids to be able to come down to the field before the game to interact with players and watch them warm up. It was a thoughtful gesture, even if my 4- and 2-year-old boys couldn't name a single lacrosse player and actually believe the sport is called "cross." We're working on it. 

Admittedly, I've been skeptical about the launch of the new pro lacrosse league in 2019. That's not because of anything particularly unique about the PLL. It's because I'm skeptical of just about any new pro sports brand that has launched during the last 25 years. The odds suggest I'm right to be. 

There have been successes -- MLS, WNBA, NBA G-League to name a few -- but there have been far more failures. The most recent example is the AAF, but previous examples include the UFL, MISL, Major League Ultimate (Frisbee), the IBL -- remember the late Baltimore Bayrunners? -- the XFL and perhaps coming soon the XFL again, just to name a few.

I'm skeptical of all new professional sports leagues because it's really, REALLY difficult to launch and sustain a successful professional sports league in this country. 

What does the PLL have going for it? Most significantly, Rabil. Arguably the most recognizable player the sport has had (besides Jim Brown), he's created crossover appeal thanks to his social media presence, his friendship with New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and his willingness to do a never-ending amount of traditional media to promote himself and this brand. 

Beyond that, the league is home to a significant number of the other best and most marketable players in the game. It certainly has to be disappointing to the league that it couldn't launch with this year's Tewaaraton Award winner -- Loyola's Pat Spencer -- as he instead chose to play a year of college basketball at Northwestern. It would be rather beneficial for the league if Spencer has a huge season with the Wildcats, gains more crossover recognition and then chooses to play in the PLL next year, but there's more than a little danger that if Spencer indeed has a huge season he might actually have a pro future in hoops. 

Inspired by Rabil, the league has carved out a tremendous presence via social media platforms as well. And the television exposure they have with their network partner (NBC) has certainly been valuable. There was a "there," there even before they sold out Homewood Field. 

But there are still more issues. While very popular regionally, lacrosse remains a niche sport nationally. The barnstorming concept is far from ideal, particularly with another pro league (Major League Lacrosse) playing simultaneously with a more favorable city-based market. Rabil told Glenn Clark Radio the league is hoping to be ready for a city-based model by its fifth year and is trying to develop the brand in the first few seasons by creating "Final Four"-like atmospheres surrounding its games in early seasons. 

It's a novel concept. But there is reason to worry about whether the league can sustain long enough to get to that fifth year. While Rabil has indicated the funding in place is for a 10-year plan, investors don't tend to stick it out if financial losses become significant. 

What happened at Homewood Field was significant. Something special was happening. Kids in the stands were there to root for their favorite players. The lacrosse community completely embraced this new, exciting, vibrant brand. It seemed to simultaneously be an opportunity to both celebrate and enjoy the sport and also extend support to the fledgling brand. 

Will it work long term? That remains to be seen. But this was a pretty good place to start.

Photo Credit: Josh Rottman