Imagine if LeBron James left the NBA and took a bunch of the best players with him to launch a rival basketball league.
That’s what Paul Rabil, America’s top lacrosse player, is doing.
Rabil, the closest thing the sport has to a remotely recognizable star, has played in Major League Lacrosse for 10 years of the league’s 18-year history. Beginning next June, Rabil will play instead for the Premier Lacrosse League, which he and his brother cofounded with investments from Raine Group, Chernin Group, CAA, and Blum Capital.
Rabil’s venture is a shot across the bow for Major League Lacrosse, which bodybuilder Jake Steinfeld founded in 2000 and sold to New Balance owner Jim Davis in 2004.
And MLL is going on the offensive about the launch of the PLL.
‘He didn’t want to be part of an org chart’
It is no coincidence that one week before Rabil announced the Premier Lacrosse League, his old league rolled out a “comprehensive rebranding effort” promising a new look for the MLL logo, website, and all league apparel.
MLL also has a new commissioner, former ESPN executive Sandy Brown, who joined in February. Brown tells Yahoo Finance, “I’ve gotten the owners to agree to invest in digital. I want to create more content that allows for greater sponsor opportunities, greater engagement by fans. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but I think you’re going to see a much different flavor of MLL next season.”
As for what Rabil is up to? Brown says: “He didn’t want to be part of an org chart. But a rising tide lifts all boats. And we have a different model from PLL, they’re looking at individual players, we look at things through the lens of our teams and our cities.”
Rabil says that’s exactly right: PLL is laser-focused on making its players into marketable stars. The league’s six teams are not tied to cities, but follow a tour-based model where they will roam across 12 venues around the country.
“By going tour-based, we become national overnight,” Rabil says. “City allegiance, we saw it with the World Series last night, it’s incredible… this sport isn’t quite there yet. But you also look at LeBron James. Look at Cristiano Ronaldo. LeBron has played for three different teams, growing his following, increasing ticket sales with each landing stop. Cristiano Ronaldo has played for three different continents. Millennials and Gen-Z follow the athletes; new media has enabled that.” Indeed, Rabil himself is an example: he first built his social media presence on YouTube and now has half a million followers across Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
PLL’s inaugural season starts on June 1, 2019, and will culminate in a championship weekend on Sept. 21. PLL games will be broadcast by NBC Sports. MLL games are streamed on the Lax Sports Network (LSN) and, beginning next season, one “game of the week” will go on ESPN Plus. (Last season the MLL game of the week streamed on Twitter.)
Is there room for two pro lacrosse leagues?
Many sports fans in America have no idea there is any professional lacrosse league. Does the sport really need two?
Maybe not. If Rabil’s PLL is successful right away, it could be very bad for MLL.
Rabil says the problems in MLL were player salaries and player marketing. He aims to address both. He’s signed 140 players for his league (most of them poached from MLL), and each one is getting a full-time wage (four times higher than MLL pay on average, Rabil says) plus healthcare and the same shares in the league that PLL executives are getting. Rabil looked to the World Surf League (WSL) and Professional Bull Riders (PBR) as examples of the same structure.
“We looked at it much like a Silicon Valley technology startup would for their early-stage employees,” Rabil says. “Our athletes are employees and builders and owners of this business.”
As for branding the players better, PLL will give players open-source access to digital content like game images and highlight films. In the big leagues, this is unheard of; the NFL is especially restrictive of what its players and even its teams can post on social media. Rabil wants to help the players build themselves into brands the way he has: “We’re kind of injecting rocket fuel into their social platforms.”
There is a huge divide right now between lacrosse’s rapid growth at the youth level and the lack of awareness of its professional level. Part of the problem may be the sport’s image in America as being mostly white, wealthy young men at elite colleges. Critics could point out that PLL’s backers play to that image: Raine Group is full of former college lacrosse players; Chernin Group owns bro blog Barstool Sports, and Barstool Sports CEO Erika Nardini is on the advisory board.
“The stereotypes are real,” Rabil says. “We needed to find the right investors that could be strategic across business, sports, and media… What’s been great there is, because of the roots of lacrosse, it was one conversation… it wasn’t, ‘Tell me how lacrosse functions.'”
Rabil says he isn’t trying to take down MLL; in fact, he says PLL at first considered a partnership. “We always wanted to figure out a way to work with them, so we went through a few partnership discovery processes,” he says. “Business dynamics kick in, and sometimes a deal doesn’t get done.”
But Rabil also says the sport of lacrosse “requires a professional body that can unlock commercial viability and provide the right distribution, get behind the best players in the world, to bring that exponential growth curve.” Translation: Major League Lacrosse hasn’t done that.
Listen to Paul Rabil on the Yahoo Finance Sportsbook podcast below.
Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.