The people behind the upstart Alliance of American Football (AAF), which debuted on CBS this month, have emphasized for months that the AAF is not trying to compete with the NFL; rather, it is partnering with the NFL.
By contrast, Premier Lacrosse League (PLL), which launches on NBC on June 1, is very much competing head-to-head with Major League Lacrosse, the current “big league” of American lacrosse.
Paul Rabil, the biggest star the MLL had, ditched the MLL to co-found the PLL with his brother Mike Rabil (not a lacrosse player). The brothers gathered up seed investments from Raine Group, Chernin Group, CAA, and Blum Capital.
Now PLL has beefed up its funding with a Series A round led by Raine Group, Brett Jefferson, and Joe Tsai, the cofounder and executive chairman of Alibaba.
Tsai, who played lacrosse at Yale, has amassed a slew of personal sports investments. He is a part owner of the Brooklyn Nets in the NBA, owner of the New York Liberty in the WNBA, and owner of an indoor lacrosse team, the San Diego Seals in the National Lacrosse League (NLL). His personal passion for lacrosse makes him a smart partner for the PLL.
But most importantly: his backing associates the PLL with Alibaba.
Tsai brings Alibaba association to PLL
“Alibaba sits at the intersection of technology and commerce,” Rabil tells Yahoo Finance. “So when we think about pro sports, not only through the new lens of media but also how we go direct to consumer, they are one of the top companies in the world at understanding that. [Joe Tsai is] a very strategic partner for us.”
Indeed, Rabil has emphasized the role tech will play in the PLL since he first announced the creation of the league last October. Some of the first MLL stars to leave for the PLL got an equity stake in the league, and Rabil has touted that PLL players will get open access to digital assets like photos and video footage to share on their social platforms to help them build their personal brands.
The league’s unofficial slogan: “We the players.”
And even though it is Tsai investing personally, and not Alibaba the company, Rabil clearly hopes to parlay the relationship into a partnership with Alibaba.
“Whether it’s AWS partnering [with sports leagues], or Google Cloud partnering, or in our case working with Joe and understanding where there is an opportunity maybe with Alibaba, it’s about digging deep into the trenches,” Rabil says. “Understanding your fans and how they view the game across all screens, that type of information is really important. And then it get pretty complex, too, when you’re working on developing your own apps and you’re servicing the customer on-site.”
3 games on primetime NBC
The other key to PLL’s success will be TV eyeballs, and Rabil is blunt about that need. PLL has scored a deal with NBC Sports as its broadcast partner; 3 games in its first season will air nationally on NBC, 16 on NBC Sports Network, and another 19 streaming exclusively on NBC Gold.
He calls the AAF a “great success story” on its opening weekend because it earned a 2.1 overnight rating, but he adds a clear caveat: “The big piece there is that they were on CBS main network. So when we look at our deal with NBC, having three NBC programming windows and then another 16 on NBC Sports, that gives us wider exposure.”
In other words, there will be a lot riding on those three NBC games. Those will be PLL’s chance to prove out its model and lock down more than three games on primetime in its second season, if it gets that far.
PLL also announced this week that all three games on its opening weekend (June 1 and 2) will be played at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., home of the New England Patriots.
“There are 6 million lacrosse fans and 2.2 million participants just in the U.S., many of which don’t access or have never watched a pro game,” Rabil says. “We believe the market can be more expansive within our sport right now. And with NBC, we can capture net new sports fans.”
Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.