The line inside the Philadelphia convention center stretches several hundred feet, three or four people thick with giddy lacrosse fans, many of them kids with their parents in tow. They have traveled from all over the country to attend LaxCon, the annual event sponsored by U.S. Lacrosse (the sport’s official governing body), which offers three days of clinics, demos, vendor exhibits, and a chance to share oxygen with the world’s greatest lacrosse players, including the most famous of them all, Paul Rabil, who is at the head of this queue, greeting fans and posing for photos.
This year, the Major League Lacrosse (MLL) star known for his brawn, speed, and skill is here on a mission of his own: to promote the Premier Lacrosse League (PLL), which he and his brother, Mike, launched last fall. Rabil and nearly 160 of the world’s top players have opted out of playing for the 18-year-old MLL to join the PLL, lured by a guaranteed minimum salary about two or three times higher than the MLL’s as well as healthcare, coverage on NBC, a touring schedule set to begin on June 1, and an equity stake—a first for a professional sports league. The league’s investors—Creative Artists Agency and such private equity players as the Raine Group, the Chernin Group, Blum Capital, and others—see potential in an exploding market for an increasingly popular game.
Lacrosse is the oldest team sport in North America, invented by Native Americans nearly 1,000 years ago (the Iroquois called it the Creator’s Game). When Jesuit missionaries encountered it in the 17th century, the French priests saw the long wooden stick with a hook and webbing at one end and dubbed the game “la crosse.” It took root among settlers in Canada, where it was the country’s first official national sport (sorry, hockey), and gradually spread south. By the early 20th century, lacrosse had established itself as a provincial extracurricular activity among mid-Atlantic high schools and colleges and became a fixture at elite Northeastern prep schools. The sport earned a reputation as something rich white kids play.
But that’s been changing. Over the past two decades, lacrosse has been the fastest-growing team sport in America, with total participation (male and female) up more than 225% since 2001. The number of collegiate nonwhite players has more than tripled in the past 10 years as the sport has spread across the U.S. More than 200 colleges have added NCAA lacrosse programs since 2012, and over a million boys and girls in the U.S. currently play. Many of them are in Philadelphia today, clutching PLL hoodies for Rabil to sign. The line moves slowly, but nobody seems to be complaining.
Wearing a gray T-shirt with the PLL logo on the chest and a backward yellow PLL ball cap, the affable Rabil—6’3″ of shoulders, beard, and tattoos—greets each fan with a broad smile and a handshake or high five and asks where they are from. Most take the opportunity to lobby him directly to bring PLL games to their city. Lacrosse is on the rise at the exact moment that tackle football participation among high school players is cratering (down 6.6% over the past decade and even more at the youth level), and NFL TV ratings last year were about 12% shy of their high-water mark in 2015. Rabil knows a scoring opportunity when he sees one. Lacrosse involves “the contact of football, soccer, and the hand-eye skill of baseball and hockey,” he says. “There’s a large audience that the pro game hasn’t hacked into yet.”
Chances are you haven’t been to a professional lacrosse game and probably can’t even name a team. North America’s two existing leagues (the MLL, which is played outdoors, and the 32-year-old National Lacrosse League, which plays indoors) sold an average of 3,600 and 9,400 tickets per game last year, respectively, compared to the NBA’s 18,000 and the NFL’s 67,000, and neither league has full-season TV coverage. The NCAA Final Four lacrosse championship remains the sport’s marquee event, drawing 30,000 fans per game. Dom Starsia, the legendary University of Virginia coach who spent last season as an assistant coach for the MLL’s Boston Cannons, recalls a game last year at a 30,000-capacity stadium. “There must have been about 50 people in the stands,” he says. “You can’t get much worse than that.”
Both the MLL and the NLL, like most professional sports leagues, follow a franchise model: Teams are owned and controlled by wealthy individuals or groups and based in a home city. The leagues operate, essentially, as trade associations. Some revenue (from licensing, broadcast, ticket sales, merchandise) is shared among all teams, while some (from concessions, luxury-box sales, venue rental) accrues to individual franchises. Scaling a new league with this model has become prohibitively expensive. When the NFL was founded, in 1920, new franchises cost about $100; now they sell for more than $2 billion.
The Rabil brothers didn’t have that kind of money. They’d grown up in a middle-class family (paper-salesman dad, art-teacher mom) in Gaithersburg, Maryland, where every other yard had a lacrosse goal, and by the age of 12 budding athletes had developed either a deadly shot or expert glazier skills. The two brothers competed against each other so fiercely that neighborhood pickup games included a “Rabil rule”: Mike and Paul had to be on the same team in order to avoid game-ruining fistfights.
Mike went on to become captain of the Dartmouth football team. Paul concluded his college career at Johns Hopkins by becoming the first player selected in the 2008 MLL draft, signing with the Boston Cannons for less money per year than LeBron James earns during a postgame ice bath: $6,000. Like most professional lacrosse players, Paul had to take a second job. He chose commercial real estate. As it turned out, 2008 was a terrible time for that but perfect for experimenting with social media to build a personal brand. He began posting one video to YouTube a week, a habit he’s maintained for more than a decade; collectively, his videos have been viewed more than 25 million times.
Paul built a large, multiplatform following that helped drive the growth of the Maryland-based lacrosse camp and clinic business he was launching. Soon, he’d quit his real estate job to become a full-time lacrosse player/entrepreneur, and his continued dominance on the field—MVP of the MLL as well as the world championships— fueled a virtuous cycle (positive media coverage, expanding social footprint, speaking engagements, camp and clinic growth) that attracted sponsors such as Under Armour, New Balance, Red Bull, and Chevrolet. By 2014, his endorsement deals totaled north of a million dollars, a first for the sport.
During the off-season, Paul worked with his brother, who’d parlayed two successful fitness endeavors—Turnstyle Cycle, in Boston, and seven Snap Fitness franchises in four states—into an investment career. Rabil Ventures provided early-stage capital and strategic advice to a variety of companies. (Its portfolio includes the sports-news website The Athletic and direct-to-consumer packaged-goods purveyor Brandless.)
Though amateur lacrosse was booming, the MLL was not, with attendance declining from its 2011 peak. In 2017, the Rabils were approached by several hedge funds and private-equity companies to assemble a deal to acquire the MLL and revamp its business strategy.
“We sat down with the MLL leadership [and had] three or four conversations over a year,” Mike recalls. “We said, ‘This isn’t working, and we have an idea of how to make it work.’ ” But the two sides were never able to agree on a price. “When you get to a place where the math doesn’t pencil out, you’ve got to go your own way.”
The Rabils have conceived the PLL as a single entity rather than an association of franchises. It’s owned by investors and PLL employees (the players and the league staff ), all of whom stand to benefit from future profits. To achieve national reach without having to assume the exorbitant costs required to host full-season schedules at six venues, the Rabils settled on a touring model: Players, who are guaranteed a minimum annual salary of $25,000, are assigned to a team and can reside wherever they like. Each weekend, all six teams descend on a different major-market city (13 in all, from Boston to San Jose, California) to play three games, two on Saturday and one on Sunday. Fans can buy tickets for individual games or a pass for all three for less than $50. Every week, the PLL will create the festival atmosphere of the NCAA championship.
After developing this plan throughout 2018, the Rabils began in November to approach investors whom Mike had met through work and Paul had encountered during speaking engagements at events such as South by Southwest and the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. “Over the past 25 years, I’ve sat through 50 to 60 pitches for taking professional lacrosse to the next level, and this was the first time I was inclined to say yes,” says Mike Levine, a onetime Cornell lacrosse player and now head of CAA Sports, a division of the Creative Artists Agency. “The current system was broken and wasn’t going to get better. We needed something different.” Levine was intrigued by the “barnstorming” tour model that would deliver the very best players in the world to the fans at a single venue every week.
He also liked the Rabils’ data-driven approach. “We put together a pretty robust quantitative analysis for targeting ideal cities,” Paul says, sitting in a cramped, overheated conference room at the PLL’s temporary New York office in January. “We looked at over 120 different cities. We looked at the level of lacrosse participation, household television ratings when lacrosse was being broadcast, growth of club participation, and venues. About 30 cities jumped out as finalists.”
The Rabils closed their seed round in March 2018. Joining CAA were several mediatech-focused backers as well as a handful of individuals, such as former Penn State lacrosse player and current New England Patriots wide receiver Chris Hogan. “We think there’s an opportunity to build the defining platform in lacrosse that extends all the way down to the youth ranks,” says Raine Group venture partner Blair Ford, who was involved at this early stage. A second round followed, in January 2019, from investors including Alibaba cofounder and Brooklyn Nets owner (and former Yale lacrosse player) Joe Tsai and Hildene Capital Management founder, president and co-CIO (and former Syracuse lacrosse player) Brett Jefferson. Mike Rabil says that the funding is sufficient to carry the PLL through several seasons.
In February, the Rabils moved to Los Angeles, along with most of the PLL’s 25-person staff, to open a new league headquarters. The city offers great weather and an advantageous perch for courting sponsors, but that’s only part of it. According to Mike Rabil, lacrosse is “the fastest-growing sport in Los Angeles County, and 50% of the youth players there are African American or Latino.”
“Our youth strategy is important,” Paul adds, citing an upcoming clinic PLL players will be running in Oklahoma. “We’re going to all these different places to spread awareness of the sport and celebrate its history as the oldest team sport in North America, founded and created by indigenous people.”
The PLL is being founded on a simple premise: that the fast-growing, highly engaged fan base for lacrosse will translate into a thriving pro league. But professional leagues have historically required decades to find their footing. More than half a century ago, an increasing American appetite for soccer spawned the North American Soccer League, which sputtered after 16 seasons. Major League Soccer followed in 1993 and needed the better part of a generation to achieve major-league-level attendance and revenue. But digital technology has altered the way consumers engage with sports. The Rabils believe that the House of Highlights generation identifies more with individual players than with teams and will support the kind of tour-based model that works well in golf and tennis.
Not everyone is convinced the strategy will work. MLL commissioner Sandy Brown is committed to his league’s city-based paradigm. “We’re deeply ingrained in our communities,” he says. “That’s the model we feel is successful: drive ticket sales in individual markets.” Indeed, it’s hard for some people to imagine how momentum for the PLL’s roaming teams will build without the hope of a Red Sox–Yankees-style rivalry.
The PLL’s deal with NBC could act as an accelerant. Lacrosse “is a sport we’ve looked at for seven or eight years,” says Jon Miller, president of programming at NBC Sports. To “make it a unique television experience,” Miller continues, NBC will use eight cameras, including helmet and goal cams, plus audio from the players. Three PLL games will air live during the three-month season on NBC; the others will be available on its cable network NBCSN or via NBC Sports Gold, the network’s subscription-based streaming package. Miller says that NBC’s deal with PLL is a multiyear agreement.
“Getting the sport in front of as many eyeballs as possible is going to do great things for lacrosse,” says Kylie Ohlmiller, the all-time leading scorer in NCAA Division 1 women’s lacrosse and now a rising star in the (unrelated) Women’s Professional Lacrosse League, which has formed a strategic partnership with the PLL. The WPLL will play at least two of its games this season at shared venues with the PLL, and the two leagues will collaborate on some of their youth-clinic work.
For the entire North American sports market, PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts that revenue will exceed $80 billion in 2022, spread fairly evenly across ticket sales, sponsorship, merchandise, and media rights. Mike Rabil projects that during the PLL’s first three years, most revenue will come from ticket sales and sponsorship, but then broadcast rights will become the top driver. The timing here could favor the new league: Hungry for programming and loaded with cash, big tech companies have entered the bidding wars for broadcast rights. Last year, Facebook signed an exclusive deal with the MLB to stream 25 games, for a reported $30 million to $35 million; Amazon inked a soccer streaming-rights deal with the English Premier League. (Those terms weren’t disclosed, but one industry analyst estimated the price to be in the $100-million range.)
The TV cameras will lure brand attention, which will in turn likely improve the sport itself. Top athletes earn most of their money through endorsement deals. “If you knock it out of the park while you’re on national television,” Paul Rabil says, “brands will sign you.” Former college All-American and MLL All-Star Myles Jones, who twice experienced ESPN national coverage, winning two NCAA championships for Duke, has jumped over to the PLL and says that “everybody wants to be able to call their mom, dad, sister, brother, aunt, uncle, grandma, grandpa, and say, ‘Hey, I’m playing on TV.’ Now we have to change the way we train and treat our bodies to put the best product in front of the cameras.”
Jones was the marquee attraction at a skills demonstration on the final day of LaxCon, and as he left one of the two fields that had been set up in the convention center, he was swarmed by boys and girls clamoring for an autograph. Jones smiled as he signed their programs and jerseys, and then he handed his stick to one stunned little boy. “You can keep this,” he said, hoisting his equipment bag over his shoulder and heading across the floor. The elated young fan sprinted back toward his parents, clutching the prize.