We the Players: The Making of a Pro Lacrosse Revolution

This article appears in the May/June edition of US Lacrosse Magazine. Don’t get the mag? Join US Lacrosse today to start your subscription.

I

t’s about 2 o’clock on a sunny January afternoon in Baltimore and Paul Rabil, dressed in a “We The Players” white T-shirt and slim black sweatpants, sits at a conference table in the industrial-style workspace he’s run his businesses from for five years.

“Coffee?” he offers.

Yes, please.

Tomorrow is moving day, when the last of the items of his Rabil Companies corner office — including a few lacrosse helmets, a football pigskin, and the desks used by his father, Allan, and chief of staff, Andrew Manning — will be left behind for good. Some of the stuff will relocate to a to-be-determined space for his youth lacrosse and content arm in Washington, D.C., with the rest headed west to Los Angeles. Specifically, beautiful Manhattan Beach and its main drag, Sepulveda Boulevard, where several of his 20 employees have already arrived to start setting up and settling into the first headquarters of the Premier Lacrosse League, the nascent, reimagined, and promising platform for professional lacrosse co-founded by Rabil and his older brother, Mike.

Unless this is the first lacrosse article you’ve read in seven months or you’ve never been on social media in your life, you’ve likely already heard about the PLL. It’s a tour-based model. Six teams and 160 players. Three games per weekend for 14 weeks, with an all-star game and playoffs. All played in state-of-the-art stadiums in cities like Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, New York and D.C. Games will air on NBC and its sports channel and streaming services starting June 1. Investors in the league include one of the richest people in the world, Joe Tsai, the founder of Alibaba, the “Asian Amazon,” who played lacrosse at Yale. Players will earn equity in the PLL based on how much they play, get a raise from their former Major League Lacrosse paychecks and receive health insurance. They seem downright giddy over everything from the money to the idea of enhanced exposure and pro lacrosse breaking into the mainstream of American sports.

“That is the dream,” says Drew Snider, a Team USA member and seven-year MLL veteran who will play for the PLL’s Whipsnakes Lacrosse Club, “to play full-time lacrosse.”

First, though, there are practical matters. Rabil must turn in his leased car before he swipes a one-way plane ticket to L.A., and “there’s a million other things going on,” he says. At this point, the league hasn’t yet announced its team names, logos, rosters or venues. The PLL will eventually release these in a carefully crafted social media and information dissemination campaign, not at all unlike the one Rabil has used to build his own brand since leaving Johns Hopkins in 2008 after earning three first-team All-American selections and winning two NCAA titles.

The PLL rollout has been impressive. Rabil, already known for keeping a workaholic lacrosse schedule as well as his business and media acumen (with half a million social media followers), has been busier than ever. He receives a text message from a league investor to his phone resting on the conference table, and the exchange lasts a minute.

“This is just kind of a normal thing now, to be on call. All the time,” Rabil says. “Seven days a week, until midnight. And if I’m asleep before midnight, I just don’t answer it. I sleep through it. Then I’m up at 7.”

Tag: 
Category: 
Pro
Author: 
Corey McLaughlin
Body Section One: 

T

his idea had been festering in Rabil’s mind for several years, albeit in a different form. He and his brother, a former football player at Dartmouth College who has started businesses ranging from a chain of gyms to one offering small business loans, have long carried an entrepreneurial spirit cultivated watching their father, a paper salesman for more than 30 years.

The brothers originally wanted to buy Major League Lacrosse, the 20-year-old league of which Rabil, 32, played in as a midfielder for the previous 11 seasons, winning MVP twice, and is the all-time leading scorer. They wanted to insert many of the ideas that have been introduced in the PLL concept to the already existing pro outdoor league, which they considered had plateaued in excitement, exposure and success.

Long gone were the days of games on ESPN. Players grew frustrated with stagnant wages, low attendance and a questionable media deal that limited viewership. An embarrassing data leak in the summer of 2017 — the MLL briefly exposed players’ Social Security numbers in a publicly shared Excel spreadsheet — “was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” says Mike Rabil, who was in Baltimore with his brother at the time and said, “Why don’t we just buy the MLL and run this ourselves?”

They took former MLL commissioner Dave Gross to lunch, met with New Balance chairman and league owner Jim Davis and visited MLL offices in Boston four times in 2017 to discuss the acquisition. But the Rabils say dialogue broke down once they made an offer. And negotiations never occurred after new MLL commissioner Sandy Brown, who says he was unaware of the previous talks, took the head job prior to the 2018 season.

“We wanted to see professional lacrosse on an elevated stage,” Rabil says. “Now we needed to go fundraise for a business that we’d be starting from scratch.”

Deciding on the new venture’s name was the easiest decision. The Premier Lacrosse League label borrows from European soccer, an interest of Rabil’s. It’s less obvious where PLL’s tour-based, player-centric concept draws from, but you see it in many individual sports, like auto racing, tennis, golf and what Rabil says is the PLL’s most relevant comparison, the Professional Bull Riders tour, which started in 1992 when a group of 20 riders broke away from traditional rodeo to gain better recognition for the sport.

“The business model surprisingly clicked really quickly for a lot of the investors we had on our target list,” Rabil says. “It just hadn’t been rolled out in team sports. In lacrosse, we do this at the final four every year.”

One of the earliest investors in the PLL was former Virginia All-American attackman Drew McKnight, a managing partner at Fortress Investment Group, which has more than $40 billion in assets under management. He connected with the Rabil brothers through a mutual friend that played football with Mike Rabil at Dartmouth. They met several times in New York and San Francisco, where McKnight works and lives, between November 2017 and January 2018.

“Their PowerPoint looked amazing,” McKnight said, “but I was probably the voice saying, ‘Are you really going to be able to do it?’ They didn’t have any players signed. They said, ‘We’re going to get the 120 best players.’ Then they said, ‘We’re going to get this TV deal.’”

McKnight took a leap of faith, pledging venture capital. He played in the first iteration of MLL in its barnstorming tour in 2000. His son and daughter play lacrosse in San Francisco. And if there was one person with the stature and sway to make the plan a reality, it was Paul Rabil.

“I got their vision, I got their passion, and I told them I want to invest, and we can round up money from a bunch of people like me who are passionate, which they did, around $3 million,” McKnight said. “But I won’t be able to get done for you what you need. I have a day job. You need real professional investors that can spend their waking hours focused on partnering with you.”

Fortunately, there’s plenty of lacrosse connections on Wall Street and in high places. Former Cornell attackman Mike Levine is the head of sports at CAA, a leading entertainment agency. Colin Neville, a former Yale attackman, is managing director of The Raine Group, another prominent investment firm which led the league’s initial round of funding. Mike Rabil worked out of Raine’s offices over the last year, and the partnership gave the brothers credibility in meetings with NBC, where another under-the-radar lacrosse advocate has worked for 30 years.

That’s Billy Rebman, the Long Islander and former U.S. team GM who works at NBC in sports research, projecting how certain programs will rate on a Nielsen basis. Rebman learned about the PLL in early 2018 and it gained momentum among NBC Sports’ leadership, president of sports programming Jon Miller and his top lieutenant Mike Perrman, who knew one of the PLL’s seed investors, Jon Marcus, a former Johns Hopkins goalie.

“Talk about strategic investors,” Rabil says.

NBC execs found the prospect of PLL programming a good fit for summer time slots, since the league aimed to start its season in June, as opposed to April when MLL began.

NBC and the PLL reached a three-year deal. “It was a perfect fit,” Rebman says.

Then in February, another round of investors came on board, headlined by the J Tsai Sports Group, which owns 49 percent of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, the WNBA’s New York Liberty and last year became owner of a new National Lacrosse League indoor franchise, the San Diego Seals.

Quote: 
“This might sound overly promotional, but it’s going to be the best lacrosse product we’ve ever laid our eyes on.” — PLL co-founder Paul Rabil
Image Parallax: 
Body Section Two: 

I

f the investors injected the funds, the players represent the currency. That’s what Rabil has preached as the league’s ethos in countless TV interviews on places like Bloomberg.

“It’s not just a tagline, ‘We The Players,’” says Tom Schreiber, a two-time MLL MVP. “It’s something Paul deeply believes in and something we’ve based decisions on.”

Schreiber met with Rabil and pro veteran Kyle Harrison, Rabil’s former teammate at Johns Hopkins, early in the incubation stage of the PLL, first to discuss involvement as a player, then in a loosely defined operations capacity.

Schreiber was skeptical at first — was this the LXM Tour 2.0?

“After my first call, I wasn’t sure it was a league where you’d compete for a championship,” he says. “But once that got cleared up, it was a no-brainer to me. I felt pretty confident that other players would follow suit, whether they were motivated by opportunity to take lacrosse to the next level or the financial opportunity.”

They were. When the PLL officially launched on October 22, 2018, the list of players committed to the new league gave it instant legitimacy. Schreiber. Harrison. Myles Jones. Matt Danowski. Scott Ratliff. Brodie Merrill. Matt Kavanagh. Jordan Wolf. Joe Walters. John Galloway. Trevor Baptiste. Faceoff king Greg Gurenlian later came out of retirement to suit up for the new league. Drew Snider. Marcus Holman. More than 100 others who will reportedly make at least a $25,000 salary. Collectively, the group will make four times, on average, what they received in MLL, according to Rabil.

“I trust Paul, and I felt this was something that could spark me and give me a new sense of worth in the second half of my career,” says Holman, who has played six MLL seasons and twice with Rabil on Team USA. “Everybody points to the final four as the pinnacle of our sport. Now I think we’re going to change that a little bit. Have you been to a PLL weekend? That’s going to be the question.”

Among the few headliners missing from PLL rosters are guys like Rob Pannell and Lyle Thompson, who signed multi-year contracts with MLL teams in spring 2017. Both leagues held college drafts this spring, a microcosm of the larger question of how two pro outdoor leagues can function long term.

In April, before the PLL held its draft, MLL announced it was contracting from nine to six teams for the 2019 season, and instituted a new “one team, one vote” ownership structure with eyes on acquiring new investors and expanding in the future. (Davis previously owned four of the teams.)

“If one day we come back together, that’d be great, but now we’re focused on the PLL,” Mike Rabil says.

Says Brown, the MLL commissioner: “All of this disruption creates progress. We have to focus on our business, but the fact is that more people are talking about our sport and the professional league, and that’s good for everybody.”

Body Section Three: 

L

ike MLL did 20 years ago for unpaid post-collegiate club players sleeping on friends’ couches, the PLL is positioned to provide a next-level platform for those who currently scrape together a living playing in the pro game, teaching camps and clinics, or coaching. The league provides a chance for the sport to connect with new fans in all corners of the country, in person and on TV.

The PLL final in September is one of three games that will be broadcast on NBC’s flagship — with the potential to reach nearly 120 million homes.

“It’s great for the game,” says ESPN analyst Paul Carcaterra, who has broadcast MLL games for several years and is now part of the PLL’s 10-member Lacrosse Advisory Board, which helped form the league’s inaugural rosters. “If professional lacrosse ever had a chance to break through nationally, now is the time.”

There’s certainly been enough hype, from weekly venue announcements to players announcing their own team designations with personalized bitmojis. Anyone who knows Rabil, Lacrosse’s Million-Dollar Man, never doubted he could create buzz. But what should we expect when the games finally start?

NBC promises to capture lacrosse like it hasn’t been done before.

“This might sound overly promotional, but it’s going to be the best lacrosse product we’ve ever laid our eyes on,” Rabil says. “Our professional sport has never gotten this level of production and distribution on a consistent basis.”

At the same time, the Rabils are resolved to be storytellers — of everything from the indigenous origins of the game to dispelling prep-school stereotypes. They’ll produce their own content and Rabil, let’s not forget, is an owner-player. “I’m still playing,” he says, hence his wake-up calls to train before pulling the strings on the business. That’s a narrative mainstream world can tell many times over.

“Paul really is the brains behind this, with Mike,” Schreiber says. “He’s far from just the face. He’s the one leading these meetings with everyone from NBC to sponsors to hopping on venue calls and early on with players.”

Rabil says he’s taking inspiration from modern unicorn companies like Netflix (for setting company culture), the Dollar Shave Club (which built its business off a creative YouTube video) or Amazon and its CEO Jeff Bezos (for process expertise.)

“One-page memos,” Rabil says. “That’s a way to be more effective, efficient and fast. And we need to be really effective, efficient and fast.”

He laughs at the truth of his last statement. The PLL is essentially a Silicon Valley startup.

“I think of our business as an entertainment company that owns a lacrosse business,” says Mike Rabil, while also saying he has more altruistic goals like lowering the barriers to entry in the sport, such as expensive equipment. After talks with MLL broke down, the Rabils even considered conceiving a business model to revitalize rec lacrosse — which they both played growing up in suburban Maryland. That would surely be better than splitting off with a new pro league and taking criticism for being greedy or self-centered, which they’ve heard.

“This hasn’t been easy,” Mike Rabil says. “There’s been lots of nights where we’ve screamed and cried.”

Mike Rabil speaks from what he jokingly labeled a “burner room,” a temporary office space he shares with a friend in Los Angeles.

Out west, that will be the epicenter of this developing national lacrosse story. It’s where Paul Rabil — the face of a league, the one guy who could pull this off — is headed now as he turns in his car and boards a plane, bent on leaving a stamp on a sport that no one has put on it before, while the rest of us watch to see what happens.

Short Summary: 
From the May/June edition, Corey McLaughlin takes a deep dive on the advent of the PLL.
Sub-Category: 
Photo Main Caption: 
Myles Jones (Chaos LC), Drew Snider (Whipsnakes LC), Kyle Harrison (Redwoods LC), Paul Rabil (Atlas LC), Justin Guterding (Chrome LC) and Tom Schreiber (Archers LC) are among the most recognizable figures in the sport now plying their trade for the PLL.
Photo Parallax Caption: 
Paul Rabil (seated) in conversation with Josh Sims, the PLL’s head of lacrosse overseeing operations and gameday management.

Source: New feed