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Paul Rabil looks back at the PLL’s launch and previews what’s still to come

The co-founder and CSO of the PLL has had an eventful week with the launch of his new pro lacrosse league.

New Era Style Lounge - Friday February 5, 2016 Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images for New Era

So I’m sure you’ve heard about a new lacrosse league coming next summer.

The Premier Lacrosse League was announced on Monday, with reports appearing across outlets, and not just in the lacrosse world. Bloomberg, Yahoo Finance, and the New York Stock Exchange all got in the action of the new league. We’ve now seen the player pools and heard plenty on how we got to this point. Paul Rabil, who has been the face of the PLL thus far, spoke with me about building a new pro sports entity, why the touring model works, the power of a broadcast partner like NBC, and a whole lot more (Olympic lacrosse anyone??).

The full transcript of our interview is directly below.

DA: I’m going to open with a quote here. This is from the blog post on the Paul Rabil website written by Ryan Flanagan on August 1, 2017. He wrote, “We want to create more revenue streams for players while also giving them a place to build their brand. By increasing the league’s social media presence and streaming games on platforms like Twitter, we can continue to push MLL into the national conversation. We know this is not an overnight process and are aware of how long change can take. That said, Major League Lacrosse was founded in 2001. We have to balance patience with aggression in an open market of opportunity.” Flanagan was an All-American at UNC, a teammate of yours on the Lizards, and he wrote this over a year ago. So, do you think it’s fair to say Flanagan was speaking for players in the league when he said it, and how much do you think that sentiment is responsible for the process that got us here?

PR: To answer your first question. Over the years, Ryan Flanagan and myself, along with other athletes like Kyle Harrison, Kevin Leveille, Chris Passavia, Kyle Hartzell, Tucker Durkin, and Kevin Buchanan began working informally with MLL around ways the players could better understand the construct of the league and add value. This was during the Commissioner [David] Gross era.

Ryan’s blog was essentially a documented piece that disclosed our beliefs on where we felt the league could be with the power of the players. We wanted to have more media distribution. We were interested in league sponsorship strategy and activation with its players. We wanted to understand league marketing strategies. We wanted to learn how we could help this thing grow.

That said, his blog was certainly not the impetus of how we got here today. But, a good find by you nonetheless.

DA: You landed on this touring model. How did you approach the players and say you can still have the feeling of representing a city, or is that really something that will happen down the road?

PR: As entrepreneurs, we challenge ourselves to think objectively, and wanted to explore the best ways we could drive the professional game to growth. We wanted to build with the players first, a network partner second, then solve for any inefficiencies in the current business model.

We looked at data that showed us there are significant challenges for niche team sports to penetrate and appropriately commercialize in city-based markets for a few of reasons.

First is that in a sport like lacrosse – where you have professional teams in fewer than 10 markets – you’re actually ostracizing the access points for fans in every region or city that you’re not in. This is much different than the current NBA, NFL, or MLB, where each has teams in over 30 markets.

Second, there’s an inherent venue challenge. In the major sports, teams own their venues – which gives them a benefit in scheduling, operations, and additional revenue streams like parking, concessions, ticketing, etc. For niche team sports, you’re constantly looking for a venue that fits your model, and often land with minimal scheduling freedom, thus limiting the availability for teams to alter game times, which lowers their market-fit for a network partner.

Third, by adopting a tour-based approach, much like the Final Four, with every game weekend we can pick the optimal pro venue in a target market that will support our game and the best pros. It’s optimizing for the competition, and the experience.

Yes, we know that there’s value to being city-anchored for any sports team, and we’re going to be participating with PLL cities and communities, working with our players in-market to serve those fandoms. But we’re also going to be able to capture the core competitive values of independent teams competing in a major sports season, every year for a PLL championship.

Down the road, as we hit major milestones – with the first being a major network partner like NBC – we’ll start driving attention and revenue. Then as we build, we anticipate an increased rate in audience and participants, which in turn will drive expansion and potentially a reinvigorated city-driven league.

And our players are really excited about where we are now, and where we’re going to be.

DA: I was talking about this with a friend of mine who has three kids. His oldest is 8. He’s a Seattle Seahawks fan, a Clemson fan, and a Washington Nationals fan. When his favorite team is in town, they go see a game, otherwise they watch on TV. It’s a bit like that. You’re favorite team might not be geographically tied to you, but they’re still available.

PR: Yes. And there’s data to support this. Whether it’s LeBron James playing for three different teams or Cristiano Ronaldo moving clubs across countries – both have grown in audience size and helped increase their new team’s revenue. Because of new media, we can watch our favorite athletes from anywhere, anytime.

Over the last decade, when asked, I’ve heard more high school players tell me their club team allegiance over their high school. There is proof of concept that club and organization can supersede your high school or city. That said, we need to do a great job creating our team marks, locker room cultures, and player-coach relationships, so those narratives evolve and develop their own allegiances and rivalries.

DA: Along those lines, let’s look at roster turnover within the PLL. Will there be an effort to keep guys on a team? A tour based model could lend itself to it being a bit easier for guys to flow from team to team. Is there a balance to be struck there?

PR: It’s mission critical we get the competitive elements of a major sports league right, and the first one is team formation. All teams will be independent. They will be operated by their coaching staff and dedicated front office. The PLL will have a full regular season, all-star break, playoffs, and championship. We’ll have trades, a player pool, and waiver wire. Each year there will be a collegiate draft so we get an influx of new players.

Yes, in team sports there is turnover. That’s the case in all team sports. The average life span of an athlete, agnostic to a specific sport, is two and a half to four and a half years. Our job is to provide the right resources to help athlete’s endure in their careers, get behind our superstars, get behind our role players, and introduce a new opportunity for a new generation of players to come.

DA: You mentioned a draft, which is a highlight of every year for any sports league. You can likely pencil in Loyola’s Pat Spencer as the top pick in a pro lacrosse draft right now. What is it about the PLL that will attract a guy like Pat Spencer?

PR: We really believe in our product, the business that we’re building, and the players that are competing in our league. We believe we’re going to continue to attract top talent, including the next group of players in the NCAA. At the core of any athlete’s experience is their competitive nature. They want to compete against the best talent in the world and play for a championship. From a player experience perspective, the stadiums you play in matter, and finally, the way the game is distributed across media.

DA: The player pool is one of the first things everyone wanted to know about. Not just who’s going to be playing, but who’s going to be playing for my team. If I’m a fan who wants to cheer for a particular player or region, what’s going to be my team? There were even some tongue in cheek suggestions that we just do a fantasy draft with the player pool. When do we think fans can expect to hear about where players are going to be?

PR: We’re going to be announcing soon. We’re excited about the continued disclosure of players and on-boarding of PLL coaches. From there, we’ll announce our team formation and strategy. That will lead us into 2019, the collegiate draft, and larger events and partnerships thereafter.

We’re data driven. And as we continue to build, we’ll do so by pulling information from other professional sports leagues, fan bases across sports, anonymous public surveys, and then lean-in creatively with our executives, agencies, and Lacrosse Advisory Board. Working collaboratively is mission critical for us.

DA: I’m happy you mentioned that a coaches announcement is coming soon as well. We’ve seen the player pool, but we haven’t seen any kind of coaches pool. At this point do all the coaches know where they stand and who is in place or is that still in flux?

PR: We have a strategy we’re excited to share with you soon. We’ve been in communication with a lot of folks we think are talented, experienced at all levels, and have the appropriate bandwidth to commit to this position.

DA: And so on a more macro level, just since Monday you’ve been everywhere. We saw Brian Westbrook tweet at the PLL that he wants a lacrosse stick. What sort of response have you been getting from other pro athletes, entrepreneurs, and other people outside of lacrosse?

PR: It’s been fantastic and encouraging. From Brian Westbrook to Steve Nash, Jeremy Lin and Kerri Walsh, to entrepreneurs like Gary Vaynerchuk, Scott Galloway, Erika Nardini, and Ryan Holiday, as well as a host of influencers across industries.

We know how important it is to not only galvanize our lacrosse audience, but also attract net new fans. Hopefully our launch indicates how much we invest in these efforts, and how critically we think about it. I would expect us to continue to deliver on subsequent announcements year-round, while emphasizing and underscoring major moments during the season.

DA: PLL has been everywhere on social media. We’ve seen you on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, we even saw a Reddit account and people were asking you to do an AMA…

PR:...and we are. We’ve been speaking with the Head of Partnerships at Reddit and we’ll be hosting that in the coming weeks.

DA: Can’t wait for that. So, the explosion for the most part has been from PLL as a league, as well as from you and the other standard bearers. Can we expect to start seeing more and more out there from individual players through their social media channels?

PR: Absolutely. A major part of our strategy is going to be investing in the content development and generation of our players. More in the months to come.

DA: I think the cherry on top of all this has been the announcement of the broadcast partnership with NBC. Was that a challenging deal to arrive at? There are other broadcast entities out there and some would have been wanted to put a league like the PLL on television, how did you settle on NBC?

PR: A great media rights partner is table stakes for building a major team sports league. We knew that. And we met with every major network and digital platform around live rights and original programming for the PLL. We’re excited about not only landing with NBC, which is the largest broadcast network in North America having placement in over 110 million homes, but doing so with two of our games on NBC national broadcast, 17 on NBC Sports Network, and 20 on NBC Sports Gold. For the NBC national games, the PLL will become the largest viewed lacrosse game overnight. Previously, the NCAA Final Four championed the most household viewers year over year, but with NBC national numbers and support, we’re anticipating twice the number the Final Four has averaged over the last five years.

Additionally, we’re building collaborative promotional campaigns. There’s going to be lead-in promotion from a NASCAR series event and English Premier League match. There’s going to be discussion and analysis around the league on a weekly basis during the season, living on the suite of NBC networks. That was a big component of our decision.

The final piece was looking at how NBC has helped grow their sports properties over the last decade. From bringing in the NHL, to NASCAR, to the Tour de France, and especially the Premier League, our leadership and players get especially excited to be the next partner.

Let’s not forget, though, there’s also the Olympics. We know there’s been a lot of conversation around lacrosse in the Olympics, and NBC is a major player in the equation. Partnering with them at the professional level helps us join that conversation in the ongoing momentum of efforts to get lacrosse that elusive Olympic bid in the future.

DA: Everyone is still dying to know more. Fans want to know the player pool, the coaches, the rules, everything. But it is late October. The season is a long way away. Other than major announcements we know are coming, what else can we expect from the PLL between November 1 and June 1 that will keep this buzz where it’s at?

PR: We’ve got a lot to unveil, so I would encourage everyone to stay tuned, subscribe to our social media channels, check out our website, and we’ll continue to be in front of you telling our story.

This is an audience that I care a lot about. We all share a common love for the game, and that’s powerful. Remember, we aren’t coming up with a new sport from scratch and pitching it to networks. We have the oldest sport in North America, it has become ubiquitous at the collegiate level, continuing to spawn at the high school level, and is the only team sport in the US over the last 15 years with a growing participatory base. We have a game that has a rabid following with an excellent, savvy audience. From my perspective, it’s the sport of the future that will continue to build, bring in new fans, new participants, and ultimately raise the profile of our athletes and our sport.