Is three a crowd for lacrosse market?
While the countdown begins for the 2019 launch of Paul Rabil’s Premier Lacrosse League, one big question remains: Are there enough lacrosse fans to support the PLL and the two established leagues?
Those two leagues, Major League Lacrosse and National Lacrosse League, believe the answer is “yes” and remain bullish on their business.
While there are key differences in all three leagues, the PLL could turn into a newfound competitor, especially given the involvement of Rabil, the 32-year-old lacrosse player who has become the face of the sport in the U.S. The PLL already has poached many of the sport’s top players, which instantly gives it credibility and raises the curiosity factor. It’s also secured strong financial backing.
Rabil said he originally sought to work with the MLL to improve that league, where he played as a pro. But he and his serial entrepreneur brother, Mike, eventually decided to branch off and start a new league that is being touted as a next-level venture both in terms of player compensation and fan experience.
Nonetheless, MLL Commissioner Sandy Brown and NLL Commissioner Nick Sakiewicz say they remain undaunted by and, in certain regards, even supportive of the venture.
“I have a business to run and I control what I can control; we have made a lot of strides in a very short period of time, and we’re going to continue to — we’re just getting started here,” said Brown, whose league seems most susceptible to becoming a direct competitor of PLL since both are outdoor leagues that will hold their seasons around the same time.
MLL will begin its 2019 season on May 31 and the PLL will start the next day. NLL, which plays indoors, is scheduled to start its 2018-19 season on Dec. 1. However, as of late last week, the NLL said it was on the verge of cancelling the first two weeks of its season after being unable to reach a new collective bargaining agreement with its players.
While being careful not to criticize MLL directly, Rabil has made no secret that he founded the PLL in part because he says he and other lacrosse players have grown weary of part-time deals that force many of them to hold a second job. The PLL is trying to address this by offering full-time salaries, health care plans and giving players equity stakes in the league.
That, in turn, has led to a flurry of announcements from MLL about what it is doing to improve its league, including a 51 percent increase in the salary cap, the addition of more players to the game-day roster, and an extended schedule.
The launch of the six-team PLL includes a splashy media tour to unveil the league, which will be headquartered in Los Angeles, and a group of bold-faced names as investors and advisers. That includes The Raine Group, Chernin Group, CAA and Blum Capital, and advisers such as Barstool Sports CEO Erika Nardini and Google Ventures CEO David Krane.
It also has a media rights deal with NBC Sports that will see the company air 17 games on NBCSN and two on NBC in addition to being streamed.
Unlike MLL and the NLL, which has teams based in specific markets, the PLL is taking a touring approach, similar to sports like NASCAR and the UFC.
It’s this differentiated approach that makes Woody Thompson, Octagon executive vice president who has deep roots in lacrosse, confident that all three leagues can coexist.
“There’s definitely room for both because of the event nature of the PLL as opposed to the standard professional league where you’re a team that represents a city,” Thompson said. “The difference between the MLL, NLL, PLL and college game, I’d almost consider them to be different sports.”
“The most important thing is that professional lacrosse is in front of lacrosse fans not only when they want it but accessible however they choose to consume it and is also penetrating into mainstream media outlets, so more sports and entertainment fans are getting lacrosse,” Rabil said. “That’s where we’re going to see a tipping point for our sport to reach mainstream status and continue to grow. So we’re really just focused on how we can do that with PLL, and then build partnerships within our sport and outside of it to be able to step on the gas.”
For his part, the NLL’s Sakiewicz said he is not concerned by the PLL. He added that in light of the NLL recently forming a new marketing arm for lacrosse called Global Lacrosse Marketing, the PLL’s formation could turn into a business opportunity for his league, where Global Lacrosse Marketing and PLL work together.
“We don’t view either league as a threat; in fact, we view both leagues as a complement to what we’re doing,” Sakiewicz said. “For our guys, it’s an alternative league to play in when our season’s over. … So we’re not viewing this league as anything other than growing the game of lacrosse, and we think that it’s great that the game is growing dramatically now and is no longer just a Northeastern sport.”
One previous league, LXM Pro Tour, tried a touring model, and it lasted five years before being folded back into MLL in 2014. But armed with serious, well-placed investors, a deep list of leaders who will advise the business and Rabil’s hard-charging, entrepreneurial mindset, both Rabil and Octagon’s Thompson are confident the PLL’s path will be different.
“I don’t think the PLL exists to put the MLL out of a business — not by a long shot,” Thompson said. “It’s about coexisting and being complementary, and providing another opportunity for people to see the best lacrosse on the planet in two very different environments.”