There’s a new professional men’s league playing its inaugural season in the US, and it might be the media-savvy approach with deep-pocketed investors to bring lacrosse to the next level in sports viewership. It’s called the Premier Lacrosse League (PLL).
All-star professional lacrosse player Paul Rabil left the Major League Lacrosse (MLL) that’s been around for nearly two decades, to pursue a new vision for the way fans watch professional lacrosse.
Rabil and his brother, entrepreneur Mike Rabil, hooked investors like Creative Artists Agency (CAA), the Raine Group, Joe Tsai Sports, the Chernin Group, and Blum Capital — plus a broadcasting partnership with NBC Sports.
Viewers can hear uncensored team huddles and two players per game talk directly to the commentators while they’re on the field. There’s also live player interviews on the sideline, and more live statistics like shot speed.
The league also tweaked some of the traditional rules to make the game a faster-paced viewing experience for at-home viewers, Paul Rabil told CNN Sport.
All the games are broadcast on one of the NBC Sports platforms.
“For a lacrosse viewer to be able to just hear guys in the background talking about what they are seeing is certainly drawing a lot of attention,” PLL All-star midfielder Connor Buczek told CNN Sport.
The PLL is half way through its inaugural summer season, and already seeing record-breaking viewership. Week two of play brought the most-watched outdoor professional lacrosse game in history garnering over 400,000 viewers across all platforms, according a PLL press release.
“Younger kids seem so much more invested in the PLL because they [NBC Sports] are making it so consumable for people via media,” PLL player Joe Nardella told CNN Sport.
‘Breaking the mold’
The PLL hosted its first All-Star game in Los Angeles at the season midpoint on July 21. In addition to the game of two line-ups with top players from every PLL team, players competed individually for a judges panel in skills challenges like fastest shot and a goalie challenge.
Many of the top players in the country are leaving the MLL to join Rabil who still plays in the PLL while running the business side.
The draw: higher salaries, medical benefits and a stake in the leagues success with equity options. Historically professional lacrosse players don’t make enough to make a career of it, most have full-time jobs to make ends meet.
The PLL is looking to change that, paying a salary during the season in addition to income opportunities like coaching in the PLL academy for youth players.
“The players believed in our vision, they believed in us,” Paul Rabil told CNN Sport. “They are courageous they are doing something different, they are breaking the mold, and they are building a better future for lacrosse.”
For readers not familiar with lacrosse, there’s 10 players on the field for each team — three offense, three midfielders, three defense, and one goalie. Offensive and defensive players have to stay in their respective halves of the field, but midfielders can help out all over the field.
Lacrosse isn’t new — Native Americans started playing in the 17th century and it’s Canada’s national sport — but leaders in the sport have been pushing for growth in recent years.
US Lacrosse reported more than 825,000 active players of all ages in 2017, which is more than triple the players reported in 2001, according to the most recent US Lacrosse participation survey. The youth numbers suggest an encouraging future for the sport, with more than 447,000 male and female players under high school age.
On the professional level, in November 2018 the International Olympic Committee (IOC) officially sanctioned lacrosse with provisional recognition.
Unlike traditional team sports leagues like the NFL and NBA, the PLL teams don’t have a home city. From June through September, all six teams travel together to a different city in the US every weekend to play each other, and the top two teams come September play for the championship title.
The touring structure mirrors individual sports competitions like professional golf and tennis that bring tournaments to fans all over the world.
“Anytime we say you get an opportunity to watch or witness best in the world, it’s exciting. And then you kind of wrap in the element of sports and camaraderie and community” Paul Rabil said.
“If we were to launch in six markets exclusively we would be confined to only the targeted audience in those six markets.”
The PLL Championship will be played in Philadelphia at the Talen Energy Stadium on Saturday, September 21 and televised on NBC and streamed on NBC Sports web and mobile platforms.