Dueling pro lacrosse leagues will vie for fans’ attention
Paul Rabil is familiar with the atmosphere that he wants for his new professional lacrosse league because he played in the middle of it.
“The gold standard in lacrosse for the last couple of decades has been the Final Four,” said the former Boston Cannons star, who won two national collegiate titles with Johns Hopkins. “What you have is eight teams across three divisions descending upon a major-market city to play at a premium state-of-the-art venue. That’s an existing model that’s proven to be successful.”
That’s the model that Rabil has in mind for the Premier Lacrosse League, six touring teams that will perform amid a festival format in a different city every weekend, with a championship ultimately on the line.
“We’re going to a set city only once every year,” said Rabil, who’ll play for one of the teams. “If you’re within 250 miles of that market, you know that the best players in the world are going to compete at this awesome venue and there are going to be surround-sound opportunities as a fan.
“So you mark that into your calendar. That’s something that NASCAR has gotten right for a long time.”
The PLL, which has lined up nearly 130 veterans from Major League Lacrosse, offered attractive inducements for players to switch leagues. A $25,000 minimum salary. Health care. Equity stakes. And the opportunity for personal branding.
“They’re being compensated, they’re going to be on national television, and they’re a part of the league as owners, like early-stage Silicon Valley startups,” said Rabil. “That’s novel to what we’re used to seeing in team sports.”
The Premier League’s player list includes two dozen of last year’s MLL All-Stars and all but a handful of the members of the US team that won the world title. The PLL concept also has lured the Raine Group, Chernin Group, Blum Capital, and Creative Arts Agency as financial backers, as well as individual investors such as Patriots receiver Chris Hogan. The league also has landed a television contract with NBC, which will show 19 games this season, two of them on the main network.
“I think it’s an awesome idea,” said Hogan, who attended Penn State on a lacrosse scholarship. “I’ve known Paul for a long time. I played against him. I heard about the idea that he wanted to come up with and I think it was incredible.”
Pro lacrosse’s first rival league comes along at a time when MLL, which began in 2001, is remaking itself in the wake of declining attendance, which has dropped 40 percent since its 2011 peak.
“Any professional league goes through ebbs and flows,” said MLL commissioner Sandy Brown. “We’re seeing it here. We have to power through that.”
Among other changes, the MLL will begin its upcoming season at the end of May instead of mid-April, add two games to the schedule, and return to its four-team championship weekend. The league also has increased its maximum (to $30,000) and minimum ($8,500) salaries, has added an active roster spot, and is working to improve its game-day experience for fans.
“I tell our team presidents they have to be a cross between a Vince McMahon and a P.T. Barnum,” said Brown, who believes that MLL “has to win the tailgate.”
“They have to have a minor-league baseball mentality. You’re constantly being entertained. There’s always some activity, always something that’s going on.”
The Cannons, who have relocated to Quincy’s Veterans Memorial Stadium after 12 years at Harvard and are putting $1.5 million into upgrades, feel that the venue’s planned capacity of 8,000 (with temporary bleachers and standing room) and the surrounding layout will provide a more intimate setting and more space for off-field activities for spectators.
“How can we create a more robust, energetic environment and drive the excitement and that shoulder-to-shoulder experience?” said team president Ian Frenette. “Veterans serves us there really well. The footprint is pretty compact, but there is space to do a lot of fan-centric activities.”
Pro lacrosse appeals to a young demographic whose members have short attention spans, are hooked on social media, and want continuous diversions.
“They ‘snack,’ ” said Brown, a former television executive for ESPN, Univision, and One World Sports. “They don’t watch full-length games. Their engagement level is not that long, so we have to get them excited to come to our games.”
The Denver Outlaws provide the league’s ultimate in engagement with their annual Independence Day extravaganza, complete with fireworks, which drew 30,000 celebrants to Mile High Stadium for last year’s game with the Cannons.
“They put on a great spectacle, a tent-pole event for the season,” said Rabil, who played for a decade in MLL for Boston and New York and twice was league MVP. “For our league, every weekend is a tent-pole event.”
The advantage of the PLL’s touring format is that it will give the league an immediate coast-to-coast reach. Its list of 30 potential cities, which will be reduced to 12, ranges from Boston to Vancouver and includes every MLL market.
“By going tour-based and not hooking into cities, we’re actually becoming national,” said Rabil. “Fans and players all over the country can pick their favorite team.”
Historically, professional leagues in all sports have been city-based.
“The lifeblood of a professional league is having teams in cities that have the community engaged,” said Brown.
The Cannons, one of the original six MLL franchises, have a tradition of engaging with the community, holding camps and clinics, skills competitions, and making school and hospital visits.
“Our guys were passionate about coming back and playing for each other, but also playing for our fans,” said Cannons coach Sean Quirk. “The fans come out to watch the Boston Cannons and then they have identification with particular players.”
Though the Cannons lost top scorer James Pannell, midfielders Sergio Perkovic and Justin Turri, defenseman Brandon Mullins and others to PLL, they’ve re-signed the great majority of their players, including Mark Cockerton, Zed Williams, and Will Sands, and restocked their roster through the October supplementary draft.
“I really wanted to stick with them because the way they treated me was awesome,” said Cockerton. “The MLL is a first-class organization. I wanted to stay put and be part of the Boston area.”
With more than 550 college varsities and clubs pumping out athletes every year, both leagues have a deep player pool to tap.
“There’s an abundant amount of great players out there that haven’t had a chance to play in the past,” said Quirk. “We could not be more pleased with where we are right now.”
The PLL, which will have a collegiate draft, will apportion players to teams whose names will be announced this month.
“What we’ve seen through Instagram and Facebook and YouTube is that a sports fan follows athletes on a 4-to-1 basis over teams and a 6-to-1 basis over leagues,” said Rabil. “That trend has taken place because of new media — social media and digital — but also because of how traditional media has evolved.”
So the PLL will encourage its players to promote themselves and their performances on their own digital platforms.
“The most viral piece of content is an athlete highlight,” said Rabil. “We know that the highlight of them scoring the game-winning goal on NBC’s main network on a Sunday at 2 o’clock is not only going to get viewed by a million people but it’s also going to get captured and shared on that athlete’s page and all our pages.”
The question is whether team identities not tethered to a city’s name on a jersey will be secondary to that of the PLL’s individual players.
“Teams are not going by the wayside for us,” said Rabil. “That’s why we’ve invested in top coaches, because coaches are at the top of the hierarchy of culture-building of teams. We’ll be telling the stories of the teams as well.”
From the beginning, MLL has been primarily about its teams.
“We’ve been here for 20 years,” observed Brown. “That doesn’t grow on trees. It takes a lot of time to do that. Our model is a model that’s been battle-tested. The point is, we have to do a better job. Whether or not we have a competitor, we have to be better.”