The man some might call the greatest lacrosse player of all time, Paul Rabil, calls from quarantine in Utah, where he’s waiting on the results of his third coronavirus test, a day away from the restart of the league he’s bet just about his entire life on. No pressure. Naturally, as the founder of the league (legal name: Premier Lacrosse League) and the star of said league (which, can't be stressed enough, is about to restart in less than 24 hours, in the thick of a pandemic), there’s business to discuss.
“We just had an NBC production call and there are things that we're doing," Rabil says. He's ticking off a personal to-do list that sounds like it should be split between roughly 20 other people, item by item: "... Bill Belichick on the 4:25 p.m. time slot, during the first break of the first quarter to do a virtual commentating bit. He loves lacrosse, he's a friend of mine.”
Wait wait wait. Stop.
Bill Belichick. Like the Patriots' Bill Belichick? The guy who trots around the field in cutoff sweatpants, coached up a pretty solid quarterback, the one with a forever mood of Easter Island Face? Not some other, equally grumpy, lacrosse-world doppelgänger, right?
“Yeah," Rabil says, as if Belichick is as normal a dude as his uncle or something. "Bill is I think one of the nicest people I've ever been around—curious, high integrity, really conversational. And that usually comes to life around lacrosse.”
The revelation of Belichick as a giddy lacrosse superfan is WTF number one during an hour-long talk with Rabil, the 34-year-old midfielder whom many, many (like so many he'll roll his eyes when he reads this) before now have dubbed the LeBron James of lacrosse. But it definitely checks out. Rabil, who plays for the Atlas Lacrosse Club, has achieved just about everything you could imagine in the sport: Two Major League Lacrosse (MLL) Championships, two MLL MVP awards, two NCAA Men's Lacrosse Championships, and yes, BFF status with Billy B. All great and exciting. But that story has nearly wrapped up. When Rabil calls, he’s on the verge of a make-or-break moment for his life’s work, fighting to bring lacrosse into the mainstream. Years and years of fundraising, board meetings, interviews, like this one, culminating in the success (or failure) of a single, two-week span. Which (did I mention?) started the day after we talked.
Again. No pressure.
We should get this out of the way. If the last time you checked in with lacrosse, you were using the forbidden term, gulp, lax bro—code for the sport's nagging stereotype as a turfed utopia for white, prep-school jocks—you have some catching up to do. Crib notes: For nearly 20 years, the MLL was the go-to pro league for the sport's stars, many of whom graduated from the Johns Hopkins-level programs of the country, like Rabil. But with reported salaries of as low as $15,000 a season—up to about $50,000 if you were a top guy, if that—you could never really make a living in the MLL.
So Rabil plays in this league for 11 years. Does all the GOAT stuff. Along the way, he's ever-so-slowly grinding away at building a reputation beyond his sport. Earns endorsement deals. Starts a foundation to help children with learning differences. Gets very, very good at social media and Internetting. (No joke: Google something like “Paul Rabil position,” and you’ll see a video pop up of the man himself answering the question in a video. Who knew that was a Google feature?) It helps that he's a marketable dude: Good-looking, big beard and all, whip-smart, can (and does) talk your ear off about the beauty of his sport. The whole effort makes Rabil the first athlete in lacrosse to make over $1 million annually. He starts thinking bigger.
"[There's a] historical stereotype of athletes being jocks and perhaps not being capable of excelling in business," he says. "The phrase that went viral a few years ago was Laura Ingraham on Fox telling LeBron James to shut up and dribble. As we've seen athletes get a larger share of voice, we're seeing the opportunity for athletes to not only be advocates on what they care about, but also take a larger shareholder position in companies that they have interest in helping grow."
Catch a whiff of startup-speak in that last bit there? Forgive him. He kind of has to talk like that now. In 2018, he teamed up with his brother, Mark, to found the PLL, with a 10-year goal of making the league the next UFC, which recently revived another ages-old sport, mixed martial arts, into a global phenomenon. The PLL, which, as has been pointed out by others, has a business model that skews less binding contracts and Scrooge McDuck-type owners, and more intrepid Silicon Valley biz. Its players have healthcare and stock options, thanks to the capital the Rabils were able to raise. The league snagged an elusive distribution deal with NBC, went with a touring schedule (where teams don't have designated cities, instead touring the country for each round of games, a la the Big Three), and was successful enough to add an expansion team and plan a second season.
Awesome. But something bad happened. The pandemic. The pandemic happened. Pandemics tend to screw up plans, especially if you're a budding sports league. Considering Rabil went, you know, full tech CEO, to make his dream happen, you can probably guess what happened next: A shortened PLL season in a quarantine situation similar to the NBA bubble, 20 games in 16 days, at Utah's Zions Bank Stadium. July 25 through August 9th. If those dates sound familiar, it's the window when millions of Americans would normally be tuning into the Olympics—which, if you really think about it, is one of the only times when the country actively looks to watch the niche sports they wouldn't normally watch. Not a bad shake for Rabil.
"If you look at a macro level what our sport needs, and subtract all the revenue, it's visibility, distribution, and attention," Rabil says. "What we created with NBC by capturing that Olympic window is really a highly-concentrated opportunity for our league and our sport to get in front of as many eyeballs on network television as possible... In the long term I think we'll look back at this and hopefully say that we made the right bet and this was the canary in the coalmine moment for lacrosse."
With sports restart outcomes ranging from safe, but weird (the NBA), to increasingly unsafe and even weirder (the MLB), it was far from a guarantee that the PLL could pull off even something as short as a two-week tournament without a coronavirus outbreak. Thankfully, all is well in Utah. With single elimination games starting tonight, the league has been a success so far. Total Audience Delivery (TAD) for the tournament's opening game averaged 334,000 viewers, which made it the third-most watched outdoor professional lacrosse game in TV history. It helped that the broadcasts showed off a couple tricks, from the Belichick cameo, to interviews with players while they're on the field, with the help of mic'd-up helmets. As for the empty stadium seats: While Rabil says he's so immersed in each game that the lack of fans isn't really a worry, he's aware of the no-crowd drawbacks for the TV audience.
"If you look at the history of major games on network television, whether it's the SEC football championship or the Super Bowl, most of your shots are pans of crowd," he says. "It creates a FOMO. It creates this sense of like something exciting is happening especially if you have a sold-out crowd there."
You might've forgotten at this point: Rabil is a star player in this league. Remember, he basically has to Superman out of his business suit duties to go on the field, sprint and dodge and sprint and dodge then shoot, the whole time, getting whacked by hoards of metal sticks. The entire PLL tournament is the definition of a small sample size, but Atlas is 1-3 heading into tonight's elimination game against Archers LC, a squad Rabil and co. lost a tight game to just a week ago. As far as numbers go, Rabil has racked up a goal and three assists so far. But knowing him, a slow start is far from getting in his head.
"The first game that I played in, I was horrible," Rabil says. He was 12 years old, already one of those preteen Deion Sanders types who was good at every sport he tried. Soccer, basketball, you name it. Except for lacrosse. He signed up to play for a rec team, suited up, realized that he wasn't taking to the sport quite so easily, which demands freakish skills of hand-eye coordination and field awareness. Rabil charges ahead, goes to take his first shot, and...
"You have the ball in your stick and you shoot it at the net? The ball is supposed to go forward," he says. "I took my shot and it somehow went backwards."
The other team scooped up the ball, drove to the opposite side of the field, and scored. Took a lot of convincing from the parents not to quit. 20-some years later? Trophies, titles, triumphs. Here's a good bet for tonight: The next one will leap out of Rabil's stick, past those swatting metal rods, and punch the back of the net. Forward, this time.
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