• Jacqueline Borrelli

The Upward Trajectory of the Premier Lacrosse League


History

Lacrosse has existed as a professional sport in the United States and Canada since the 1980s, but it has always had difficulty gaining mainstream appeal professionally.[2] However, a 2018 study conducted by the NCAA shows that lacrosse is the fastest-growing sport with consistent increases in player participation each year through college.[3]

Professional Lacrosse

For a short time, there were three professional men's lacrosse leagues in North America: the National Lacrosse League (NLL); Major League Lacrosse (MLL); and the Premier Lacrosse League (PLL).[4] The NLL was founded in 1986 and, unlike the MLL and PLL, is played indoors and is more commonly known as “box lacrosse.”[5] The MLL was established in 1999.[6]

Brothers Paul and Mike Rabil co-founded the PLL in North America in 2019.[7] The league secured investments from the Raine Group, Creative Artists Agency (CAA), the Chernin Group, Blum Capital, and other top investors in sports and media.[8] The novel feature of the league is its equity model which allows players to get involved in the PLL's long-term success via personal investments. This aligns player and league interests in a way not seen in major professional sports leagues.[9] Notably, NBC Sports Group broadcasts all of the league’s games which has aided the growth of both the sport and the league. Jon Miller, NBC Sports Group Executive, noted that the company “has a long and successful history of growing emerging sports into powerhouses” and said NBC was “excited” for the opportunity the PLL brings.[10]

By framing the PLL as a labor movement, the PLL has been highly successful compared to other sports entities that have attempted the same.[11] For example, the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association framed itself around fair labor practices for its players, but it has not gained the national exposure, pay, or benefits the PLL boasts.[12] In a business sense, the PLL is succeeding in its movement to become a mainstream professional sports enterprise.[13]

In 2020, the league's second season, the PLL Championship Game attracted a Total Audience Delivery (TAD) of 340,000 viewers, a 23% increase from its first championship game in 2019.[14] Overall, the 2020 season yielded 33% more viewers than the 2019 season.[15] According to Mike Rabil, “viewership growth is one of the most important things” for the league.[16] This growth is significant, and not limited to cable television, as TAD measures viewers who are streaming hours of content, not just those who tune in for a couple of minutes.[17]

The 2021 season continues to produce stellar numbers. In week 1, Peacock live minutes streamed were up 162%, while total minutes streamed were up 132%.[18] Further, there was a 93.5% increase in ticket sales compared to the 2019 season.[19]

PLL Takeover

The Rabil brothers emphasize that the PLL is a players’ league.[20] In their mission to create “full-time” professional lacrosse players, the PLL pays its players much better than the MLL did when it was established.[21]

In January 2021, the MLL merged into the PLL to formally exist under the newer league.[22] Since 95% of MLL players were under one to two-year contracts, the PLL had room to approach these players and offer improved contracts, which is exactly what it did.[23] The PLL offered contracts four times larger than the MLL's previous contracts.[24] Additionally, the PLL offers healthcare benefits and stock options for any player who plays in one game.[25] It was a no-brainer for former MLL players to switch leagues with better pay and more benefits.

According to PLL Co-founder Mike Rabil, “the unification of the PLL and MLL puts the game first by providing our athletes and fans a single destination for the best lacrosse in the world, across every medium.”[26] Fellow co-founder and player Paul Rabil stated that the merge was a “massive step forward for professional lacrosse” that removes certain challenges and propels the game forward.[27]

After the merge, the MLL’s Boston Cannons were rebranded and became a PLL expansion team: Cannons LC.[28] This is the second straight year the PLL has expanded its league and had an off-season with three drafts: an entry draft for former MLL players as well as players looking to join the PLL, an expansion draft, and a college draft.[29] There may still be room for other MLL clubs, such as Denver, Chesapeake, and New York, to join the PLL in the next few years.[30] The 2021 PLL season has gathered the most talented group of men’s professional lacrosse players in sports history and has even included athletes from other professional sports on its rosters, such as former New England Patriots wide receiver Chris Hogan.[31]

Players Weigh In

Jarrod Neumann was drafted to the MLL in 2017 out of Providence College on a one-year rookie contract.[32] The following year, he negotiated and signed his own contract with the MLL.[33] With the merger, he went on to play for the Chaos in 2019 and earned the Defensive Player of the Year award.[34] He applauds the PLL’s approach to social media marketing, which was something “the MLL fell a little short on,” and commended the league’s exposure, TV contracts, and Peacock sales.[35]

Specifically, Jarrod notes that 2019 was a huge turning point for him. “Kids would come up to me at the mall with their parents and start asking me if I’m Jarrod Neumann. It showed that the sport is definitely becoming more known,” said Neumann.[36] Regarding the growth of the league, he said increased fan turnout has been very noticeable to players, despite COVID-19 and capacity limitations.[37]

Bryce Young was also drafted to the MLL in 2018 from the University of Maryland, but went on to play for the PLL with the Whipsnakes LC, who won a championship in 2019.[38] Bryce said “the merger was the best thing that could happen.”[39] Both Young and Neumann applauded the TV production and live commentary for making the game enjoyable to watch and understandable to people with little to no lacrosse knowledge.[40]

When asked about his hopes for the future of professional lacrosse in the PLL, Young stated he hopes “to dig some roots and give ourselves a chance to be a profitable sports league.”[41] Young said the tour-based model gives lacrosse great exposure to non-traditional hotbed areas.[42]

The PLL’s Current Model

The PLL does not have teams based in cities or states but instead uses a touring model across North America, differentiating it from other professional sports leagues.[43] A touring style is excellent for a sport like lacrosse, where its popularity and participation are high in specific regions.[44] The touring model is beneficial because it allows professional lacrosse to visit more cities than there are teams, expanding lacrosse’s footprint.[45] The tour model permits flexibility with broadcast partners and ensures that the league is not limited by venues.[46] However, it takes away the aspect of fan bases with allegiances to particular cities and makes being a season ticket holder impracticable.[47]

Moving Forward

In ten years, the PLL wants to be part of the conversation when major sports leagues are discussed.[48] The PLL seems to understand that players need to be compensated more and emphasizes individual players rather than any one team or league.[49] The league focuses on high-quality player content and storytelling, including open-sourcing player highlights and having a league studio working full-time creating content.[50]

While agents are currently welcome in the league, not every player chooses to have one.[51] In other words, many players negotiate their own contracts.[52] It is probable that with the increase in viewership and revenue, there may also be a rising market for lacrosse agents.

The PLL has something that the MLL lacked: a modern plan for growth.[53] Although the league does not have as many followers as other major professional sports, its engagement rate is much higher, with an average of around 7%, while other leagues average a 1-2% engagement rate.[54] This three-year-old league has already eliminated its main competition, the MLL, and if it continues on its current path, it may be a successful blueprint for new sports leagues in the future.[55]

References

[1] Schrodt, P. (Jul. 1, 2019). How this Pro Lacrosse Player Became the Sport’s First ‘Million-Dollar Man’ and Launches His Own League. Retrieved from https://money.com/paul-rabil-premier-lacrosse-league-launch/


[2] Ingemi, M. (Mar. 2, 2021). The Premier Lacrosse League Is Trying To Change The Game. Retrieved from https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-premier-lacrosse-league-is-trying-to-change-the-game/


[3] Lacrosse Growth - News on the Growth of the Sport. Retrieved from https://www.nvlax.org/page/show/3277295-lacrosse-growth-news-on-the-growth-of-the-sport ; https://lacrossepack.com/does-lacrosse-have-a-pro-league-what-you-need-to-know/


[4] Does Lacrosse Have a Pro League? (What You Need to Know). Retrieved from https://lacrossepack.com/does-lacrosse-have-a-pro-league-what-you-need-to-know/


[5] Id.


[6] Id.


[7] PLL. (Oct. 22, 2018). Lacrosse Superstar Paul Rabil Launches Premier Lacrosse League. Retrieved from https://premierlacrosseleague.com/articles/paul-rabil-launches-premier-lacrosse-league


[8] Id.


[9] Id.


[10] Id.


[11] Ingemi, M. (Mar. 2, 2021). The Premier Lacrosse League Is Trying To Change The Game. Retrieved from https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-premier-lacrosse-league-is-trying-to-change-the-game/


[12] Id.


[13] Id.


[14] PLL. (Aug. 12, 2020). Premier Lacrosse League Announces Year-Over-Year Growth of Championship Game Broadcast. Retrieved from https://premierlacrosseleague.com/articles/premier-lacrosse-league-announces-year-over-year-growth-of-championship-game-broadcast


[15] Id.


[16] Mike Rabil Interview. (Jul. 14, 2021).


[17] Id.


[18] Rabil, P. (Jun. 30, 2021). The PLL Keeps Setting Records. Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/pll-keeps-setting-records-paul-rabil/


[19] Id.


[20] Perdersen, L. (Feb. 25, 2021). The Premier Lacrosse League: Is the Hype Real? Retrieved from https://www.backofthecage.com/viewblog.php?title=THE-PREMIER-LACROSSE-LEAGUE:-IS-THE-HYPE-REAL


[21] Id.


[22] Pickman, B. (Jun. 4, 2021). After an Expansion, a Merger and a Talent Influx, the Premier Lacrosse League Begins Its Third Season. Retrieved from https://www.si.com/lacrosse/2021/06/04/premier-lacrosse-league-season-three-preview


[23] Caron, E. (May 15, 2019). Lacrosse superstar Paul Rabil hopes his brainchild, the PLL, can alter the course of pro lacrosse in the U.S. Retrieved from https://www.si.com/lacrosse/2019/05/15/paul-rabil-pll-premier-lacrosse-league-players-business-sports-startups-nbc


[24] Id.


[25] Id.


[26] PLL. (Dec. 16, 2020). The Premier Lacrosse League and Major League Lacrosse Announce Merger. Retrieved from https://premierlacrosseleague.com/articles/the-premier-lacrosse-league-and-major-league-lacrosse-announce-merger


[27] Id.


[28] Pickman, B. (Jun. 4, 2021). After an Expansion, a Merger and a Talent Influx, the Premier Lacrosse League Begins Its Third Season. Retrieved from https://www.si.com/lacrosse/2021/06/04/premier-lacrosse-league-season-three-preview


[29] Id.


[30] Id.


[31] Id.


[32] Retrieved from https://premierlacrosseleague.com/player/jarrod-neumann


[33] Id.


[34] Id.


[35] Jarrod Neumann Interview. (Jun. 29, 2021).


[36] Id.


[37] Id.


[38] Retrieved from https://premierlacrosseleague.com/player/bryce-young


[39] Bryce Young Interview. (Jun. 30, 2021).


[40] Id.; Jarrod Neumann Interview. (Jun. 29, 2021).


[41] Bryce Young Interview. (Jun. 30, 2021).


[42] Id.


[43] Pickman, B. (Jun. 4, 2021). After an Expansion, a Merger and a Talent Influx, the Premier Lacrosse League Begins Its Third Season. Retrieved from https://www.si.com/lacrosse/2021/06/04/premier-lacrosse-league-season-three-preview

[44] Ingemi, M. (Mar. 2, 2021). The Premier Lacrosse League Is Trying To Change The Game. Retrieved from https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-premier-lacrosse-league-is-trying-to-change-the-game/


[45] Mike Rabil Interview. (Jul. 14, 2021).


[46] Id.


[47] Perdersen, L. (Feb. 25, 2021). The Premier Lacrosse League: Is the Hype Real? Retrieved from https://www.backofthecage.com/viewblog.php?title=THE-PREMIER-LACROSSE-LEAGUE:-IS-THE-HYPE-REAL


[48] Mike Rabil Interview. (Jul. 14, 2021).


[49] Perdersen, L. (Feb. 25, 2021). The Premier Lacrosse League: Is the Hype Real? Retrieved from https://www.backofthecage.com/viewblog.php?title=THE-PREMIER-LACROSSE-LEAGUE:-IS-THE-HYPE-REAL


[50] Id.


[51] Mike Rabil Interview. (Jul. 14, 2021).


[52] Id.


[53] Perdersen, L. (Feb. 25, 2021). The Premier Lacrosse League: Is the Hype Real? Retrieved from https://www.backofthecage.com/viewblog.php?title=THE-PREMIER-LACROSSE-LEAGUE:-IS-THE-HYPE-REAL


[54] Id.


[55] Id.