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Taking His Shot: Paul Rabil Shakes Up Pro Sports

“Disruption” is to 2018 what “paradigm shift” was to the late 1990s. It’s used so frequently to describe a new approach to an established industry that the term is losing all meaning.

Now, if you’re describing Paul Rabil’s approach to forming a new pro sports league, that’s a different kettle of fish. In this instance, “disruption” is about the only word you can use.

You’ll be excused for perhaps being unfamiliar with Rabil. It just means you might not be familiar with the sport of lacrosse. Until recently, lacrosse was played almost entirely in the exclusive zip codes of the Northeast. To even call it a “niche” sport would have dramatically overstated its profile.

In the last 15 years, however, lacrosse has exploded across the US, becoming one of the fastest growing sports in the country. College lacrosse championships are played in NFL stadia and are one of the only profitable NCAA finals.

Despite this grass roots popularity, the professional version of the sport has always struggled. Two pro leagues, Major League Lacrosse (MLL) and the National Lacrosse League (NLL) have long struggled to attract fans, sponsors and broadcasters. Teams regularly fold or relocate.

Which brings us back to Paul Rabil. Rabil, a star at college lacrosse powerhouse Johns Hopkins, has long been the sport’s most popular and high profile player. He is widely seen as one of the first athletes of any sport to recognize the power of social media to promote his brand and sport. His face is used to promote every lacrosse league, team, event or activity he’s connected to.

But even as the sport’s most marketable star, Rabil still needed a day job selling real estate to support his professional lacrosse career.

Which led to his “aha” moment: why is professional lacrosse trying to emulate the 100+ year old model of pro US sports when media, marketing, commerce, communication and everything else associated with being a fan has changed so dramatically in the last 10 years?

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, Rabil looked at the MLL and NLL and thought: “this is crazy.” So he sought to re-envision professional lacrosse, and, in doing so, may have created a new model for professional sports as a whole.

Rabil’s creation, the Premier Lacrosse League, is backed by some heavy venture capital (the Raine Group, Chernin Group, CAA and Blum Capital), has a broadcast agreement with NBC, and will begin play in Summer 2019. None of these are particularly unique; private equity and broadcast contracts are central to pro sports. But dig a little deeper and the ‘disruption’ begins to take shape.

  • Equity for Players: To attract the best players and given them time to perfect their craft, Rabil knew he was going to have to pay a livable wage. He didn’t stop there: all PLL players own a share of the league. The players share in an equity pool that distributes earnings to back to them.

  • Barnstorming: The PLL will travel to different cities and create a festival atmosphere the surround their weekend of games. This helps avoid the expense and bad optics of playing in overly large NFL stadiums.

  • People over Laundry: The old paradigm of sports is regional. For the most part, people were connected to teams from nearby cities. The nature of fandom, though, is changing, largely because of social media. Fans are becoming more attached to the individual athletes rather than the uniforms they wear. Rabil understands this better than just about anyone, given his own enormous digital footprint. As a result, the PLL will be working with its players to build their own digital brands and distribute related content to increase the player and League profile.

  • HQ in LA: Every other significant professional sports league is based in New York. The PLL will soon be operating out of new offices in Los Angeles. The move has both symbolic intent (lacrosse isn’t limited to the Northeast, the League will be different from others, etc.) and strategic intent (close to the entertainment industry and investor CAA).

The disruption caused by the PLL is already having an impact: Major League Lacrosse recently issued a 51% salary increase and expanded the game schedule by a couple of games each season. But those moves smack of desperation rather than a carefully considered strategy.

This isn’t to say the Rabil’s new league doesn’t face monstrous hurdles, the most significant of which is sacrificing a core revenue stream related to season tickets by embracing a road show model (though NASCAR and the PGA Tour have shown that can work).

That said, the smart money is on Rabil, who has proven to have the unique ability to look around corners and see trends coming. Smart sports business people will be keeping an eye on Rabil and his Premier Lacrosse League as it incubates new ideas and test practices that could very well be the norm for sports in the coming years.

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