At the time of the inception of the Premier Lacrosse League (PLL) set for its inaugural season in summer 2019, there already were two professional lacrosse leagues: the Canadian based indoor box National Lacrosse League (NLL) and the U.S. based field Major League Lacrosse (MLL). Although there was some overlap of the MLL and NLL seasons, for the most part they were different times of the year (MLL summer and NLL winter) and the leagues did not compete while offering vastly different lacrosse products. Several professional lacrosse players, including the PLL founder and lacrosse super star Paul Rabil, even played in both leagues concurrnetly.
With the creation of the new tour style PLL, however, the question remains, will Paul Rabil and his new league take pro lacrosse to another level or will it simply serve to further water down a still relatively small and already split sport fan base? No one can really predict the outcome for certain but most agree that something needed to change and MLL’s biggest star was no longer willing to sit back and wait for that much needed change.
Paul Rabil is one of the few lacrosse players that managed to make a very successful living from professional lacrosse. He accomplished this by teaming up with brother Mike Rabil and essentially creating a media company that promoted his brand through video, podcast, and social media, and building a fan base that helped him rake in endorsements. Beyond his exceptional talent, Rabil created a marketable and recognizable brand that made him the name and face of lacrosse to make him the sport’s first million dollar man.
For most others, with MLL season salaries averaging $8000 per year, the vast majority of players need to hold full time jobs which essentially makes playing pro lacrosse little more than a hobby for the most talented lacrosse athletes in the world. The end result is that the league stays very young with most players bowing out while still in their 20’s to focus on careers that they can make a living conducive to marriage and having a family.
Beyond the experience of the players, however, the lack of growth and success of the MLL has stagnated and is even showing signs of contracting. Rabil noted that even as he was earning a pair of MVP awards and two titles as a pro, still “the peak of stardom remains the Final Four,” the Men’s Division I NCAA championship that draws tens of thousands of fans over Memorial Day weekend. Rabil’s Johns Hopkins teammate and pro lacrosse star in his own right, Kyle Harrison said, “I won a national title in front of 50,000 people at Lincoln Financial Field [in Philadelphia]. The next week I’m playing on a back field at Rutgers in front of 400.”
Last season average attendance in the nine-team MLL was 3,619, the lowest it has been since 2003. On top of that, players’ travel and accommodations are considered by many players to be sub-par for a league that has been in existence since 2002. My good friend Brian Megill, a former star and 3 year veteran of the MLL, took an offered opportunity to play for the New England Blackwolves in the NLL. While the base pay was not much better, Brian shared with me that at least the NLL (or at least this particular franchise) treated its players like professional athletes. Brian told me at the time that the contrasting experience was part of his calculation when he decided not to return to the MLL for a fourth season.
After 11 seasons in MLL, during which he became the all-time scoring leader, Rabil decided he’d had enough and announced the formation of his own pro lacrosse circuit: the Premier Lacrosse League, set to begin play June 1, 2019. The PLL will offer geographic fluidity, consisting of six teams with rosters of 28 players each; but no team will claim a city as its home.
Instead, 14 summer weekends (which will include an All-Star Game and a championship), the whole league will play tour style with play dates in 12 major cities, playing in two of them twice.). The league will coordinate travel, housing and practice sites such that teammates will not need to live in or near the same city.
The tour-based model also intends to address the biggest challenge faced by any startup league: venues. The MLL is forced to design its schedule around the availability of stadiums of severely contrasting capacities. For example, the Denver Outlaws usually fill about one-tenth of the 76,125 seats at Broncos Stadium at Mile High, while the Florida Launch drew an average crowd size of 2298 in the 38,000 seat Florida Atlantic University stadium. The PLL, on the other hand, will have the ability to rent more appropriately sized stadiums one weekend at a time, focusing all its resources on building a festival-like atmosphere around the three games it will play there.
The PLL also promises to reach more viewers by having signed a deal with NBC which will broadcast 17 games on NBC Sports Network, stream 20 on NBC Sports Gold service and air two on its main network . By contrast, the only ability for fans to watch MLL games is by stream through the Lax Sports Network, a service only lacrosse fans are going to have. By branching into a major network, the PLL hopes to reach new fans to grow the sport further into the mainstream.
Whether or not the Premier Lacrosse League is the answer to overcoming the professional lacrosse plateau that the current leagues have not, there is already a buzz and excitement about the league in the lacrosse community. With Rabil and his star power and marketing prowess having been one of the drivers behind growing the MLL to where it is today, given his past success, one has to be hopeful that this will be his next crowning achievement that all lacrosse enthusiasts may benefit from.
Dr. Roger Welton is a practicing veterinarian and well regarded media personality through a number of topics and platforms. In addition to being passionate about integrative veterinary medicine for which he is a nationally renowned expert, Dr. Welton was also an accomplished college lacrosse player and remains to this day very involved in the sport. He is president of Maybeck Animal Hospital , runs the successful veterinary/animal health blogs Web-DVM andDr. Roger’s Holistic Veterinary Care, and fulfills his passion for lacrosse through his lacrosse and sport blog, The Creator’s Game.