Lacrosse is a great combination of multiple skills across different sports. A high-caliber player must possess the cardio of a soccer player, the hand-eye coordination of a point guard, the field vision of a quarterback and be able to absorb contact like a halfback. Having these things will make you a dominant player, but if you want to make a full-time living playing lacrosse, you must possess one more expertise: hustle — and I’m not just talking about on the field.
I already had a steady job in D.C. with one of the nation’s top real estate investment sales teams, when I was drafted by the Boston Cannons of Major League Lacrosse, then the San Jose Stealth of the National Lacrosse League. I enjoyed being an analyst, but lacrosse was my passion, so I tried to figure out a way to make both work. Right out of the gate, my schedule was airtight – I would work Monday to Wednesday, take a 7 AM flight to San Jose on Thursday, go right to practice. We’d practice Friday, play on Saturday night, and I’d take a 7 AM flight on Sunday back to D.C., where I’d get some sleep before getting back after it on Monday. Groundhog repetition. For a long while, I felt like I was lacking a full identity, not knowing what I could fully commit to. I wasn’t getting the results I wanted out of either job, so I knew I had to make the decision I’d been trying to avoid: either maintain a professional career in real estate and play lacrosse part-time for as long as possible, or see how long I could go in this “niche” team sport.
After about seven months of working and playing, I decided to bet on myself and told both bosses “I’m going to play lacrosse full-time.” It’s worth noting that this was in 2008-9, in the pit of the recession, so it wasn’t the ideal time to try to cobble together a career in real estate without any road map. But it occurred to me that not trying lacrosse full-time was a much bigger risk — regret is much worse than failure. It’s also worth noting I had a plan. I knew it would be difficult, but knew if I made the right decisions, I could support myself. With my success on the field, I started getting endorsement opportunities while building my own lacrosse camp business during free time.
Up until that point, most professional lacrosse players were dubbed as “weekend warriors”— they’d hold a job and play (much like I started out doing), supplementing their full-time income. Few had attempted what I was trying to do.
I’m trying to build something substantial enough to grow the game into new markets and lines of sight, lower the barriers to participation, create new resources, and continue to innovate with alternative forms of media and exposure. Here are the challenges. Like most niche sports, the barrier to entry is high because of the cost of equipment. Division 1 collegiate expansion is limited by Title IX and the balancing act of 80+ football scholarships. Lacrosse ratings on television are low. Pro Leagues are always looking for new investors and innovators. As an ambassador to the sport, part of my job is to create opportunities from these challenges for the younger generations to, when it’s their turn, take lacrosse to all new heights.
In “mainstream” sports, being great at your game is enough for a player to make some good on-field coin, and hopefully some endorsements for ancillary income. But, when you’re playing a sport with less recognition, it’s much more of a hustle. The hustle to prove why your sport is worthwhile, and the hustle to prove why someone should associate their brand with yours. Therein lies the key to success. It’s not enough to be talented on the field. You need to build meaning to what you do. It’s vital that you carry a positive message, represent yourself, your sport, and be impactful in your community. You need to become a business, man. You need to build your brand. Companies are much more inclined to build strategic partnerships, rather than standard endorsements. Be a strategic partner.
It started for me with social media. I was an early adopter — still am (see Periscope, Meerkat, etc.) — and can remember feeling a ton of energy from sports fans because it was so new. You could never connect with an athlete, entertainer, or musician like this before. We could never connect with our fanbase like this before, either.
In the past, our sport, rather “niche” sports, were prisoner to the SportsCenter’s and other major networks lack of coverage. We would rarely get picked up, which resulted in few people even knowing what the hell a pro lacrosse league was, much less when the season lived, who was playing and where. Now with social media in play, I could tell that story without having to be reliant on the more traditional, linear outlets.
When I first launched my handles, I would post every day saying stuff like, “I’m going to the gym with my strength and conditioning coach, and here’s what we did” “Check out this meal I’m having” Hey everyone, I can shoot the ball really hard.” Over time, that bland message lost its luster. Users were becoming much more sophisticated. They didn’t care about following Paul Rabil’s boring message anymore — or even up to LeBron James, unless he was putting out creative and engaging content. Now, the audience sees through sponsored posts, or player rep messaging — no matter how creative they are. The tone has to change. You’ve got to dare to be different. Have unique conversations. Don’t feel like you need to dive into politics or religion, rather be engaging and energetic about the product you put out. Treat your posts like you treat your shots on the field.
When I first started lacrosse full-time, one of my first mistakes was to try and accumulate as many sponsors as possible. For me, that meant more money and more associated exposure. I wanted to wear a “NASCAR jacket” in lacrosse. Over time, however, I learned it’s not about any number of sponsors, fans or particular sales. It’s about building strong and impactful relationships with all of the above. Your goal should be to partner with brands that you identify with; brands you frequently use, and those that help you improve. You want your social media followers to like your posts and engage with you in meaningful conversation. You want young campers to attend your events so they can improve, and become the next great player.
In mainstream sports, big-time athletes often turn down more offers than they take on — very different than niche sport athletes. In addition, there’s this mindset that when you get an endorsement, it’s because ‘you deserve it.’ Many athletes think they should be treated like royalty and complete the minimum appearances required of them — all while expecting the brand to go above and beyond to showcase their brilliance. This is all wrong. I do the opposite. I go above and beyond requirements to show my support of the brand. I participate in creative meetings, I help out with R&D. Anything with your name on it – from tweets to hard goods to apparel to commercials — partake in the process. Your partners will not forget it.
My first sponsor was Under Armour — before they were a public company. It was great for my brand and the overall visibility of the sport. They put me in this cold-gear ad with Dick’s Sporting Goods and the commercial ran on Thanksgiving Day during the NFL games — which are the highest watched games all year, barring conference championships and the Super Bowl. Cold-weather gear is functional across all sports, and I happened to be using a lacrosse stick and dodging through snow in the ad. They called me, “Paul Rabil, professional lacrosse player.” That did a lot for me and, I hope, for the sport.
Finally, if you’re an athlete hoping to carve a similar path to mine, here’s some advice: take meetings that come your way. You can never meet with enough great people. Most of what I’ve learned and achieved has come from the help and support of others. In addition to education, these meetings can often spur business opportunities. No matter what sport you’re in, there are young players that look up to you. It’s likely these young players have parents that are successful in a number of different ways. The next steps are logical. Parents and people will meet with you — even if only for an autograph. Once they find out you’re engaged, ambitious, and smart, they’ll start thinking of ways they can help you. That’s networking. Be a networker.
The same qualities that make you successful on the field — perseverance, savvy and hard work — can be the things that set you apart as you try to make a career off of it. It’s on you to have the ambition to utilize them. All of these skills have no finish line.