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We’re Building a New League

Nov 8 2018
Photo by
Shawn Hubbard/Red Bull Content Pool
Photo by
Shawn Hubbard/Red Bull Content Pool
Paul Rabil
Premier Lacrosse League
Nov 8 2018

Last Monday, my brother, Mike, and I announced the creation of Premier Lacrosse League. We launched it arm-in-arm with 140 of the best players in the world — who will be receiving higher wages, health insurance and equity in the league. All of our games will be broadcast live on the NBC family of networks, providing unprecedented access to the highest level of lacrosse competition. The PLL is founded by the players, for the fans, with the dream of building the next major pro sports league.

We’ve come a long way to get here.

When I was a kid, as soon as I returned home from school, I’d drop off my backpack and run outside. My older brother and I did this every day, grabbing a basketball, soccer ball or football on the way out. We were only two years apart, and the days after school were spent in our narrow backyard in Gaithersburg, Maryland, competing in everything.

Then in sixth grade, my neighbor Bruce Nechanicky unknowingly changed the course of my life by giving me my first lacrosse stick. The backyard games quickly changed, and within days we were playing 1-on-1, as I would dodge against Mike to shoot on an old net we got from a family friend. The 1-on-1’s didn’t often go my way. And that spring, my brother and I joined Bruce in the Montgomery Village Sports Association, a local rec league. I’d done well  at basketball, soccer and track, so I figured lacrosse would be no different.

I was wrong. I was terrible.

Courtesy of Paul Rabil (2)

What I remember about my first game is how fast everything felt. When I finally touched the ball, it was a disaster. I attempted to shoot — arms heavy — but didn’t realize that the ball had rolled out backwards during my windup. An opposing player scooped it up, ran down to our net and scored the winning goal.

I could have quit right there. But, with some encouragement from my parents (thank you, Mom), I stuck with it.

Over time, I fell in love with the game. Maybe it was the unique combination of skills it requires — the endurance of soccer, the physicality of football, and the agility of basketball. Or maybe it was that, at its core, lacrosse is really, really fun.

Eventually, the game slowed down. I sped up.

As I got better, I became focused on playing in college. I thought about it all the time, especially when I was shooting on that old, beat-up lacrosse goal in our backyard. I’d only go inside when it got too dark or after I had broken another window. (Thankfully, we had patient neighbors.) I began following the lacrosse greats of my era — A.J. Haugen, the Gaits, Adam Doneger, Josh Sims, Ryan Boyle, the Powells, and Kyle Harrison. I’d horde old VHS tapes from my coaches and pore over Inside Lacrosse magazine every month. I went to bed every night dreaming of scoring game-winners and raising championship trophies. I wanted to be the Michael Jordan of lacrosse.

Like many athletes, I was told that I should be more realistic about my vision for the future. Temper my expectations. I just kept practicing; the work paid off.

Before I knew it, I was a senior at Johns Hopkins, donning the light blue jersey for the last time in the 2008 NCAA championship game against Syracuse. I walked onto the field at Gillette Stadium to the roar of 55,000 screaming fans, and the pressure of performing on national television. This was my moment. I was sure of it. It was time to etch my name into lacrosse history.

Then … we lost.

And I was broken. I remember crying on the field — uncontrollable, guttural sobs. And after leaving the locker room in a daze of fatigue and despair, I dragged myself to the team tailgate where I met my parents. Long hugs and hanging heads followed. A restless competitor, I couldn’t accept my college career was over.

Courtesy of Paul Rabil

When we boarded the bus, the first text message I received was from one of those lacrosse stars I’d watch on VHS, Kyle Harrison.

“You played your heart out. Left it all on the field. There is a bright future ahead.”  

Kyle was the senior captain on our 2005 championship team, and his words of encouragement and praise meant the world to me at a low point in my playing career.

I turned pro the following week. But this wasn’t the dream that I had imagined as a little kid.

I went from playing on national television to living at home with my parents — working full time in investment sales to supplement a meager pro lacrosse salary. My teammates were also weekend warriors, holding full-time jobs as teachers, investors, firefighters and doctors. This was a new type of challenge — I was forced to workout in the morning before work and practice shooting when I got off. It’s not easy to maintain peak performance and balance a full-time job.

So after my rookie season, I quit underwriting buildings and started a business running lacrosse camps and clinics, training younger players all over the country. I built my own social-media following — my first YouTube video was uploaded about 10 years ago — and new media became a way to communicate with lacrosse fans everywhere. To be a full-time lacrosse player, entrepreneurship is not an option but a necessity.

Courtesy of Paul Rabil (2)

Over the last 10 years, my teammates have increasingly taken a similar path to playing pro full time — starting their own businesses to supplement their income, while also providing the flexibility to train competitively.

Lacrosse has been one of the fastest growing sports in the U.S. for the last 15 years — yet we’ve struggled to get exposure and earn full time wages as pros.

We decided to change that.

And that’s why we launched the Premier Lacrosse League. We’re trying to create a future that can pave the way for more dreamers, grinders, and competitors to thrive. Mike and I have been reimagining what a modern sports league can be, and how to drive the players, fans and next generation forward.  

We strove to think creatively. We wanted to solve for the operational inefficiencies, venue challenges, and lower distribution that face pro sports like lacrosse. And we attempted to do so by building a tour-based model.

Every game weekend, 120 of the best players in the world will descend upon a major city and play at a top sports venue divided into six teams that will play three games, with each game shown on the NBC Sports family of networks. The partnership will provide fans with unparalleled exposure to the sport.

We’re one of the first professional team sports leagues in the US. to give equity to our players. Providing the players with equity in the league will allow them to share in the growth of the company. And we’re not stopping there. We’re investing in original programming and docu-series to tell our players’ stories, and giving players access to gameday highlights and stats to they can share them on their social media channels. Professional lacrosse players are dynamic athletes and people. If we can give them an effective means to share their stories, our sport will grow faster than it ever has.

Guillermo Hernandez Martinez/The Players' Tribune

When we started building the PLL, I heard a lot of the same questions from when I was a kid who dreamt of playing collegiate lacrosse:

“Are you sure you want to do this?”

“Make sure you have a back-up plan.”

“This is a long road … are you ready for it?”

We know it’s not easy. As athletes, we know that there will be failures along the way. We’re used to handling the highs of victory and the lows of a defeat.  For me, I will never forget the loss I felt kneeling in Gillette Stadium that muggy May afternoon. I now know it’s how you respond to adversity that matters. This sport has come full circle for me — it’s as if I’m in a new backyard, once again with my brother Mike. I’m on a new team, with Kyle … and so many other greats. Full circle, once again dreaming of raising a championship trophy. This time, “Premier Lacrosse League” is etched on it.

You were right Kyle, there’s a bright future ahead.

Paul

Paul Rabil
Premier Lacrosse League