Premier Lacrosse League arrives in Washington hoping for another hit

BALTIMORE – Foremost on Paul Rabil’s mind after his new professional lacrosse league’s first prime-time game at his college campus: His team lost, surrendering nine goals in an ugly fourth quarter.

But still, easily 100 children screamed his name while waiting for an autograph. An old coach at Johns Hopkins, where Rabil played in college, came down to shake hands, praising Rabil’s highlight-worthy fourth-quarter goal – “Just like when I was back here in school,” Rabil said – and his creation.

The Premier Lacrosse League (PLL), which Rabil launched with brother Michael last fall, had sold out Homewood Field, hallowed ground for lacrosse fanatics. The official attendance there for three games June 22-23 was 16,701. It may have been more; when every seat was filled for the prime-time game Saturday, ushers let fans stand around the fence that surrounded the playing surface. More spectators sat on the balcony of the Hopkins lacrosse training facility behind the south goal.

“There were a lot of things that happened tonight that made us feel like we’re going in the right direction,” Rabil said.

Nine months after its launch, Rabil’s new league – with teams named Whipsnakes and Atlas, Chaos and Chrome, Archers and Redwoods – may well be the future of professional lacrosse. Games have been broadcast live on NBC and the network’s family of sports properties, to rave reviews from critics. An early June game in New York, which aired on NBC, averaged 412,000 viewers, making it the most-watched outdoor pro lacrosse game ever, the network said.

The league lands at Audi Field in Washington last Saturday and Sunday for the sixth stop on its 14-week cross-country tour. Stakeholders are hoping to draw another large crowd in Rabil’s hometown – he grew up in Maryland’s Montgomery County and attended DeMatha – and another of lacrosse’s historical hotbeds.

Paul Rabil practices before the game against the Whipsnakes at Homewood Field

Fans at Homewood Field during the Premier Lacrosse League’s stop in Baltimore, part of the league’s inaugural season

“When we come down here, people are passionate,” said Mike Chanenchuk, a former University of Maryland midfielder now playing for the PLL’s Whipsnakes. “They want to see pro lacrosse.”

The Rabil brothers began the PLL after years of frustration with Major League Lacrosse (MLL) team owners over static wages, a poor media rights deal and general mistrust of the shrinking league. Paul Rabil approached owners about an acquisition in 2017, but a deal never came together. Still, players backed the idea of striking out on their own, and when the PLL formed, a vast contingent of MLL stars defected.

The PLL more than doubled salaries and gave players an ownership stake in the league. It signed a media rights agreement with NBC and drew investment from the likes of Chernin Group, which owns Barstool Sports, and Alibaba co-founder Joseph Tsai.

They were attracted, league leaders said, to lacrosse’s potential to engage a broadcast audience, and to the PLL’s touring model. The league owns all six teams and they travel together, staging a weekend’s worth of games at midsize venues in the United States (US) and Canada.

“When we looked at the challenges of upstarting a league without a long line of owners raising their hands with world-class venues, we had to problem solve,” said Rabil, also the league’s chief strategic officer.

PLL teams do not have a geographic home base. Instead, a panel created teams by determining which athletes had played together, either in the professional or college ranks. The Whipsnakes, for example, are mostly former Maryland Terrapins. In Baltimore, the league pitted them against Atlas, which has a number of former Hopkins players, in an attempt to ignite a local rivalry.

After each event, the league’s material possessions – goals, shot clocks, safety nets, signs, merchandise, sticks, helmets and pads – go into three 53-foot-long trailers that drive to the next stadium and set up shop there. The show starts back up the next Saturday afternoon in a new venue draped in PLL banners, with event staffers patrolling the grounds in black-and-yellow golf shirts, some of them holding lacrosse sticks, others handing out markers to autograph-seeking children.

“When you go to Gillette Stadium [in Foxborough, Massachusetts, the PLL’s first stop], you can’t pretend that you’re not in the Patriots’ home stadium. That’s just the way it’s branded,” said Andrew Sinnenberg, the PLL’s Vice President of Strategic Operations. “But we want you to feel like you’re at a PLL event and we’re just borrowing the Patriots’ home stadium.”

At Homewood Field, fans entered through a lacrosse shopaholic’s dream. Merchandise tents for lacrosse sticks, gloves and masks sat next to a pop-up shop selling PLL gear. Inflatable booths equipped with radar guns allowed young fans to test how hard they could fire a shot on goal. Food vendors set up nearby, and adults sipped beverages in a makeshift stalls. A DJ booth blasting family-friendly frat-house dance remixes sat in the middle of all the action.

“I’d love to say we’re selling out NFL stadiums in Year 1, but we all know that’s not the case,” Sinnenberg said. In fact, the PLL is drawing slightly more fans on average than what MLL averaged in 2018. “We focussed on getting an intimate environment for the fans.”

The players have hailed the new league’s approach. Although the day-to-day operation is about the same for PLL players as MLL players – just one day of practice Friday before a game either Saturday or Sunday – the PLL pay structure is life-altering, they said.

Until the MLL raised its salary cap this season, players averaged less than USD10,000 per year. But PLL players make at least USD25,000, and the average salary is USD35,000, Rabil said. If athletes also play indoor lacrosse in the winter, they can make enough money to play the sport full-time, players said – or at least pursue it as a career while working a part-time side job.

That’s only possible, they said, because of the media attention the PLL has drawn and the resources the league has put into building up players as celebrities worthy of sponsorships and acclaim.

“I think it’s going to take off,” said Whipsnakes attackman Matt Rambo, another Maryland product. “It has to take off with all the cameras, the attention.”

After a successful showing in Baltimore, league executives are hopeful that stops in other traditional lacrosse markets (including Denver, Philadelphia and a second visit to New York) will help fans build alliances to PLL teams and players, and make them come back for a second season – when the league goes on tour again. – Text and Photos by The Washington Post