Editor’s Note: This is Part 1 of a four-part series reviewing the past year of men’s professional field lacrosse. The introduction to the series was published yesterday, while today covers the 2019 Premier Lacrosse League season — its first year.
2019 Premier Lacrosse League Season Review
There is no doubt that the PLL made its presence known immediately upon its announcement. Its initial announcement was pretty simple as it was a big old list of names. But as you read through those names, it quickly became an exercise in identifying who was NOT there more than who was. This was an excellent move because it immediately made fans think about player combinations and come up with their own teams before teams actually existed.
Once that announcement happened, there was a steady stream of news with coaches, teams, dates, venues, a draft, uniforms, sponsors and so on. Each little snippet of news provided the chance to piece together one more piece of the puzzle. This allowed the league to stay relevant in the collective lacrosse world’s consciousness from the first day through the first game.
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The 2019 Premier Lacrosse League season — its first season — consisted of six teams: Chaos, Atlas, Whipsnakes, Archers, Redwoods and Chrome. The names and logos certainly created a very big love-hate divide when they first came out, but for me, the biggest question was how players would be grouped together. Given that the PLL was not moving towards a weekday practice model like in the NLL, relying on existing relationships and familiarity between players would be crucial. What wound up happening was a grouping of players by a combination of MLL teams, college teams and coaching connections. Chaos seemed to be the home for most of the Canadian players or players with a box lacrosse background. Atlas was mostly former Hopkins and New York Lizards players. Whipsnakes LC was centered around the University of Maryland, Redwoods was focused on Notre Dame grads, Archers LC was all about the Ohio Machine and Atlanta Blaze while Chrome was based on the Dallas Rattlers and Duke University. These trends were certainly not absolute, but big portions of these rosters were already VERY familiar through this tactic. Did it work? Mostly.
It was an interesting twist that the two teams who played for the PLL championship at the end of the season were the two with the highest contingent of players with a common college background. But if past experience was an indicator of future outcomes, then it would have made much more sense that Chrome should have been significantly better than it was. In the effort to just attract new fans, the decision to group players in this way allowed for instant identities. If you were a fan of any of the major college teams, you could probably find an equivalent PLL team.
The Fist PLL Season
In terms of the season, it actually turned out to be as faced-paced and competitive as its founders had hoped. While the Whipsnakes eventually won it all over the Redwoods, even the worst team in the league, Chrome LC, was still competitive and won games. It also was interesting to see how teams adapted to the new rules. Teams like Chaos became 2-point shot machines as the smaller midfield area and 2-point arc meant players were within range almost immediately. This was all part of each team forming its own identity as the season went on as coaches slowly worked towards a more stable lineup. They had a long training camp to get initial impressions, but once the season started, most of the teams only had two or three players change week-to-week and the total roster count stayed relatively low.
The interesting twist for the end of the season was the playoff format. It was very important for the PLL to ensure every team had something to play for through the end. The worst team was not just given the top draft pick and so on. Every team also needed to have multiple playoff games, which actually is what sent Chaos home early despite being one of the smart picks to take it all home at the end of the season. The result of the round-robin season and the extended playoff format meant fans were afforded plenty of competitive lacrosse from start to finish.
One of the biggest areas that the PLL made an impact this past season was in social media. Where this all started was the work over the past few years at The Lacrosse Network (TLN). The team that took over TLN after they were acquired by Whistle Sports is who is driving the current PLL social channels. TLN is where they worked on created engaged fans, what types of videos worked, what didn’t and what people would share. This was pivotal in driving the two biggest metrics for social media these days — impressions and engagement. Strictly looking at follower counts fell by the wayside years ago. Impressions matter because it means your posts are going well beyond just your follower base. Engagement matters because it shows people want to be a part of the brand’s conversation taking place.
These metrics were part of the PLL’s news releases every week following their weekend of games. Tracking these over a season also lead me to some interesting finds. The league’s impressions were at their highest at the beginning and end of the season. Its lows occurred in DC over the July 4th weekend when weather played a big role in dampening the weekend. Interactions (engagement) were only reported in the first few weeks at a rate of about 5% of total impressions. They also reported its views, which was usually around a million for the weekend, assuming it was across all its channels, accounts, and platforms. The peak in terms of views was definitely the Trevor Baptiste “That’s Speed Boi” clip that currently sits at around 650,000 views through sharing by national outlets like Barstool and others.
What all of this social media counting means is that it is driving the league towards an influencer model. Advertisers want to know that the fans they are targeting are paying attention and want to consume the content. And to date, the fans absolutely do and are. The model that they are also following to generate these views is they generate a TON of content. With all of their full-time employees, interns and short term hires, the PLL may have had the largest media team in lacrosse — between all of the other media teams combined. When I was on-site at the PLL’s opener in Gillette, it was already clear that this was a machine. They had an extensive back-office operation and an army of photographers and videographers capturing and posting big plays to social media immediately. Part of its model in having all this content is to make sure that anything that could be a highlight or great photo is captured so that it can be shared. Some are posted and forgotten, some find their way onto SportsCenter. But without the content existing in the first place, it’s not possible.
The final use for the content is for the players. The PLL leverages a content management system, which allows for many more capabilities than just a big hard drive for photos. This is also something the NLL has recently begun to implement. But the value of a system like this is that as the media team is generating photos and videos for social, players can also find images they can use for their own accounts in a high turnaround fashion. They can finish a game, open their phone and immediately pick out a photo they want to summarize their thoughts on about the win, loss, venue or fans. And based on what we’ve seen so far, this has been turned out great for the players that decide to leverage it.
PLL Game Attendance
One of the issues that plagues every lacrosse league — and why it is perpetually labeled as a niche sport — is attendance. What drove attendance hawks crazy as well is that the league would only report “total” attendance figures for a weekend, not for individual games. The PLL also did not respond to a request to define what total attendance was or how it was calculated. The two high points in terms of attendance were the primetime games in Baltimore and Albany (not the entire weekend), which were both reported as sellouts. The photos of those stands confirmed that as those placed were PACKED. Total attendance for Baltimore was 16,701 and Albany was 12,522 for the weekend.
Where the PLL struggled and needs to focus on going into its second year is how to sustain attendance across all three games over two days. More people in seats mean more merchandise being bought, more concessions being consumed and more people sharing on social what they’re doing. As good as the night time Baltimore game was, the game earlier in the day was comparatively empty. The Saturday crowd at Gillette was OK while the Sunday game also saw plenty of empty seats. The opening weekend actually saw over an announced 13,000 fans. But dwelling on Gillette and its opener can certainly be contrasted to the finals in Philadelphia which saw perhaps the best lacrosse crowd that stadium has hosted.
The end result was a very mixed story on attendance. If you are an optimist, you saw thousands of people in stadiums that had never hosted lacrosse to a national fan base. If you are a pessimist, you saw a lot of empty seats in oversized venues. The truth is certainly in the middle. There were good games and bad. But NBC Sports even said in an interview they hope to play in more of the smaller stadiums to broadcast a better environment. But they are only saying that because the event like Albany, Baltimore, and Philadelphia give them the numbers to aspire to regularly.
Where the PLL is really trying to break ground is how it operates as a business. This is, of course, the most difficult to know what is playing out for sure. We have been able to learn small bits from various interviews the league has granted through Cheddar, Axios, Front Office Sports, Sports Illustrated and Bloomberg among others. The main thing we have learned about how the PLL operates is that they are following the “standard” startup model for funding rounds, it leverages its investor connections as much as possible and it is trying to offer its sponsors much more than just banners ads.
One of their most valuable partnerships was NBC Sports. The production value that the league was able to receive by being placed on TV screens, have lacrosse on NBC Prime so it wasn’t just limited to cable subscribers and streamers and have a true lacrosse-specific production was incredible. Many of the things the league did were not in and of itself unique. But what was unique was doing everything all at once. SkyCam, live mics on players and coaches, cameras on the field, in-game interviews and a dedicated broadcast team all played a part. Even with the lower attendance numbers mentioned above, NBC worked to perfect camera angles so that even small crowds seemed large. Having the same broadcast team travel with the league allowed the PLL to avoid problems that plague the sport — announcers not familiar with every player on the field. Having such a large partnership has certainly been explored by other leagues, but the price tag is what has prevented it from having long-term traction.
The price tag brings me back to the previous point about investors. Being new is what has allowed the PLL to tap into some new and some old investors to the sport and allow it to experiment with so much at once. Being disruptive means it is trying a new way to run a league where social media is the driver and it can have sponsors like Gorilla Glass not just be a typical sponsor, but also make the championship trophy and insert themselves in players’ social media feeds throughout the entire season. But more importantly, its shared investors allowed them to insert themselves into media channels that otherwise were not paying attention to lacrosse. One of its biggest links by far was Barstool Sports. Not only do the two groups share a common investor, but Barstool is an advisor and now apparently owns its newest team, the Waterdogs. From a business standpoint, this partnership makes a lot of sense. Barstool’s engagement and its dedicated fanbase are what made it as big as it is. Barstool also has a built-in international group of fans to try to expose to the sport. It also happens to be one of, if not the most divisive media entities in sports.
Where the PLL needs to separate themselves from everyone else is how it can take social media and a growing sport to create a profitable enterprise. I listened to an interesting interview once with Lance Armstrong who was discussing the difficulties of building true professional cycling. The problem he described is that at the end of the day, team owners had nothing to show for it. There are no tangible assets outside of a few bikes. With the PLL’s touring model this is even more exaggerated. As perpetual tenants with a traveling talent pool, it is forced to try and drive revenue in new ways. Selling out stadiums and having fans all over the country buy merchandise will be a big portion, but as you have seen from its work so far, its biggest play may be able to drive effective sponsorship return through its direct fans and through its players. After the inaugural 2019 Premier Lacrosse League season, they have things going in the right direction.
What are your thoughts or observations about the 2019 Premier Lacrosse League season? Share in the comments.