The news that has been talked about for months has finally become official — we have a new men’s outdoor pro league. The Paul Rabil-led Premier Lacrosse League (PLL) has been announced. You can read the announcement here.
While we don’t know everything yet, we do know some things. And from those facts, we can lay out what assumptions we can assume as well as what questions still need to be answered. The most important question to ask about this though is simple — what does this mean for lacrosse?
The place you have to start when evaluating the PLL is of course the MLL. If everything had been going great in the MLL and players were signing million dollar shoe deals, there would be no need for a PLL. But after the quite rocky past few years of the MLL it has brought us to this.
If we take one of the first major differences offered in the press release about what the PLL brings to the table, it is that the PLL, “will provide players with full-time wages, equity in PLL, and benefits …”. Let’s explore this further.
Full-time wages is an interesting, yet significant concept that creates many more questions than we have answers to right now. Typically, full-time wages in lacrosse are partnered with living in-market so players can practice during the weekdays and not have to squeeze workouts in before or after 9:00-to-5:00 jobs.
While every player is going to see a significant pay bump compared to the MLL alternative, there are still a few misconceptions out there. With no home base (the league is a tour), players are still living somewhere else for some other reason. Are college coaches like John Galloway, Matt Danowski, and Joe Nardella going to give up their coaching careers to chase down being a true full-time player? Possibly, but doubtful. Even more interesting are the players with ‘typical’ desk jobs that usually occupy their weeks. Is the PLL pay going to be enough to pull them out of those careers?
For some players, the answer will be yes. If they don’t love the career path they’re on, this is a great catalyst for a change. For others that also play in the NLL, this will be enough to make a very nice salary for the year, and have a nice vacation for the fall between the two. The league schedule is setup to accommodate that exact scenario, too. If we go back to the MLL, their recent pay raises do bridge the gap, but there is still a gap, with the PLL on top.
Another item in that statement is benefits. The inclusion of health insurance for players is pretty big. There is of course a ton of information not known here, but that needs to be addressed at the individual level. Most significantly is if this coverage actually year-round like a typical employer and if it covers everything a traditional plan would. The other assumption is how much of the premium is covered by the PLL and how any out of pocket expenses compare to what could be acquired through the individual marketplaces in the US, or how the Canadian system comes into play. Compared to the MLL, which will cover medical expenses when related to playing injuries, this is could be an improvement for many players.
The last point, which needs the most exploration, is offering players equity in the league. The PLL is quick to point out that this is a very unique feature, and one that is certainly not present in the MLL. This absolutely is the biggest wildcard, too. It certainly means that each individual player has an incentive for the league to grow revenue as much as possible while also maintaining low costs. While individuals will not have much control over the costs incurred by the PLL, which are significant, helping grow revenue is the major key if they want to see a check at the end of the year.
When the PLL talks about letting players use league assets like photos and videos, it’s because they’re trying to enable individuals to grow their personal brand and bring in endorsements. In some ways, this is the same thing most players saw as their role in the MLL. A common phrase is some variant of no players, no league. They saw themselves as the product in the MLL, and their personal marketing was de-facto league marketing. This is now a principle piece in the PLL model. By nearly monopolizing the most marketable players in the game, they are truly testing where the drawing power of professional lacrosse lies. Is it with the players and wanting to see Rabil alongside Myles Jones? Or are fans really just interested in high level lacrosse in their backyard?
Those last few questions are really what drive the fundamental shift in the creation of the PLL. Rabil was able to line up some enormous investments. Based on the types of investors described, you have to look at the startup world to guide what’s really happening here. The headline investors are The Raine Group (Draft Kings, Vice), Creative Artists Agency (Crowdrise, Medium), The Chernin Group (Tumblr, Barstool, Medium), and Blum Capital (Getty, Williams Sonoma). These investors certainly have a background in the type of creative space that the PLL is looking to fill. Backing groups like Draft Kings and Barstool are big signs that they do support disruptors in their fields.
The bigger point, especially with those last two would be a willingness to weather a storm. Without knowing what sort of stake each of these groups has, it’s tough to tell how invested they are. They still have a slew of angel investors, which are providing the much needed up front capital to get off the ground. Given the large player salaries, venue costs as a regular single use tenant at major venues, the TV deal, and all marketing in year one, there is a heavy lift to get this league off the ground. The TV deal with NBC Sports is substantial too. It’s also what I feel is the most significant part of this entire deal. As a cable cutter myself, seeing things go to NBC Sports vs. a straight streaming service doesn’t do much. I don’t have a mega cable sports package, so I can’t just go to my channel guide to see when it’s on. What changes things, though, is the two games that will be broadcast on NBC. No qualifier. There will be lacrosse on over the air network TV. That is about as significant as it gets. It buys so much exposure for the sport, it’s incredible.
That also brings us to a very, very important point. The timing of this all is crucial. The MLL knew this was coming, and their recent changes were absolutely in anticipation of this league being announced. But could it have happened last year? When the MLL was just bringing in a new commissioner? How about two years ago when David Gross announced his intention to resign? Before that when LSN was just starting out and needed to be proven? But outside of the MLL, the biggest factor is the economy. While the health of the economy is strong, it’s a great time to be an investment bank or a fund manager. With interest rates rising, money on the banking and investment side is flowing like we haven’t seen in a long time. That means looking at a risky startup league in a sport which has never yielded a product with significant returns may all of the sudden be less of a risk to take on given the overall health of an investment portfolio. Also, being a new league offering a fresh take is more likely to free up these cash sources than an existing league carrying any sort of debt or fixed costs.
So, let’s go back to the original question: what does this mean for lacrosse? It certainly means exposure. The two NBC games are going to reach a larger potential audience than anything that is ever shown on ESPN. More importantly, we are going to see several things that have just been talking about on social media put to the test. People that have long said there are better ways of operating and marketing are going to have the chance. We will see how many fans will turn out to a once a year event in their city compared to a whole home slate.
Could the PLL fall flat on its face, leaving players on a field in front of sparsely populated stands? Certainly. Could it also sell out every event on their slate, pull in viewers at home, have advertisers knocking down the door, and have incredible success? Absolutely. The most important thing is that the PLL is doing what many people won’t. It’s actually doing something. It’s beyond just talking and complaining. It’s a plan that was put together, the funding was secured, and the players followed. Next up is to see how it is executed.