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New lacrosse league hopes to use star power of Los Angeles to become a real player

New lacrosse league hopes to use star power of Los Angeles to become a real player
Lacrosse player Paul Rabil on the practice field. (Brett Roberts)

Los Angeles is more than 800 miles away from the nearest professional lacrosse team, the Denver Outlaws, one of three Major League Lacrosse teams outside the East Coast.

There are no NCAA Division I men’s lacrosse teams in California. The state had 9,684 high school boys play lacrosse in the 2018 season, compared to 53,262 soccer players, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. USC is the only Division I team in the Southland to field a women’s team.

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But Paul Rabil, an MLL All-Star, chose L.A. as the headquarters for a project he never expected to attempt — Premier Lacrosse League, whose launch was announced last month

“We felt like putting our flag in the ground here would be a major statement,” said Rabil, the first player to earn $1 million through endorsements in a sport where most professional athletes earn $10,000 to $25,000 per season.

The PLL season is slated to start in June 2019 and last through September, with 10 regular-season games, an all-star break, two playoff weekends and a championship, Rabil said.

Rabil said the six-team outdoor league will operate on a tour-based model, holding three games in a professional stadium, mostly Major League Soccer venues, over a weekend. He said PLL will travel to 12 cities across the U.S. in the season, with clinics, meet-and-greets and autograph signings with players surrounding a weekend of games.

“The biggest event in lacrosse is coming to town …” Rabil said. “That’s our style of rolling this thing out.”

Rabil leaned into a small metallic table blocks from Staples Center, his notebook on the table and focus in his stare. He explained the draw of Los Angeles as the league’s base.

PLL aims to build a fan base supporting players over teams with geographic roots, and Los Angeles has the entertainment resources to accomplish that. Rabil wanted a place for lacrosse in a city that is home to two teams in every major sports market, and he sought to expedite a trend taking place in the West — of lacrosse rising above obscurity.

Lacrosse was California’s fastest-growing sport at the high school level in 2017, according to the California Interscholastic Federation.Total national participation across age groups has surged from 253,931 in 2001 to 826,983 in 2017, according to U.S. Lacrosse, and the number of NCAA men’s lacrosse teams grew by 25.8% from 2012 to 2017.

But MLL averaged 3,619 attendees per regular-season game last season, down from 6,417 in 2011, according to its website.

In the contrast between growing participation and a struggling MLL, Mike Rabil, Paul Rabil’s brother and PLL co-founder, saw an opportunity. He and Paul Rabil decided to launch PLL to grow professional lacrosse.

“What we really decided to do was build a model that we believe will enhance the already current growth of the sport,” Mike Rabil said.

Paul Rabil, the first overall pick in MLL in 2008, made the minimum wage for rookies and spent nine months working in real estate investment sales, before an endorsement deal allowed him to become one of the few full-time professional lacrosse players.

As a player, Rabil traveled to South by Southwest Conferences and MIT’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference to learn from sports business professionals. He earned more endorsements, started multiple businesses and crafted an online brand.

“I was always thinking about, hey, where can our sport be? Where can it live professionally? And how can I be a beacon for that change?” Rabil said.

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Rabil felt MLL needed to improve its digital footprint to reach Millennials and Generation Z, age groups where lacrosse interest has grown.

MLL has made progress in areas Rabil criticized. Lax Sports Network made streaming games free in June, and the 2019 season’s start will be pushed back to June, said commissioner Alexander Brown, who was hired in February, eliminating overlap between the indoor National Lacrosse League and the college season.

Brown said as part of a three-year plan, MLL has increased player minimum salary while increasing the salary cap by 51%, adding two games to the regular season and another player to the active roster on game days. He said the competition of a second outdoor league has strengthened MLL.

“I’m more excited about where we’re headed than I was when I took the job, in light of everything else that’s going on,” Brown said.

But to Paul Rabil, MLL’s progress was slow.

“If it wasn’t gonna happen in the current league,” Rabil said, “then we were gonna go take the risk of starting our own.”

As full-time employees, PLL players will earn a higher wage than they did in MLL while receiving healthcare and ownership stake, Rabil said, and because of the league’s structure, there is no salary cap.

Rabil built a network of investors and sponsors and made a deal with NBC Sports to broadcast games. He has worked to create content to tell players’ stories while collaborating with veterans and rookies, holding town halls to get feedback.

Because above all else, players’ interests are the priority, he said.

That’s what drew six-time MLL All-Star Kyle Harrison to join PLL. He heard about the league on a Saturday morning in January, when he met with Rabil for breakfast at the Iron Rooster in Baltimore.

“I guess I knew something was coming,” Harrison said. “I didn’t know the magnitude.”

Harrison and Rabil sat in a booth in the back left corner and spoke in low voices. As Rabil described the league, Harrison grew excited.

He knew the risk of leaving MLL, but Harrison trusted his former teammate with the national team and John’s Hopkins. And he wanted to help boost the growth of lacrosse, giving young players the chance to have what came only sparingly when he was a rookie — a full-time professional lacrosse career.

“I think we’re going to see a level of lacrosse we haven’t seen before …” Harrison said. “Because everyone’s doing it full time.”

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