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Boardroom Q&A: Paul Rabil and Michael Doneger

The Premier Lacrosse League co-founder and the director of the new documentary Fate of a Sport speak with Boardroom about the challenges of the project, the PLL’s future, and more.

Paul Rabil was the best lacrosse player in the world, but felt unsatisfied with not just his place in the world of professional lax but the sport as a whole. He played and starred in both Major League Lacrosse and the National Lacrosse League, but neither was going in the direction he desired — so he decided to create a whole new league to help ensure a brighter future for the sport.

Joined by his brother and CEO, Mike, the Premier Lacrosse League debuted in 2019 as he fought to change the path of the sport to which he had devoted his life.

A new ESPN 30 For 30 documentary entitled Fate of a Sport chronicles Rabil launching the new pro league, raising funds, poaching the world’s top players, fending off lawsuits, and trying to bring lacrosse on par with other major North American pro sports competitions.

The documentary debuted on Aug. 29 on ESPN+, and will premiere on ESPN on Sept. 15 at 7 p.m. ET and on ABC on Sept. 18 at 1 p.m. ET leading into the 2022 PLL Championship. To mark the milestone, Boardroom spoke with Rabil and Fate of a Sport director Michael Doneger about the film’s challenges, Rabil’s unique story, and the dream of raising the PLL not simply above its rivals, but up to the level of the most prominent sports leagues around the world.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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SHLOMO SPRUNG: How did the film come together and why was it important that it was made?

MICHAEL DONEGER: Paul and I were were college roommates back in the day and we remained close friends after college, and we were always talking about trying to figure out some sort of project, some sort of collaboration to do together.

I moved out to LA to try to become a filmmaker. Paul, even though he was mainly focused on lacrosse and being the best lacrosse player in the world, is very much a storyteller himself. He was always trying to look for something, and I certainly was, too. It just made sense when [Paul and Mike Rabil] moved their operations out to LA in 2018 when they announced the PLL. I just approached Paul and Mike with a pitch reel of what I thought the tone of a behind-the-scenes documentary of the building of this league could be. They said yes, and here we are.

PAUL RABIL: What I would add is [that] how we started also ran in parallel with how the film ended up going. We were originally planning to just document the build of the league and end after season one; we had actually had a first cut around the holidays and end-of-year 2019. We were processing as if we were going to package and go to the festivals. Then, March hit, and I remember Michael reaching out to me and saying, “I think you should just keep recording.”

We opened it back up and then we were gonna close it after our pandemic year, and then I went back to Michael and was like, “This is gonna be my last [season].” So it was certainly a journey that wasn’t intended to cover four years, but I think the film got a lot better because of it and allowed us to circularly tell the story around the league, around our mission, but also around the history of the game narratively. Then, in my third and final year, we were able to then tie it all together with the fortune of me getting traded and playing with Lyle Thompson, so all of these fortuitous things began to happen that were unseen, and that’s fortune and luck as much as it is fate.

Michael’s name for the documentary was a placeholder when we originally started [but] kept making more and more sense.

MD: I feel lucky and fortunate that Paul had the foresight to turn the cameras on when they were building the league. Season one, we’re showing them building the league, but when they were out going to get financing from their investors and pitching TV networks, Paul had the idea of documenting it. And our incredible cinematographer, Brett Roberts, was on Paul’s hip throughout the entirety of this shooting process all those years. They started doing this together a year before I ever even got on; there was a treasure trove of film and data for us to pull.

I think this story was going to be told at some point, and I just feel lucky to have approached Paul when I did.

SS: At the heart of the film, you guys both captured the struggle of creating this new league that placed the players at the center. Paul, why’d you feel the need to create this league and disrupt the sport in the way that you did?

PR: There were the external and internal motivations to doing that. I spoke about the internal in the opening scene, where pro lacrosse had over time developed this really battered reputation, and I experienced a lot of shame around what I did and the oddity of feeling shame around my job title — being a professional lacrosse player — conflicting with my love and care for being a professional lacrosse player.

The external was that side-by-side, compared to other sports economically, from a healthcare standpoint, general exposure across sports and non-sports media. Lacrosse was, if not at the very bottom, very close to it on the spectrum of relevance and conversation, so much to the point where most athletes that were playing professional lacrosse, my peers, had jobs or they just quit altogether because it wasn’t worth playing for $8,000 a season. I put my head down and figured out alternate streams of income, much like action sports athletes might, but on the side, I kept looking over my shoulder and seeing over the same 20-year period, MLS, UFC, and F1 emerge and compete with the mainstream North American pro sports leagues. I just kept thinking, why not us?

I had this obsession with understanding the business of sports and a curiosity around it. Then, my brother, who’s a serial entrepreneur and now the CEO of the PLL, was leaving his third or fourth entrepreneurial gig and looking for a new project to take on. So, we started talking about professional lacrosse, and neither of us had any experience running a pro league. The more we looked under the hood, the more determined we were and the more conviction we began to have around not just the change we could provide professional lacrosse players, but the general public outlook on what it meant to be a professional lacrosse player, so it was really an alignment of that internal and external experience that I was trying to sort through for the last decade or so.

SS: Paul, why were you not afraid to run the risk of burning bridges or alienating people in the sport that you’ve devoted your entire life to? 

PR: I don’t know that I was unafraid entirely. There were definitely moments where I had a lot of tension, nerves, and fear. I knew that starting the league would likely doom my sponsorships that were tied to the league that I was playing in. And you just have to make the decision. And there’s a relatability in the film where you don’t have to be starting a professional sports league or even your own company. Interpersonally, we all reach these crossroads around our narrative and what’s important to us. And if that is misaligned with what we’re actually doing on a day-to-day, do we have the gumption to take that on, and in some cases, fracture some bones so that they can heal more aligned? That’s the way I thought about it.

It makes it a lot easier too when you have your family at your back. And there’s a lot of misconception around not mixing work or family in business or friends in business. I’ve now done that twice, once with my brother in starting the PLL and the other in allowing my close friend, Michael Doneger, to direct a film on that process. In both situations, I butted heads along the way with them, but they certainly provide a level of trust and comfortability in projects that are materially difficult.

MD: Paul wasn’t out of the gate ready to get in the octagon with the MLL and his former employers. They first tried to work with them, and this is something that we briefly touch upon in the film. We don’t really dive into it too much; There’s only a line or two where Mike and Paul talk about reaching out to MLL and trying to work together, but when MLL dismissed them and their proposal and all the work they put into what I’m sure was a very detailed business plan, that probably just gave Paul and Mike more ammunition when they already had a chip on their shoulders; this just made it a bigger chip.

When that happened, I don’t know if Paul would admit this, but at least my reading of it is that they tried their best to work together. Now, they’re going to be competitors, and let the best man win.

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SS: Michael, what were the biggest challenges in putting this film together?

MD: My biggest advantage going into the project was my naivete, and while I’ve made two, three movies before this, they were all scripted. I know that process pretty damn well at this point inside and out from the writing phase through production, post-production, distribution; I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into with a documentary. I just knew that there was a story here and I wanted to be the one to help tell it.

Paul and Mike wanted to do this documentary, but it’s not like but didn’t exactly have all the financing that a lot of these sports documentaries on these bigger budgets have these days, so it was a very guerilla-style process, which ended up being an asset in the end, but I didn’t really know how much work it was going to be because I never made a documentary before.

That’s my generalization about the project as a whole, but the more challenging, specific examples were the constant rewriting of the story. We told this movie over four years, three of which I was involved in. We had a cut in December 2019, like Paul said, and then we ended up bringing on more producers who brought more ideas and encouraged us to keep shooting, particularly through COVID and the challenges that would add. While it created more possibilities in terms of story, it also created more work and a reorganization of how we maintain the integrity and intent of this story, which is about these two brothers building this league, while including other ideas. And there are a lot of ideas in the film.

I think the hardest part about all of it was managing all of these different storylines and making them interweave so it doesn’t feel jarring and each story point is flowing into the next. The constant evolution of the story over three years was the hardest part.

SS: Were there ever doubts in your mind that people wouldn’t gravitate towards a documentary about lacrosse?

MD: No, because I don’t think this is a documentary about lacrosse. While lacrosse is the vehicle, the thing that attracted me to this story was Paul and Mike.

I think Paul is LeBron James [an executive producer on the project] and Dana White rolled up into one person, and that’s a very unique subject at the core of any story. They could have been putting together a professional bowling league, or behind-the-scenes making a restaurant that Paul and Mike wanted to start; it still would’ve been just as intriguing because of these two personalities and their grit and resourcefulness. It was just a bonus that it happened to be lacrosse because I love the sport and sport has given me so much, so I felt this was a cool opportunity to maybe give back if the film was interpreted in a positive light. I think the fact that lacrosse is more of a niche sport is an asset. We haven’t seen a lacrosse documentary, but if we did our job right as filmmakers, a lot of people will see this story because we put our focus on the central characters.

MR: I would say yes, I was concerned — not because of what we were taking on, but because of the flinch that pop culture has had over the last couple of decades around lacrosse. I really like the title, the imagery, the tagline, and our logline of the story, which is more human than it is sport. We’ve seen that whether it’s Free Solo or Cheer, people who may not be into rock climbing or cheerleading, if you get the human piece that’s relatable right, there’s no barrier to enter. You lower that significantly, and that’s what we’re hoping to do here.

SS: How did you guys get big names like Jeffrey Wright, Seth Meyers, Gary Vee, and Bill Belichick involved in the film and their passion for what you guys are doing? 

MD: I can take credit for one of those; the rest are Paul’s relationships. With Jeffrey, we knew that he played lacrosse in college. There was a photo of him circulating on the Internet of him as a lacrosse player, so I literally just DMed him on Instagram and asked if he wanted to come on this documentary about Paul Rabil and the birth of the PLL and Jeffrey responded right away. It was awesome to get his perspective, but everyone else is a relationship that Paul has. That’s a testament to people believing in him and wanting to be associated with him.

SS: Paul, what do you see as the next evolution for professional lacrosse and what you hope this film will accomplish?

PR: We have a lot of work in front of us, and I think if this documentary does its job, we’re going to cover a lot of ground in the next 12-18 months, but we look at our business as a five-, seven- and 10-year plan forecast. I want the PLL to be a top-five sports league in North America, and we have a path to getting there.

I talked about it with Rich [Kleiman] on his Boardroom podcast; the league at large is composed of a number of different significant businesses — you have a media company, a corporate partner agency business, a ticketing business, a merchandise business, an academy business, and our 501(c)(3), so we have these six orgs that live underneath us and each of them requires their own tender loving care and [to] have their own kind of PNLs and business leaders. As we grow each of them in their respective fashions, I think PLL will continue to emerge.

That’s the high-level view and [the view] on the ground. There’s just a lot of work in front of us, including our playoffs right now, and the interesting thing around the debut of this film is it’s leading into our quarterfinals, semifinals, and championship that stretch through Sept. 18. Hopefully, people take a liking to wanting to see what’s next and then tune into the games. There’s also going to be a version of people who allow the film to change their minds around what they thought professional lacrosse was and watch the games. That’s my hope for the film.

Missed Paul Rabil on Boardroom’s “Out of Office” podcast with Rich Kleiman? Click here to listen and download.

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About The Author
Shlomo Sprung
Shlomo Sprung
Shlomo Sprung is a Senior Staff Writer at Boardroom. He has more than a decade of experience in journalism, with past work appearing in Forbes, MLB.com, Awful Announcing, and The Sporting News. He graduated from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2011, and his Twitter and Spotify addictions are well under control. Just ask him.