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Open Run: The Premier Lacrosse League’s Vision for North America’s Oldest Game

Last Updated: September 26, 2023
As the Premier Lacrosse League caps its fifth season, Boardroom breaks down how it has disrupted the world of lacrosse and its vision for growing the sport.

The Premier Lacrosse League caps its fifth season at the PLL Cash App Championship in Philadelphia on Sept. 24. As the No. 1 Archers take on this No. 3 Waterdogs the season title is on the line, but it’s been a long line of wins for the emerging league all year long.

On Sept. 8, PLL linked up with Boardroom to host the first-ever NYC Street Lacrosse event. The clouds cleared, enabling a memorable day as hundreds of players from preteen to pro took over Kevin Durant‘s “Build it and They Will Ball” court at East Side Community School on East 12th Street in Manhattan. Together, they showcased a new, more accessible version of the game historically affiliated with stuffy, exclusive prep school traditions.

However, to PLL founder Paul Rabil, the first-ever open run harkened back to the sport’s native roots. “A lot of what we were trying to do here, which is to get the game back to its roots so anyone could play at any moment,” he told Boardroom.

A weather scare on the day in question only illuminated part of what makes the street game so special.

“It’s like it definitely shows the resiliency of the sport,” Rabil reflected. “Harlem, Bronx, Brooklyn, [the teams repping these boroughs are] used to playing on these surfaces. I’ve been at their practices and they play on handball courts, play on basketball courts. That’s why they’re turning shit up. They’re used to it, and it makes the pros play a little lighter.”

The open run event is just one way that Rabil and the PLL seek to take the game to the masses in building a top-tier sports and entertainment product. Since its inception, the Premier Lacrosse League has laid a new game plan for the oldest organized sport in North America, providing the game’s elite talent with resources and skills to help them thrive individually while also promoting the game to a new, highly engaged generation of fans.

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Running Outside the Box

Paul Rabil came up as a quintessential laxer. A Johns Hopkins standout, he rewrote the script regarding what was possible throughout his college and professional career. After graduating in 2008, where he took home a national title and nearly every individual honor available, he played in both Major League Lacrosse and the National Lacrosse League during his pro career before co-founding the PLL in 2018 with his brother, Mike, an entrepreneur and lax player himself.

Professional lacrosse was not a new concept. After nearly 20 years, however, the MLL still hadn’t gained the traction it desired due to lagging attendance and limited growth. To Rabil, part of the chronic issue facing the pro game was the fact that players were not involved in plans for its evolution. When he and his brother founded the Premier Lacrosse League, Paul utilized his own experiences to inform what he sought to build, creating pathways to ensure that players would be involved in its development at every step.

The Rabil brothers launched a funding campaign that attracted the likes of BSE Global’s Joe Tsai, The Kraft Group, the WWE, CAA, and Boardroom’s Kevin Durant and Rich Kleiman. Among his investors, Rabil sought individuals with a deep well of knowledge about building premium experiences across sports and entertainment — and a key to that success had to be continuing to grow both awareness and involvement in the sport.

More importantly, the group he amassed believed specifically in what the PLL aimed to build.

At the open run event, Kevin Durant captured what excited him the most about the PLL’s promise. “Man, I love the concept of sport. [The way it builds] character, discipline, and gets you up and out the house and active… I love what Paul is doing, so it’s good to empower the best of people like that.”

Moving ahead, the sustained excitement among the PLL’s investors is key to what makes Rabil so excited about the product he’s building. “[They] were ambitious around our goals: bringing lacrosse more into the community and try to limit the barriers to play the game.”

With these north stars guiding the way, the PLL has a game plan that will not only build an engaging, competitive league, but fundamentally change the DNA of the fastest game on two feet.

Building the PLL as a Premium Product

Despite his success on the field, Rabil had to hustle away from it in order to maintain a living while playing for minimal pay in Major League Lacrosse. He began experimenting with social media in an attempt to build his fanbase and spread the word of the sport — and to help him generate the extra cash he needed to get by. He was among the first pro athletes to build a YouTube channel and treat it like a second job as he increasingly experimented with fan engagement strategies across social media.

“When I started playing professional lacrosse, our games weren’t on TV. Social media just started. I was getting paid $8,000,” Rabil recalls. “I logged on to Facebook and signed up for an Instagram account. That was the way that I made my way, and sponsors saw it. They came over, and then I started learning more about social media and branding and marketing.”

He took these wins as a key part of the foundation for his new venture, and after just one year, the PLL became the first professional sports league to boast a full-time production house, content team, and digital app team under the same roof. Collectively, they created content alongside their players while empowering the athletes with the skills to do so themselves.

Today, the PLL is something of an accelerator for players’ personal brands. Two-time PLL All-Star Connor Farrell noted that these skill-building efforts by the league are a service that has panned out better than he and his fellow athletes could have anticipated.

Eyeing The Next Goal

Since its first face-off in 2019, the PLL’s growth has been impressive. In addition to its deep bench of big-name investors, the league has brokered a media rights with ESPN.

For Rabil, it’s still only the beginning.

The league’s future growth prioritizes seeking out untapped talent who currently play other sports around the country. Enhancing opportunities through street lacrosse and the open run-style pickup games is just one part of that.

The PLL’s 2022 MVP Trevor Baptiste agrees. “I think lacrosse is very grassroots by nature,” he said. “We need to do more of that stuff because we get more people to play the game because it’s such a special game and there can be more opportunity for everybody.”

Charlotte North — the top women’s player in the game — said she sees lacrosse as a combination of basketball, football, and hockey: a combination of stick work, speed, and finesse.

Notably, this crossover potential isn’t anything new. NFL legend Jim Brown made his mark as one of the greatest lacrosse players of all time, becoming an All-American at Syracuse; the PLL MVP trophy is named in his honor. New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who played the sport during his high school and college days, often looks to lacrosse rosters to scout nontraditional football talent. After he spotted former Patriots and Bills receiver Chris Hogan on the Penn State team, the player went on to make significant contributions to two of New England’s Super Bowl titles. Hogan even played one season in the PLL following his NFL retirement.

But the NFL is only one potential talent pool. Several sporting superstars see things in a similar way, including KD, Stephen Curry, and many more.

In addition to the play itself, the business of the PLL continues to bloom. This summer, Rabil unveiled at Boardroom and CNBC’s Game Plan event that the league is entering a partnership with FanDuel. “We’re thinking about different ways to introduce people to the game. Forty-five million people bet on football every year trying to get a few of those people over,” he told Boardroom. “We see betting and fantasy as core to growing the interest in lacrosse and getting in front of people who haven’t seen it before.”

With new initiatives well underway, the future potential of the Premier Lacrosse League is limitless. Although removed from his days of scrappily using his personal platform to secure a sponsorship check, Rabil remains dogged in his mission to bring the sport that stole his heart to ever-higher levels.

“In the end, where I want lacrosse to be is on par with the big five sports.”

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