Paul Rabil, the most recognizable name in the sport of lacrosse, is retiring as a player in order to focus on building the Professional Lacrosse League.
The PLL, which played its first season in 2019, is coming to the end of a three-year rights deal with NBCUniversal. Its games initially aired on NBCSports Network and subscription streaming outlet NBC Sports Gold, but this season have shifted mostly to Peacock’s premium tier. (NBCSN is shutting down at the end of this year.) The PLL’s 2021 championship game, between the Chaos and the Whipsnakes (teams in the PLL are not tied to cities as in other sports), will be simulcast on NBC and Peacock on Sunday at noon ET.
“Going into this season, the idea of transitioning to a role that’s more centered on business was definitely on my mind,” Rabil told Deadline in an interview. The midfielder graduated in 2008 from Johns Hopkins, a perennial college power, and was the first pick in the Major League Lacrosse draft. Rabil then went on to co-found the PLL along with his brother, Mike. The PLL then merged with the MLL in 2020.
The league got backing from investors including Joe Tsai, co-founder of Alibaba and owner of the Brooklyn Nets; Brett Jefferson Holdings; The Raine Group; CAA; the Chernin Group; Blum Capital; The Kraft Group and Arctos Sports Partners.
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Rabil’s eventual post-retirement title is still being determined, but he will have a day-to-day operational role. He has been something of a rainmaker for the PLL and the sport in general. He helped secure sponsorship deals with Red Bull, Under Armour, Chevrolet, New Balance, GoPro and other companies, along with the league’s initial investment capital.
Along with a social media following of more than 1 million, Rabil hosts a podcast that has been downloaded more than 3 million times. Guests have included New England Patriots Head Coach Bill Bellichick, pro basketball greats Steph Curry and Sue Bird, soccer star Abby Wambach and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ). Rabil has also appeared widely on TV and in print and digital media, especially in the business press.
NBCU has an exclusive window to negotiate a renewal with the PLL, Rabil said, though if those talks do not yield a deal the rights could be shopped elsewhere. While he declined to offer specific numbers, he said the league’s games have shown steady gains in popularity. As the coronavirus pandemic was wreaking havoc on a range of sports at every level in the middle months of 2020, the PLL managed to avoid a single case of Covid-19 in convening a “bubble” tournament in Utah.
Lacrosse is still a niche sport in the U.S., but it is growing in popularity. Based on research and demographic data, Rabil estimated that the total audience interested and available to watch sports overall is about 100 million viewers, while the audience for lacrosse is perhaps one-tenth of that. But the value of those avid viewers, even if they are fewer in number, can be significant in terms of ad recall, subscriber retention and willingness to engage with sponsors, NBCU and the PLL have long believed.
“We’re just getting started,” Rabil said. “Our first term was equally a bet for NBCUniversal and for our investors. We were able to put together a growth story and I am really looking forward to focusing more on the business side moving forward. It’s an exciting time for lacrosse.”
As far as Peacock’s need to evolve, especially after some critics assailed its presentation of Tokyo Olympics events over the summer, Rabil said, “Both of us are learning a lot and trying to make changes.” The PLL has deliberately sought to make the viewing experience of lacrosse more immersive than a typical sporting event. It has done things like attaching microphones to players, who deliver comments during games and also welcomed figures like Belichick (a former prep school and college lacrosse player) into the broadcast booth.
Tsai, one of the PLL’s founding investors, saluted Rabil’s contributions on and off the field. “Although he is retiring from playing, he has not retired from lacrosse,” Tsai said in a press release. “I know that Paul Rabil the entrepreneur will make perhaps an even bigger contribution to the business of lacrosse and ultimately growth of our beloved sport for years to come.”
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