How the Premier Lacrosse League is using social media, gameplay innovation to gain traction

LOS ANGELES — Players strutted down a red carpet entrance flaunting swaggy attire for the cameras. Matt Rambo, the namesake of one of the evening’s All-Star teams, arrived with a green apron which read “Chef Rambo,” to accompany his jeans, slip-on sneakers and sunglasses.

In a few hours, he’d slide on a pair of cleats that also included his nickname, and a custom black tie-dyed jersey with “@rattmambo,” his Instagram handle, printed on the back.

It was quite the production, one often expected of an NBA event rather than a newly created league such as the Premier Lacrosse League. But that’s the point.

“You know the saying, dress for the job you want not the job you have,” said PLL player Myles Jones. “And we want this sport to be really big, and we want this league to be really big, and the PLL did a really good job treating us as is, red carpet, first-class weekend through and through.”

The PLL is building a brand around its players. It flaunts an aggressive social media presence (the official PLL account tweeted more than 100 times on Sunday) and creates drama through strong characters that fans care about, regardless of their team. That’s why the league is tour-based, eliminating geographical ties to teams to encourage fandoms sparked by the athletes and not the cities they represent. Their jerseys are T-shirt style, like European soccer jerseys, in the hopes that repping a Paul Rabil Atlas LC jersey becomes as common as a Lionel Messi Barcelona FC kit.

The idea of the brand, and what it takes to build it, is what brought PLL to Banc of California Stadium for its inaugural All-Star Game. The PLL wants to expand lacrosse, so it chose the west coast where the sport is growing faster than anywhere else in the country. It wants to play in innovative stadiums, like Banc of California which opened in 2018 with free wifi, a pool, and a field level luxury club. And it wants fit into Los Angeles, a sports-rich market where you’re either famous or pretending to be famous long enough for it to be real.

“It's no secret to people all over the world that LA is full of celebrities and stars,” PLL co-founder Paul Rabil told Yahoo Sports. “So if you're going to have your All-Star Game somewhere, then do it in the city of stars.”

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - JULY 21:  Will Manny #4 of Team Baptiste scores a goal past Kyle Berniohr #35 of Team Rambo, for a 6-6 tie, during the Premier Lacrosse League all star game between Team Baptiste and Team Rambo at Banc of California Stadium on July 21, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Will Manny (#4) of Team Baptiste scores a goal past Kyle Berniohr (#35) of Team Rambo, for a 6-6 tie, during the Premier Lacrosse League All Star game between Team Baptiste and Team Rambo. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

What’s different about the Premier Lacrosse League?

Rabil and his older brother, Mike, founded the league. Rabil’s been a lacrosse star since winning his second National Championship with Johns Hopkins University in 2007 and becoming the first millionaire lacrosse player less than a decade later. Mike started two fitness franchises and most recently helped build the sales and partnerships at Funding Circle in Silicon Valley.

Through financing investors such as the Raine Group and the Chernin Group, the league launched in October 2018 with a three-year NBC broadcasting contract.

The goal of the league is to make lacrosse a true professional sport. Since starting the new league Rabil’s heard horror stories from players about the incumbent league, Major League Lacrosse. Players recalled Ubering to games, and pizza and beer for postgame meals. The old league functioned with a “weekend warrior,” mindset Rabil said, noting most players worked other jobs outside of professional lacrosse.

Rabil changed that for himself, by creating content across various social media platforms to boost his popularity, he signed sponsorships with Under Armour and Red Bull. Over the last decade, he’s become the sports most popular player and is trying to teach his methods to the players of his new league, some of whom work on the business side of the company alongside Rabil.

“We want full-time lacrosse players,” said Kyle Harrison, a player in the league who doubles as the director of player relations as well as diversity and inclusion. “Obviously social media, the support role of our media team, and understanding how to build a brand and teaching folks that, that's all the s - - - that’s going to get this to the next level.”

PLL provides its athletes with a healthcare package, an average wage of $35,000 (more than four times the 2018 average of the MLL) and stock options in the league. Rabil wants this league to be different, and that starts with treating the players better. But that can only happen if the league is successful, which hinges on tapping into a larger market than lacrosse has previously reached.

It’s a fine line to balance between, satisfying long-time fans while still bringing in new ones. Mike uses the phrase, “Net new fans” and says it's often a topic of discussion in meetings. During the All-Star Game, the PLL attempted to appease both crowds.

The NCAA has changed minor points in the faceoff multiple times in the last five years, and it’s a point of contention among the sport’s fanatics. Since faceoffs come after goals, some view it as a way of player “winners” in pickup basketball. If a team’s faceoff man is spectacular, the other team will struggle to possess the ball and the game becomes lopsided. Uncompetitive games are not ideal for a new league, nor is the confusion associated with the faceoff rules.

So the PLL experimented. For the second quarter, they eliminated the faceoff and played the ball out of the goal, similar to basketball when play continues after a made shot. In the third quarter, the PLL related its game to hockey, opting for a “ball drop,” which played similar to dropping the puck for a faceoff in hockey. While the views came back mixed on social media, it didn’t matter. People tuned into the All-Star Game to see the new rules and tweeted about them. The league’s Twitter account promised fans two free tickets to a future PLL event if they convinced a bartender to turn on the game and tweeted a photo of it with #PLLASG.

In the second quarter, Rabil had the game’s most viral moment, with a behind-the-back feed on the run. The play ended in a goal and more than 200,000 views of the highlight on Twitter:

Sunday’s All-Star event ended with a skills competition. The lacrosse mini-games were comparable to those seen in other sports. The Freestyle Contest provided players 30 seconds to score a goal while judges gave out points for creativity. Think Slam Dunk Contest or Shootout Challenge. In the Goalie Challenge, goalies had 12 opportunities for saves. Whoever stopped the most shots won — think penalty kicks.

Some of the competitions were even sponsored like the Adidas Fastest Player Challenge, which is also the sponsor of the league’s apparel, and the Vineyard Vines Accuracy Challenge. Partnerships are important for the league, PLL CEO Mike Rabil said, perhaps none more so than the broadcast partnership with NBC. In June, the PLL announced a game at Red Bull Arena had 412,000 viewers across NBC platforms, making it the most watched outdoor professional lacrosse game ever.

Players swung through the PLL headquarters in Manhattan Beach throughout All-Star week. Some attended Sports Illustrated’s fashion show. They also made an appearance at Twitter headquarters. Rabil announced on Sunday every player in the league was verified on Twitter. For a league that announces its total social interactions after each weekend, that’s a big deal.

This week’s All-Star Game wasn’t the huge production seen in other sports. At least, not publicly. But that’s OK for now. Los Angeles is also the home of those rising to stardom. And that’s where the PLL players believe they are. Maybe, they’ll make it, and be the group that finally monetized professional lacrosse. If they do, it’ll be with their video cameras in hand, ensuring none of us miss a moment.

“I believe in what we're doing,” Paul Rabil said. “I think it's going to be huge one day.”

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