Ahead of the Game: Paul Rabil
© Shawn Hubbard/Red Bull Content Pool
Published on The Red Bulletin
How lacrosse legend Paul Rabil is organizing a groundbreaking post-COVID tournament.
When the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic on March 11, professional lacrosse player Paul Rabil had the same bewildered “Oh, shit” reaction as everyone else. He’d just boarded a plane from New York to Los Angeles with his brother, Mike. The two had worked tirelessly to build a new pro lacrosse model. Last summer, their Premier Lacrosse League had launched without a hitch and topped expectations, with thousands of fans, team betting and a culture of equity for players. And now a virus threatened to kill what they’d created, as sports leagues like the NBA began to announce indefinite cancellations of play.
Instead of going to that extreme, the Rabils put out a press release saying they’d monitor the situation. Then they conceded that they’d have to push back the start of their season. Both were used to envisioning worst-case scenarios, because “As the leader and co-founder of an organization that a lot of people are dependent on, you have to create solutions based on a potential worst-case outcome,” says Paul. The Rabils opened their laptops and began assembling a 12-scenario plan.
The big question they asked themselves was this: “What if this shit ends up going to a place we didn’t expect and we have to cancel the 2020 season—what would our last measure be before that?” Paul says. Before their flight had landed, they had a solution—one that may put lacrosse in the public eye in a way it never has been before. It’ll begin on July 25, when the PLL’s seven teams will gather near Salt Lake City to contest a fully quarantined, fanless tournament that’ll air on NBC in time slots originally planned for the Tokyo Olympics.
You could call it an altruistic coup for Rabil, 34, who’s been described as the best player in lacrosse history (for doing things like taking a 111-mph shot) and the “LeBron of lax” for his big-sponsor appeal and how he outearns most pro lacrosse players by hundreds of thousands of dollars. He also should be called a visionary for creating the PLL, which differs from the long-established Major League Lacrosse in important ways.
The MLL has teams in different cities that meet for head-to-head games in stadiums of disparate capacities and quality throughout the season. Meanwhile, last year, all PLL teams traveled together as a league during the regular season and playoff, allowing fans to support different teams, “Either by their favorite player, by the coach or by the branding we create,” Rabil says. While the MLL pays players between $10,000 and $25,000 per year (according Lax Weekly), offers no benefits and has little social media presence, the PLL offers them elevated pay, healthcare, stock options and, according to Rabil, far more fan engagement on its social media platforms.
Rabil knows from personal experience how fans value direct access to individual athletes, and that by giving it to them, the PLL “has enabled a sport like lacrosse, which is lesser known from a team standpoint, to accelerate very quickly,” he says.
PLL players agree. “Paul has created a better opportunity for players who come after him, and he is starting to change perceptions of how this sport is viewed,” says Kyle Harrison, a player on Redwoods LC. “Paul was one of the few guys who, between partnerships, sponsors, events and the brand he’s built, also succeeded as a full-time pro. Now he and Mike are unlocking the potential of this sport to take it to the next level.”
Fans can watch during the PLL Championship Series from July 25 through August 9. With health and safety a top concern, all 200 players (plus another 100 team personnel, NBC staff and other support) will have to self-quarantine at their respective homes across the country before gathering at the Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah, on July 19. They’ll all have been tested for COVID-19 before travel and will have to quarantine again for 48 hours with their respective teams upon arrival. If they test negative, players will transition to training camp, where they will only have contact with their designated “social group” (team, coach and athletic trainer). Testing will continue throughout the series. “At that point, we’ll feel pretty certain that no one is carrying the virus,” says head league physician Catherine Logan.
And then viewers will have the chance to see the sport played for centuries by Native Americans unfold in the same prime-time TV slots they might have watched track and field or women’s gymnastics. Each PLL team will play four games in randomly drawn “group play” match-ups, followed by an elimination tournament. (If any player gets sick, they and their social group will go through another quarantine and everyone will get retested.)
Rabil’s greatest fear, of course, is that everyone gets sick and he has to cancel the tournament. But in lieu of that unlikely outcome, he hopes that “Due to the challenges we’ve faced and the bleak outlook initially, we’ve crafted an innovative solution. Sports are in the business of entertainment, and our goal is to showcase our sport to as many people as possible. This accelerated viewership could help grow our sport faster than we anticipated.”