Professional lacrosse – it’s hard to believe it exists, right? Lacrosse is not a universally popular sport. It has a mixed reputation and has struggled to establish itself as a legitimate player career choice. Still, participation is up. College lacrosse sells out NFL stadiums, but professional lacrosse couldn’t even sell out a high school arena. That was until 2019.
The Premier Lacrosse League changed the future of professional lacrosse in North America. The venture was started by Paul and Mike Rabil, Alibaba co-founder and Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai, executives at NBCUniversal, and investors from the Cherkin and Raine Groups. It broke away from the original Major League Lacrosse (MLL), in which Paul played (and is regarded as one of the greatest players in the game’s history). The MLL was criticized heavily by Rabil during his time in the league, saying it was operated like a beer league and players were making pennies for pay.
The league went from being a city-based model like other North American leagues to a 14-week tour schedule in 12 major cities.
The league recently announced home cities for the 8 lacrosse clubs. The touring model is expected to continue
Venues varied from college arenas to MLS stadiums. The league was founded with six teams and has since expanded to eight. It offers great benefits for players. Players now receive health insurance, reduced travel costs, better pay, stock in the league, and more agency over their name, image, and likeness.
The PLL also moved all of its media in-house, giving them complete control of content production. Players can use their highlights on their social media pages, helping to market themselves and lacrosse. They use these platforms to gain fans where other athletes can’t by having access to this content.
Photo courtesy Premier Lacrosse League
The league’s journey to mainstream media was chronicled in an ESPN documentary, Fate of a Sport. The movie, shown at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival, outlined Paul Rabil’s journey as a lacrosse player, the MLL’s shortcomings, how he and Mike raised the funds for the PLL, and how Rabil’s use of social media allowed him to market himself and lacrosse full-time. Rabil was the first true full-time pro lacrosse player sponsored by New Balance and Red Bull.
The documentary notes the elephant in the room: lacrosse’s demographic issues. Despite being created by Native Americans in pre-colonial America, modern lacrosse is considered an elitist sport. The Rabil brothers have worked to squash that narrative, voicing full support for Black Lives Matter during the George Floyd situation, signing established Indigenous players such as Lyle Thompson, hiring Black and Brown coaches, and creating more opportunities for youth players.
Paul played in his new league for two years before hanging up the cleats in 2021. He still works in the league, helping with marketing and youth camps. He also serves as league president as of November 2022.
Photo courtesy Paul Rabil
The PLL recently announced it will host Street Lacrosse for New York City youths to come and experience lacrosse firsthand. These steps will help make lacrosse a more inclusive sport.
Starting a brand new lacrosse league is no small feat. In a short period of operation, the PLL has found new lines of investment and sponsors. In a Series D funding round done in 2022, the WWE, 35V, and Chernin Group invested in the league. 35V is a VC firm owned by NBA superstar Kevin Durant. This money helped expand media marketing, hire talented employees, and improve game-day operations.
The Series D round coincides with the PLL’s multi-year sponsorship deal with CashApp and the move to ABC/ESPN for game broadcasts. After starting on NBC Sports, the PLL can be viewed on ESPN+ all season, along with some nationally televised games on ESPN and ABC. Ticketmaster was the first main sponsor, who signed on in 2020. The league even had Series C funding from New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who has long advocated for the game’s growth.
“We’re not trying to compete with the MLL. We’re trying to compete with the NBA, Major League Soccer, the NHL,” Rabil said in the documentary.
Those words proved true when MLL was absorbed by the PLL in 2021. The Cannons, formerly the most decorated MLL franchise, entered the league as the eighth team. A litany of top lacrosse players jumped to the PLL, many of whom had before this merger.
The growth of the sport shows in the numbers. The 2021 season saw record attendance and revenues after two years of operation. Over 452,000 average viewers and 623,000 peak viewers watched during the first live broadcast game on ABC. That’s the most viewed pro lacrosse game ever. The 2005 National Lacrosse League championship initially held the record.
This brings us to the other professional lacrosse league: the National Lacrosse League (NLL). The NLL is a professional box lacrosse organization played indoors during winter. It’s played five-a-side plus a goalie in a de-iced hockey rink with a turf field rolled over the concrete slab. The NLL is similar to hockey because it is tight-quarters, high-flying action, and allows fighting.
Photo courtesy National Lacrosse League
The NLL started in 1986, has grown enough to earn a multi-year broadcast deal with ESPN in 2021. This was the first time an American media company had exclusive rights to show NLL in the States and abroad. The league now boasts 15 teams across the U.S. and Canada, some based in non-traditional markets like Las Vegas and San Diego. The digital age has given lacrosse fans better access to games than ever before.
The indoor league can pay players around $34,000 a season. The league itself earns around $28.7 million. Players aren’t getting rich off their salaries, but with endorsements and sponsors, it balances out. NLL is played in winter, meaning many players can switch to the PLL for traditional outdoor games in summer. There are more opportunities for pro lacrosse players than ever before.
Globally, more nations are playing lacrosse. The 2023 World Lacrosse Championship was held this past summer in San Diego. Thirty nations participated in the tournament, including England, Australia, Uganda, Israel, Jamaica, Japan, Peru, and the Haudenosaunee Nation. Team USA won the gold medal after beating Canada in the final, 10-7. Rabil has said his goal is to earn lacrosse participation in the 2028 Olympics.
While professional lacrosse isn’t likely to dethrone the NHL or the MLS, it has a much better chance of becoming a recognizable niche sport. Players may always have to work another job to make ends meet. Still, with more access to sponsorship opportunities, more coaching gigs for top high school and college programs, and two leagues to play in, professional lacrosse can be a less daunting career experience. As more investors line up to pump money into the PLL, salaries will only increase.