Paul Rabil is changing modern sports, right now, and right under our noses. Full disclosure: I know next to nothing about lacrosse, but I do know it’s popular and that what he’s doing is impressive. Rabil and his partners are launching the Professional Lacrosse League (PLL) on June 1st, 2019. Instead of competing directly with baseball, basketball, football, and soccer, they’re writing their own rules for how we watch and consume their sport. Anyone trying to grow a business in the cracks between massive incumbents can learn a lot from Rabil’s tactics.
The big teams-based sports all grew around a physical location where when there was a game, there was an event for the community to attend. As broadcast and distribution mediums evolved, the sports evolved along with them. Like massive oak trees with deep roots, generations of families have cheered on teams like the Boston Red Sox as they’ve graduated from papers, to radio, to TV, to online, to social media, to who knows what next. Anyone wanting to launch a new team, let alone a “new” sport, has to deal with life in the massive shadow of teams of this size and stature.
Rabil (along with his co-founder brother, and others), explored a ton of options in thinking about how they could take lacrosse, the fastest growing sport in America, to a bigger stage. Other attempts have been made, but they took the incumbents model and tried to replicate it without the scale. Here’s a rule that carries over to any business – if we just copy what the biggest incumbents are doing without also having their scale, we’ll die. Instead, we should focus on the smallest pieces we can implement competitively from day one at our own scale, which is what the PLL is doing.
For example, instead of a local teams-based model (like trying to start a Boston Red Sox of lacrosse), they opted for a touring model like NASCAR or pro golf. Teams have non-location specific names and tour to various cities to play a season, but they have no “home field.” Like fans pick a favorite driver or golfer, they’re betting on the same non-local loyalty for lacrosse teams and players.
By touring, they also won’t have any fixed stadium costs, just rental expenses. By picking the right sized stadiums in the dates and times between other major sporting events for various markets, they solve for audience, TV, and other media availability. They’ve secured deals with NBC to ensure visibility by those who don’t come out to the games, and opening weekend takes place at The Patriots (and the Revolution’s) Gillette Stadium.
Finally, by embracing social media, Rabil personally in his college and post-college career saw the power of direct connection between athletes and fans. He knows how to create loyalty and turn it into sponsorship dollars. The league and players have an organized social media strategy to maximize their footprint – something that may really give this league a fighting chance at survival. If they secure the fans, they’ll figure out the other costs over time.
A few more takeaways for us to apply:
1. If you’re a new “team,” the players are the heroes, not the big brand.
2. To make sure the players are the heroes, focus on deepening their connections with their fans. No hero is hidden away, they have to be out there and accessible.
3. Accessibility to a community becomes the key ingredient for growth. Big players and big teams can’t give fans the same commitment an up and comer can. The PLL can actually foster a tighter community than the NFL/MLB/NBA/EPL if they do this well (a big if, but they have a shot). This is how bases are built. Smartphones alone have given us more opportunity to connect than ever before. We have to use the right kind of contact to our advantage (no spam!)
I may not know the rules or anything about the sport, but I am all in on Rabil’s vision and approach. Do check out his appearance on the Capital Allocators Podcast, or his own podcast which has a very impressive guest list.