Lacrosse has been a diffuse sport in the United States, steadily growing in popularity but with talent spread across several leagues. A December merger, though, has turned the entire sport on its head. The Premier Lacrosse League, which was established in 2018 and played its first season in 2019, swallowed up its competition — the 20-year-old Major League Lacrosse — relatively overnight, giving the outdoor version of the sport a single professional entity.
The PLL represents a different model for lacrosse and perhaps all of professional sports. It was organized and is operated by the players themselves, who all have a stake in the league, while MLL never allowed its players to unionize. And though the PLL’s consistent TV presence is helping to build the lacrosse audience, the league has focused on social media as its main medium for audience growth.
“Historically in league mergers that have taken place, especially in legacy sports, you would note it had been the league with the most history that moves forward,” said PLL co-founder and player Paul Rabil. “However, I think it also goes to the league that has the current most commercial value and sustainability tied to it. … Social media now in the modern era of total audience size and then soft metrics you look at it.”
Almost every professional sports merger has involved the legacy league — the one initially established and credited with developing the sport at the professional level — absorbing the newer league. The NFL absorbed the AFL, the NBA the ABA, and the NHL the WHA, while MLB developed on the heels of a battle between the American and National Leagues, which trumped an attempt of a third major league in the late 1950s by expanding to New York.
That blueprint for professional sports mergers has been followed to a T until the PLL, which was clearly the more developed option for pro men’s lacrosse; it had the TV deal, the higher concentration of talent and power for the players.
Lacrosse has been a professional sport in North America since the 1980s, but it has struggled to gain mainstream appeal, especially outside the college game. The National Lacrosse League, which features the indoor version of the sport, has found some stability as the fifth-oldest active pro sports league in the United States, but indoor lacrosse has never had as large an impact as outdoor stateside, at least when it comes to television deals and media attention.
Then came MLL in 2001 — the legacy version of lacrosse, despite its comparatively short history.
“We wouldn’t have professional indoor lacrosse if it weren’t for MLL,” said Boston Cannons president Ian Frenette, the only MLL team set to join the PLL in 2021.”I personally believe that the growth of the game of lacrosse, over the last 20 years, it’s been impacted by Major League Lacrosse.”
MLL was the first successful outdoor pro lacrosse operation, with markets across the United States (and, for a minute, Canada). Attendance peaked in 2011 at 6,400 fans a game.1 But it fell off sharply after that. The league had expanded quickly, and markets were being shuffled around or ceasing all together. The ownership structure wasn’t totally uniform or clear. The players weren’t unionized — unlike in the NLL — and the season timing crossover between MLL and the NLL made it impossible to play a full season anywhere.
Before MLL’s 2020 summer bubble in Annapolis, Maryland, which ended its final season, team movement had run rampant. Atlanta, Florida, Charlotte and Ohio, previously expansion markets, were out. The Dallas Rattlers closed up shop after a semi-successful first run for pro lacrosse in Texas with its championship season.
It was falling apart, and all logic pointed to the PLL emerging as the dominant league.
Rabil and other members of the PLL watched and learned from MLL well before they created their league. They want to avoid the mistakes of their predecessors.
“Sometimes it’s better to be second than first,” Rabil said. “If you talk to commissioners of the legacy sports now, the biggest fear is that you expand too fast and contract, or just contract.”
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The PLL operates differently than most modern sports leagues, without teams based in cities or states, but instead using a touring model across North America. This year, the Boston Cannons will become the Cannons Lacrosse Club and take its place as the sole new member of the league for 2021, though options for the remaining MLL clubs — especially Denver, Chesapeake and New York — are on the table in the coming years.
The plan is for MLL’s history to be adopted by the PLL. “For me personally as an athlete, formerly playing in MLL and a historian of the game, a critical part of this merger is the history,” Rabil said.
The few MLL employees making the switch to the PLL are still awaiting instruction on what their future entails as the merger takes shape. “All these details are ultimately being worked out,” Frenette said. “It hasn’t officially closed yet, there’s a lot of transition, a lot of assets that need to be ironed out and put into a chart that says look, this is what we have.”
In 2018, players were frustrated, and Rabil — already the face of the sport — became the face of a movement, too. That came at the expense of MLL, to some extent. The legacy league’s unwillingness to budge gave room for Rabil and the rest of the players to compete — and win.
“There was competitive disruption that we ignited in 2018 and into 2020, where we were able to prove ourselves as a path to growth and interest in pro lacrosse, and we knew we could approach [MLL] in a number of different ways,” Rabil said. “The sooner we could get that done, the faster we can continue to grow.”
That movement to make the PLL into a legitimate lacrosse enterprise has been successful in a business sense; the PLL is on national television and attracted more viewers in its second season than it had in its first. The 2020 championship game in a Utah-based bubble — the same location as the NWSL’s bubble — drew 340,000 viewers, a 23 percent increase from the year previous.
The PLL has also found success in its framing a labor movement. The only other sports entity that has framed its existence around fair labor practices for its athletes is the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, filled with defectors of the more traditional National Women’s Hockey League. But the PWHPA hasn’t come close to the national exposure — or pay and benefits — of the PLL.
When the PLL launched in 2019, the average player salary was $35,000, $27,000 more than the average in the MLL the previous year. “We offer year-round health care to our players, and our players get PLL stock options,” Rabil said. “Overall, it is far greater than what pro lacrosse athletes have ever been given.”
The PLL also has a modern plan for growth, something MLL lacked. Radio in the 1920s can be credited with elevating baseball from a casual interest to a national pastime. Likewise, the rise of national television broadcast deals put the NFL on a pedestal it’s never relinquished.
Social media — namely Twitter, TikTok and Instagram — could be that path for the PLL.
The PLL’s social channels average around 7 percent engagement, according to social media tracking company Zoomph. Though the league has a smaller overall following than other major sports, its engagement is at a much higher rate.
“Most leagues average about 1 to 2 percent engagement,” Rabil said. “The argument that leagues will say is they have a far bigger audience and fanbase, so our engagement will be lower, but that’s not true.”
MLL’s engagement can’t be credited in full for its collapse, but it’s a part of the story. The former league has had significantly fewer followers than the PLL overall, and the younger league is climbing to reach the same Twitter count with roughly 17 fewer years of history.
The PLL has made meaningful progress for the sport’s exposure in ways no one else has done yet, and they’ve done it with the blueprints of success and failures before them, in lacrosse and other sports.
The league is only entering its third year and it’s already eliminated its main competition. It’s on national TV and expanding at a steady, cautious rate. If the PLL is a success in the coming years, it itself might be the blueprint for the future of sports.