Although Paul Rabil had played lacrosse since he was 12, the prospect of playing professionally crept up on him after he won two NCAA championships with Johns Hopkins.
Now, Rabil has 11 years of professional lacrosse under his belt, and he’s founded a new league, the Premier Lacrosse League, which is barnstorming its way around the United States as its first season takes off with its latest stop being at Homewood Field in Baltimore on Saturday and Sunday. The PLL will be joined by the Women’s Professional Lacrosse League, which will play Sunday.
The PLL is unlike any other professional sport league in the country.
It’s made of six teams, with no connections to specific geographic locations, that travel together for 14 weekends as they play games across the country.
As they travel, the teams participate in lacrosse clinics, called the PLL Academy, and community service, PLL Assists. The PLL also collaborates with the WPLL on youth events, content creation, marketing and two tournaments, including the one in Baltimore.
Led by Rabil, his brother Mike Rabil, Rabil’s former Johns Hopkins teammate Kyle Harrison, and two-time Major League Lacrosse Most Valuable Player Tom Schreiber, the PLL is meant to be different from other leagues.
The idea for it stemmed from conversations that had been occurring in Major League Lacrosse for years.
Players had noticed that, over the past decade, other emerging sports had taken off, and they wondered, “Why haven’t we done that?” Paul Rabil said.
So Rabil, the MLL’s all-time scoring leader and a successful businessman, began looking at options.
The first approach was to work with the existing structure for professional lacrosse, the MLL. Several factors led the Rabil brothers, along with their investors, to approach the MLL about buying the league.
Rabil said a core group of the MLL’s top players were aware of the offer, and when it was not accepted, they gave their full support to the brothers to create their own league.
As they began to plan, they settled on four main points of emphasis: maintaining the integrity of the game and competition, finding world-class venues, having a means of mass distribution and embracing the broader growth of the sport.
Rabil said they started by looking at the “golden standard,” the NCAA tournament. Its tour-based model fit their goals.
They’d be able to rent venues one weekend at a time, allowing them to choose places that met their standards while spreading the game.
“A tour-based model will actually embrace the growth of the game rather than localize it, had we gone city-based with six teams, to six markets exclusively,” Rabil said.
The reception in the three cities they’ve played has pleased Rabil. In Boston, over 13,000 fans attended the three games. Over 10,000 were in New York and over 11,000 were in Chicago, according to the PLL.
A deal with NBC provided a means of mass distribution — the championship will air on NBC’s main channel. The first game averaged 409,000 viewers per minute, the highest for an outdoor professional lacrosse game, according to NBC.
They also studied consumer trends in sports across millennials and Generation Z for more ideas. With increased access to athletes as individuals instead of members of a team, Rabil said many people follow favorite players more than favorite teams. By not associating PLL teams with designated geographic locations, fans can choose to support a team for whatever reason they choose.
The PLL will also use more cameras during game broadcasts, as well as helmet cams and microphones for the players, to connect to a more digital audience.
Included in the PLL’s mission to grow the game is “responsibly telling the history of the sport, which is a Native American game, and also being proactive around diversity and inclusion,” Rabil said. So, they talked to Laurel Richie, the former president of the WNBA.
She told them the WNBA has struggled partially because the NBA was created so long before the WNBA that there was a psychological barrier to overcome, so the PLL approached the WPLL for one of its first partnerships.
“We view professional lacrosse as one that should be acknowledged in the future as both the women's and men's game, and the more we can work together and be aligned on a weekly basis, the more synergetic and successful we can come,” Rabil said.
Rabil had been in contact with the WPLL founder Michele DeJuliis (Loch Raven) throughout the 2018 inaugural season of the women’s league, and when he came to them about partnering, DeJuliis said “it was a no-brainer.”
“We care about the sport, we care about the growth of it and we care about getting this game to the Olympics,” DeJuliis said. “We also both feel very strongly about equality. … If we can set the example, other sports will dive in and do the same.”
Combined, the WPLL and PLL have 160 All-Americans and 16 Tewaaraton Award winners, awarded annually to the top men’s and women’s college lacrosse player in the nation. The PLL's 10 Tewaaraton winners, 85 All-Americans and 25 members of the United States national team ensured the integrity of competition would be maintained.
As the league formed, so many lacrosse players wanted to join that they had to cap the number of player applications accepted at 160.
“It seemed to be the cream of the crop or the upper echelon of the professional lacrosse players out there,” said Mike Chanenchuk (Maryland), who chose to move to the PLL after five years in the MLL. “I want to always play with the best, so that was the biggest driving factor for me.”
Matt Rambo (Maryland) also made the switch. To him, the PLL seemed to offer a better model for a league, an opportunity to get paid more and the ability to grow the game more. The pay is important, he said, because it gives kids the hope they can one day make a living out of the sport.
Former Maryland player Michael Ehrhardt said the MLL hadn’t changed in the five years he had been a part of it. The PLL was a new opportunity to take the game to the next level.
As the league comes to Baltimore for its fourth week of play, the marquee matchup will be between the Maryland-heavy Whipsnakes and the Atlas, a team with several former Johns Hopkins players.
"Over 100 years, it's one of the biggest rivalries in sports history,” Rambo said. “They're doing it right with the Hopkins-Maryland headline.”
No team consists entirely of players from one college, nor do any of them run the same playbook as a college team, but there will still be a sense of homecoming for Rabil at least, if not the other 43 who went to a Maryland college.
“Being under the lights at Homewood Field will always bring back the sense of being home for me,” Rabil said.
So far, Ehrhardt, Chanenchuk and Rambo said they’ve been pleased with how the league is coming together. They appreciate the way they are treated as players, and Ehrhardt said he loves that all the teams get to be in the same city at the same time.
He also said he appreciates that he gets to see the women's league play because his little sister, Lindsey Ehrhardt (Loyola Maryland), plays defense for the Fight.
But, more than anything else, PLL players have been impressed with the level of play. Seven out of the nine games so far have been decided by one goal.
“We’re pretty pleased,” Rabil said. “And that’s coming from a player whose team is 1-2.”
PLL in Baltimore
Johns Hopkins’ Homewood Field
PLL: Redwoods vs. Chrome, 1 p.m.
PLL: Atlas vs Whipsnakes, 7:30 p.m.
WPLL: Brave vs. Fire, noon
WPLL: Fight vs. Command, 1:30 p.m.
PLL: Chaos vs. Archers, 3:30 p.m. (TV: NBCSN)