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Two pro lacrosse leagues are fighting for talent, attention — maybe survival

Paul Rabil takes a shot for the New York Lizards in 2015. (Adam Hunger/Getty Images)

Tim Troutner Jr. attended the Major League Lacrosse draft in March. The goalie from High Point University (N.C.) had watched the league growing up, idolizing some of its goaltenders, and after he was selected with the second pick by a team in Florida in March, he nearly signed a lease on an apartment in Miami.

But then the MLL folded three of its nine teams in April, and a coach called from a start-up lacrosse league, a league that had enticed some of the MLL’s best players to defect for more money and the promise of better TV exposure. Troutner liked that sales pitch, too. Now, the MLL’s second overall pick is part of the first rookie class in the Premier Lacrosse League and hoping this new entity is the future of the sport.

Professional lacrosse is facing an existential crossroads as the leagues — one backed by nearly two decades of history, the other by the sport’s best players and venture capital funding — prepare for their first season of coexistence, beginning in June. Lacrosse insiders are convinced the two cannot survive long-term side by side.

Paul Rabil, the sport’s biggest name, abandoned Major League Lacrosse in September to form his own organization, a six-team single-entity touring circuit called Premier Lacrosse League. Promising bigger salaries and a better media rights deal, he recruited a vast contingent of the old league’s stars.

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They say they are tired of waiting for a league to figure out how to distribute its product and tired of asking MLL franchise owners to put money behind branding their players as athletic celebrities worthy of sponsorships and acclaim.

“I was pretty frustrated with the MLL,” said Troutner, who grew up in Annapolis and went St. Mary’s High School. “I knew the PLL was building something new and it’s a new era. I knew they were going to have the best players, and if you want to be the best, you have to play with the best.”

MLL, though, is still backed by establishment figures confident that a rebranding effort, new leadership and franchise owners’ willingness to invest can sustain a strong, centralized league. They’ve preached patience in their 19-year-old league and asked the lacrosse community for trust as they attempt a reset. Earlier this spring, the league reacquired its media rights and shut down three of nine teams for the 2019 season.

It has set up a showdown over who will control the professional future of what boosters hope could become another major North American sport.

“I’ve known these guys forever. I love these guys,” Brendan Kelly, owner of the MLL’s Chesapeake Bayhawks, said of PLL’s leaders. “If we could have waited a year and done this together, that probably would have been great. You have to get people in the sport pulling together and going the same way. Everyone thinks they have the magic potion. They don’t.”

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The PLL has its face in Rabil, 33, whose on-field legacy is almost unparalleled. He led Johns Hopkins to national titles in 2005 and 2007, was drafted first overall by the MLL’s Boston Cannons in 2008 and was named the league’s MVP the next season.

He signed a sponsorship deal with Under Armour to supplement his $6,000 salary then found a way to turn his personality and lacrosse success into a multimillion dollar media and investment firm, Rabil Ventures. What began with Rabil filming his workouts with GoPro cameras and posting them to a Facebook page became a company that provided seed funding to the Athletic, among other ventures.

“I don’t think it’s far-fetched to call him the most influential player arguably in the history of the sport, but certainly in the millennial era,” said Matt DaSilva, editor in chief of US Lacrosse Magazine. “Paul Rabil’s coming of age coincided with the sport’s coming of age, but also social media’s coming of age. It was the perfect storm.”

Tired of static wages and dropping ticket sales, and with flagging confidence in MLL’s leadership, Rabil approached the league’s owners in 2017 about an acquisition. (MLL attendance has declined every year since 2011. In 2018, 3,619 people on average showed up to games, which were broadcast by tiny on-demand platform Lax Sports Network and regional sports networks.) A deal never came together, but many players threw their support behind Rabil’s ideas for lacrosse’s future. Encouraged, he explored building a league of his own.

“Our preference was to work with MLL,” he said, “but we still felt confident about our approach.”

Rabil and his brother Mike, the league’s co-founder, secured financial backing from the likes of Chernin Group, which owns Barstool Sports, and Alibaba co-founder Joseph Tsai. Nineteen of the league’s games will be broadcast on NBC, NBC Sports Network or streaming service NBC Sports Gold. The PLL offers a $25,000 minimum salary (more than three times as much as MLL players made before the league boosted its salary cap by 51 percent in September) plus health-care benefits and equity in the league. And when Rabil announced the PLL’s first rosters, the vast majority of the 160 players came from MLL, including 11 of the league’s top 12 goal scorers from last year.

“The notion that things take time — and that’s true, some things do take time — but within five months, we had a distribution partnership, we launched six teams and brand identities, we hired six of the best coaches in the world, and more,” Rabil said. “There’s a case to be made about taking measurable action, and it’s worth calling out.”

PLL’s six teams will tour the country together, hitting 12 cities, including Baltimore and Washington, during a 14-week season. An advisory board constructed teams based on players’ colleges, former pro teams, skill and age. The Whipsnakes Lacrosse Club, for example, is composed of mostly former Maryland Terrapins.

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The PLL’s format excited many MLL players eager to follow Rabil’s lead and make lacrosse a full-time job. In interviews, several current and former MLL players said they barely spend any time during the season practicing or getting to know their teammates. Before a Saturday game, most players will join their team Friday afternoon, practice that night, have a light practice Saturday morning, play the game that night then fly home Sunday morning, they said.

“The MLL, it’s a glorified men’s league with the best players in the world,” said one MLL player, who asked not to be named because of the tenuous labor situation between the leagues. “I do it because I love to play the sport and I love the competition, but that’s why Rabil started the PLL. Because he and everyone else thinks this is such a g--d--- joke.”

MLL says it has responded by installing new leadership and mounting a significant rebranding initiative. The league replaced longtime commissioner David Gross in early 2018 with former ESPN executive Sandy Brown. Almost immediately, Brown approved a number of initiatives that players had requested, including larger rosters, a longer season and a salary cap increase. He announced plans to bolster MLL’s media distribution through streaming and social media and doubled down on the league’s commitment to its host cities, making the construction of lacrosse-specific venues a priority.

At the MLL draft in March, when the league had to restock its talent pool after the PLL defections, it unveiled a new logo developed with the players’ input. League officials say the strategy is working, despite the news that three franchises would suspend operations this season. Ticket sales for the Chesapeake franchise, based in Annapolis, are up 24 percent over last year, said Kelly, the team owner. And yet the split has left two leagues vying for a similar market.

“Since Sandy has come in, I think he’s taken a lot of steps to move things in the right direction and [the rebranding] was really starting to gain traction,” said Max Adler, faceoff specialist for MLL’s Denver Outlaws. “I’d like everyone to be playing in the MLL together. The reason I decided to stay is that playing for a city is really important to me. In the short term, I think [PLL is] diluting the talent and the MLL is starting to go in the right direction. Five years, 10 years from now, it could be a great thing.”

The Bayhawks owner suggested the PLL’s impatience is bad for the sport, making players appear entitled and privileged.

“If you look at what they’re doing, it’s all about them,” he said. “ . . . At some point, you have to put the social media down and sell tickets.”

Rabil argued that the MLL reforms came in response to the establishment of the league’s first competitor.

And fans? DaSilva of US Lacrosse Magazine said they’re stuck in the middle, wanting to support players but worried what could happen to professional lacrosse if one league sinks the other but emerges severely weakened.

“Long term, there is not enough bandwidth to carry two leagues, just from a business perspective,” he said. “There’s plenty of talent. The products will be good one way or another, but I don’t think the audience is there to sustain both of them.”

Said Kelly: “It shouldn’t be us vs. them. Competition is good for an hour, but war is never good.”

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