Wall Street's Lacrosse Fraternity Backs Rabil's New League

(Bloomberg) -- When Paul Rabil set out to raise money for his new outdoor lacrosse league, he knew he wouldn’t have to waste time explaining the game’s intricacies in pitch meetings.

“Lacrosse’s popularity on Wall Street is a well-known phenomenon, backed by decades of All-Americans graduating from elite institutions and taking their professional careers to New York,” said Rabil, a star player in Major League Lacrosse, the league that will soon become his primary competitor.

Lacrosse programs at schools like Johns Hopkins University, Rabil’s alma mater, and Yale University take their undergraduate players to New York annually to tap into their extensive alumni networks. Many of those visits lead to jobs in finance.

So it should be no surprise that the list of investors in Rabil’s six-team Premier Lacrosse League features a dozen former college players, including New England Patriots wide receiver Chris Hogan, who attended Penn State University on a lacrosse scholarship.

Rabil and his brother, Mike, a former football captain at Dartmouth College and the new league’s chief executive officer, last year met with prospective investors armed with a league model, employee agreements, player handbooks, venue negotiations, sponsorship decks, broadcast proposals and agency requests for proposals. The fundamentals sounded good to Colin Neville, managing director and head of the sports practice at Raine Group, which led the league’s funding. Rabil declined to disclosed the amount raised.

“Aligning ourselves with content owners has been a fundamental element of our investment thesis,” said Neville, who played lacrosse at Yale in the mid-2000s. “Sports leagues that own and control their intellectual property are uniquely positioned to take advantage of multiple avenues of monetization.”

Nobody was going to throw their money behind his venture without doing due diligence, said Rabil, but the lacrosse connections didn’t hurt. The league’s backers also include the Chernin Group, Creative Artists Agency, Blum Capital, and a handful of family offices and angel investors. The former lacrosse players-turned-investors include Drew McKnight, a managing partner at Fortress Investment Group who played at the University of Virginia; and Sol Kumin, a former chief operating officer at SAC Capital Advisors LP, who played at Johns Hopkins.

“It’s simply a shared lifelong love of -- and passion for -- this sport combined with a decades-long disappointment that the best players in the world haven’t had an outlet to continue to showcase their talents after college on a stage that is worthy of their capabilities,” said PLL advisory board member Michael Levine, co-head of CAA Sports and a former Cornell University lacrosse player.

Lacrosse is gaining in popularity, with 35 percent participation growth since 2012, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. But its stronghold remains the Ivy League, other highly selective East Coast colleges and the prep schools that feed them.

Rabil, 32, is hoping the PLL can help push the game into the mainstream at a time when media companies are searching for live content to satisfy a seemingly insatiable global appetite for sports.

To that end, the PLL has signed a multiyear broadcast agreement with NBC Sports Group, which along with its cable network, NBCSN, will air 19 games live. A full-season package will also be available on NBC Sports Gold, a subscription streaming service.

“We feel very strongly that lacrosse has not been produced and televised in a manner that’s as compelling as it could possibly be,” said Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports. “In tandem with Paul and Mike, and through our expansive assets, we’re confident our presentation of the PLL will galvanize the sport and serve as a great launch pad.”

Traveling Teams

The league will debut in June with a pool of players that, according to Rabil, boasts 86 All-Americans, 25 members of Team USA, 10 Tewaaraton Award winners (the Heisman Trophy of lacrosse) and nine professional league most valuable players. Among the players joining are Kyle Harrison (who played at Johns Hopkins), Tom Schreiber (Princeton University), and Myles Jones (Duke University).

Unlike most established sports leagues, where each team is tied to a city and venue, the PLL will use a tour-based model where teams will travel to a city at the same time and play a series of games. It’s targeting Major League Soccer stadiums and 15,000-to-30,000-seat venues in 12 major markets to host games and will play a 14-game schedule: 10 regular season, one All-Star and three playoffs. Rabil said team names would be determined later.

PLL players will be full-time employees, and receive health benefits, performance incentives and an undisclosed equity stake in the league. By contrast, some players in the most successful incumbent outdoor league, MLL, have second jobs. MLL has said it will raise its salary cap by 51 percent, expand its schedule by two games to 16 games and add one player to the game day active roster.

“The value of pro sports is in the players,” said Rabil, who has largely through social media become the sport’s most visible player and a million-dollar endorser. Rabil said the PLL would be the first sports league to give players access to league assets that they can use across their personal platforms, including Instagram and Facebook. That could include images of the players on the field, and highlights of their performance during games.

“Athletes have become the new rock stars,” Rabil said. “With social media opening up direct access to fans, major sports athletes have grown larger social followings than their teams and leagues.”

Rabil has assembled an eight-member advisory board that includes former Madison Square Garden Co. CEO David O’Connor, Barstool Sports CEO Erika Nardini; and DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the National Football League Players Association.

“The game will finally have the professional league it deserves,” said O’Connor, who, yes, played lacrosse at Dartmouth in the late ’70s.

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