Thursday December 7, 2023

ESPN Believes In Lacrosse’s Future and Won’t Stop Investing

  • Before 2019, lacrosse struggled to get its footing in mainstream sports.
  • Now, the sports media giant holds the broadcast rights to the sport on every level.
Premier Lacrosse League
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Saturday’s 2022 Premier Lacrosse League All-Star Game is a homecoming of sorts.

This year’s venue — Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts — hosted the first weekend of play back in 2019.

Three years on, the nascent organization is succeeding where many other upstart pro sports leagues have failed: staying alive. It’s in its fourth season, with solid viewership (29%) and ticket revenue (56%) growth between its last two full seasons in 2019 and 2021.

But perhaps nothing was a greater endorsement of the PLL’s early success than the reported four-year, eight-figure media rights deal it signed with ESPN in March.

In the first season under the new contract, the Worldwide Leader has pushed the PLL to make the most of its potential — and has helped grow lacrosse itself through investment in the sport.

“​​I think lacrosse is having its moment,” says PLL co-founder, president, and lacrosse legend Paul Rabil.

“Having played pro for 10 years ahead of beginning to build the PLL, there had been that shared signal that professional lacrosse is going to be the unlock for broader mainstream growth for lacrosse at large.”

Undeniable Growth

In 2018, a report from the Sport & Fitness Industry Association found that 1.1 million boys and girls were playing the game at the youth level, and that participation had grown 25% since 2012. By comparison, over that same period, football participation had dropped almost 16% and baseball had grown only 2%.

It’s a trend that ESPN has been following for years — well beyond its partnership with PLL.

After broadcasting several NCAA lacrosse championships over the years, ESPN began showing men’s college games regularly in 2005, expanding its coverage in the men’s and women’s games over the years.

Recently, it doubled down on the sport by adding women’s league Athletes Unlimited, the indoor National Lacrosse League, and international World Lacrosse to its lineup — essentially allowing for year-round exposure.

“It’s a sport where we can have the highest levels of it across all of our platforms,” says Dan Margulis, ESPN’s senior director of programming and acquisitions. “That’s the sport we believe in and we’ve invested in.”

With the network’s help, the PLL has experienced massive growth this season.

  • The league’s cable viewership is up 147%.
  • It has amassed 150M impressions on social media for the first part of its season.
  • ABC’s Week 2 broadcast of the Cannons-Archers game averaged 452,000 viewers and peaked at 623,000 — the most-watched outdoor lacrosse game on record.

These are numbers Rabil recited off the top of his head. The hands-on executive is quick to point out that his league’s success cyclically helps the sport as a whole.

“What you need to do as a professional league is flip the pyramid on its head and create a really valuable professional commercial enterprise property,” he says. “If we can grow the pro game, our college coaches get more exposure, more notoriety.”

“The more the pro league progresses and grows, the more participation there will be,” says Atlas LC faceoff athlete and All-Star captain Trevor Baptiste. “I think it’s great for the game.”

Going Under the Helmet

World-class field lacrosse is PLL’s central product — and it amplifies that offering through broadcast innovations and talent engagement from its new media partner.

When the league burst onto the scene in 2019, it experimented with in-game player interviews — both on the sidelines and on the field itself.

  • The “under the helmet” interviews, in particular, have been a huge hit, leading to some viral moments for the league’s stars and giving viewers insight into what the players are thinking in real time.
  • Wiring up the players allows ESPN to tap into the natural sounds of the game.
  • “You’re talking about a highly competitive environment,” Baptiste says of having his mic turned on without an interview. “We’re playing to win, and we’re aggressive guys out there.”

The league and network also engage viewers through minute details — everything from specific camera angles, to on-screen graphics.

It’s a process that the PLL began in 2019 — and that ESPN has encouraged them to continue in their partnership.

“Early on in the launch of the PLL, we had a whiteboard of ideas that we wanted to bring to a broadcast that we felt was on trend with the way sports fans were looking to engage with their favorite teams and players,” says Rabil.

“The early conversations with ESPN were along the lines of, ‘Hey, we don’t wanna mess with what you guys are doing. That’s working right now, and we think it’s cool. How can we add to it?’”

“When you have a league that is pushing innovation and you have a company who strives for innovation, you put them together, and it’s the perfect marriage,” Margulis says.

Aside from the innovations, ESPN’s stable of talent will help further engage the audience.

Anish Shroff, Quint Kessenich, and Paul Carcaterra, for example, have been calling NCAA lacrosse games on ESPN for years, giving them not only extensive knowledge of the game, but also connections to many of the players they watched in college.

“They’re passionate about these guys, because they’re invested in their careers,” says PLL’s Director of Brand RJ Kaminski. “It must be special for them because you can see that passion, in their attitude, their demeanor, and their goal calls in the booth.”

A Lacrosse ‘Brotherhood’

Lacrosse’s ascendancy has been a very long time coming: The Native American game it’s based on can be traced to as early as 1100 AD.

But its current tipping point, the one that convinced arguably the biggest sports media behemoth in the world to invest, was sparked by Paul Rabil and his brother Mike — the league’s CEO — when they co-founded the PLL.

The league’s sponsors have noticed.

  • “We’ve invested in Mike and Paul as much as we’ve invested in the product itself,” says James Miceli, CEO of Epoch Lacrosse, one of the league’s equipment partners.
  • Gatorade — a founding partner of the PLL in 2019 — re-upped its deal with the league because of their “shared goals and their revamped approach to a rapidly growing sport,” the company said in a statement to Front Office Sports.

And perhaps no one is happier than ESPN itself.

“They’ve come at it from a fresh angle with an insane amount of enthusiasm and energy,” Margulis says. “It’s good to have a partner who pushes you. And I think that’s what they’re all about.”

It all works to create a sports media product that casual and longtime lacrosse fans alike can engage with and push into the mainstream.

“People are what keep us emotionally connected and then growing the business is what drives our minds,” says Rabil.

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