NBC Sports prides itself on taking leagues that may be unfamiliar to sports viewers and turning them into top-tier TV properties. Think the network’s English Premier League Soccer coverage.
That mirrors its approach with the Premier Lacrosse League, which launched earlier this year.
By taking risks more established sports leagues wouldn’t try, founders Paul Rabil and brother Mike Rabil have established their startup as a legit player.
As the PLL’s inaugural season heads for its first championship game, NBC executives are already planning how to make it bigger and better in 2020, according to Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBCSN.
PLL and NBC jointly announced the new league’s entrance into the sports world when it signed a partnership in October 2018. NBC got exclusive rights to broadcast the league’s 14-week season on its broadcast and cable networks, including 10 regular-season weekends, an All-Star weekend and two playoff weekends concluding with the title game on September 21st.
With any startup league, there’s going to be bumps in the road, said Miller. But there were surprisingly few with PLL. That’s because the Rabils delivered on their promise of great athletes and great competition, he added.
“It’s a crowded marketplace. Viewers, sponsors and, quite honestly, broadcasters all have a lot of choices,” said Miller, who co-created the NHL’s popular Winter Classic outdoor hockey game. “You have to be selective and smart and discerning in what you choose to invest and acquire. And these guys have done it.”
In just one season, he noted, PLL has attracted blue-chip sponsors such as Adidas, Gatorade, Capital One and Vineyard Vines. In turn, NBC has helped those sponsors activate and deliver more value than anticipated.
But what really grabbed Miller’s attention was the fan reaction to the Premier Lacrosse League Pass, a direct-to-consumer live streaming product offered by NBC Sports Gold. At an initial price of $37.99, it offered access to all 39 games, including 20 exclusively for subscribers, and 150 hours of PLL programming.
Before the season began, NBC cautiously projected how many they’d need to sell just to break even. To its surprise, NBC sold more than three times as many Premier Lacrosse League Passes as it anticipated.
When Front Office Sports asked Miller if they’d sold over 10,000, he said that was on the low side. “We are well north of that,” Miller said.
Paul Rabil, who in addition to serving as a co-founder and a player in the league is also the PLL’s chief strategy officer, said that the initial estimates that the PLL and NBC set for its subscriber base were “surpassed in week one.”
“It’s really surpassed our expectations,” said Rabil, who noted the partnership between the league and NBC has a revenue-sharing model.
Rabil declined to comment on the number of subscribers that the OTT service currently has, but he said that the two partners have been very pleased with the “healthy portion of viewers that are converting over from [the linear broadcasts] to NBC Sports Gold.”
The PLL and NBC are currently discussing what the 2020 season programming is going to look like, and Rabil said he is optimistic that will result in more games in primetime broadcasts windows.
The broadcast success the PLL has seen out of the gate can somewhat be attributed to the approach taken by the two partners.
For example, some sports are made for TV. Think pro or college football, where TV viewers can see nearly all 22 players at the snap of the ball. Other sports are more difficult to televise. Ice hockey, for example, gave broadcasters fits for decades because it was difficult for viewers to follow the puck.
During the development process, NBC went to the PLL with ideas on how to “reimagine” lacrosse for TV. To the league’s credit, they agreed.
One of the first was changing the color of the ball to yellow from white.
“A white ball was very difficult to follow on a sunny day with the net and the sticks,” noted Miller. “Now they’re using a fluorescent ball, much like a tennis ball, that’s much easier for you to follow at home, on television and in person.”
Just as importantly, NBC brought the cameras and microphones closer to the action.
For too long, lacrosse games were shot from what seemed like a mile away, making it hard to follow the ball or the players. Like the NHL before it, the general verdict was you had to be there in person to really appreciate the speed and beauty of the game.
With the PLL willing to try new ideas, NBC threw away the old playbook.
Instead, they outfitted several players on each team with microphones and earpieces for every game. When they scored, NBC announcers interviewed them right on the field – during the game.
The Big Lead, which closely tracks sports media coverage, was so impressed it advocated other pro sports jump on the idea of in-game interviews.
“Who wouldn’t want to hear from Tom Brady right after he threw a touchdown in the Super Bowl?” asked the blog. “Of course, that would never happen, but maybe the NFL can do more of it in the preseason. They already interview players on the sideline during that time, but something about the timeliness of this interview coupled with the earpiece and mic made it feel special and different.”
The PLL itself tweeted out a clip of a June 9 “under the helmet” interview with Kieran McAardle chatting with announcers after he scored a goal. Player to commentator communication is the “future of watching sports,” tweeted the PLL. The clip has been viewed nearly 48,000 times.
Fox Sports and Major League Baseball drew praise for interviewing mic’d up players during this summer’s All-Star game. But Miller noted the PLL and NBC have been doing it since day one.
“I don’t know if baseball saw what we were doing and said, ‘Let’s give it a shot.’ But clearly it has worked,” said Miller. “It has gotten people a lot closer to the athletes and the sport. It has made it a much more intimate and inclusive experience.”
Rabil said the fact that some of the innovations featured during league broadcasts will likely be submitted for Emmy nominations speaks to the success of the partnership thus far.
As of Thursday, NBC was still compiling regular season TV numbers. But the network previously said the Chaos vs. Atlas Week 2 game averaged a Total Audience Delivery of 412,000 viewers across NBC, NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.
That made it the most-watched outdoor pro lacrosse game in history. And the most-watched pro lacrosse game of any kind since the National Lacrosse League indoor championship averaged 689,000 viewers in 2005.