There are many in the sports business who say that lacrosse at the grassroots level in North America, is the fastest growing sport on the continent. While some of that is spin…after all mature sports like basketball and baseball and even soccer already have a solid and large base that does maintain itself, it is true that lacrosse on the high school and collegiate level continues to expand south and west from its traditional base in the corridor from the Carolinas through New England. The game has also gained some ground across Europe and in other countries where stick and ball sports are popular, making lacrosse for both boys and girls a healthy and thriving game.
However for all its grassroots success, and the large crows the sport draws on the college level especially during the NCAA tournament, lacrosse has yet to reach casual, professional or crossover appeal for the most part. There are moments during the Final Four where numbers rise, but for the most part for all its success, crossover is not there yet.
What lacrosse needs is a telegenic breakout star, someone who can help get the sport noticed off the field and into the business and pop culture mainstream. As the indoor National Lacrosse League kicks into full gear this month, followed by the outdoor Major League Lacrosse season this summer the sport may look to Paul Rabil as that continued breakout star.
While many casual fans of the professional game find the stories of players somewhat old school…holding down fulltime jobs during the week and playing on weekends, Rabil has broken through to be a fulltime evangelist for the game, with endorsements that go well into seven figures. He is socially conscious, working with inner city kids to promote both his sport and healthy lifestyles, and he takes a business-like view in building his image. He also happens to be one the game’s greatest players; three times in four seasons, being named the 2012 MLL Offensive Player of the Year while setting the league’s single-season point record, scoring 72 points in 14 games. Rabil is now one of three players in lacrosse to have won an MLL, NLL, World Championship, and Division 1 Championship in his career (joining HOF Gary Gait and HOF Tom Maracheck). He also won the MLL Freestyle Bud Light Skills Competition with his version of Blake Griffin’s “car jump” for a dunk. In the Winter of 2011, Paul was selected to his first NLL All-Star team. He also helped take the Washington Stealth back to the NLL Championship Game with a chance to repeat as Champions. This winter the Maryland native is suiting up for the Philadelphia Wings before rejoining the Cannons in Boston this summer.
We caught up with Rabil to talk the business of lacrosse, where he would like to see the game go, and how he developed a relationship with a certain football coaching legend.
Lacrosse is widely acknowledged as the fastest growing team sport in America, does it have to be successful on the pro level for casual fans to follow it?
Absolutely. I’m confident that we’ve seen such tremendous growth in lacrosse – especially at the youth level – since Major League Lacrosse was established and first televised 12 years ago. I’m a big believer in what’s worked and motivated me as a young athlete. I constantly looked up to other pro athletes and aspired to be like them. With the MLL as big and important as it’s ever been, the young players in the game have something even greater to work towards.
Do you prefer the indoor or outdoor game and why?
Both pro games are outstanding. I grew up playing outdoor lacrosse, competing at Johns Hopkins, now with the Boston Cannons and Team USA, winning with each team. I feel I have a lot of growing pains to continue to get past in the indoor pro league, which makes it a great and important challenge for me.
You have played extensively abroad as well. where do you see the biggest opportunities for growth outside North America?
Over the past 5 years, we’ve seen exponential growth in lacrosse at the entry level in the US, and I’m now seeing it more and more abroad. I believe the biggest opportunity for growth is currently in England. Their participation levels are higher than most countries, and they’ve began the process of officially sanctioning lacrosse through their educational properties. Additionally, using insights through my official FB account, I have “Likes” coming from 20 different countries outside of the US and Canada…ranging from Spain, Egypt, The Czech Republic, to Japan and the Philippines.
You have an interesting relationship with Patriots coach Bill Belicheck, how did that come about?
Coach Belicheck is a lacrosse player. He played the sport growing up and through college. His father was one of the great football coaches at the Naval Academy where Bill ultimately cut his teeth on the gridiron. I met him my junior season at Johns Hopkins through Coach Pietramala [John's Hopkins head lacrosse coach]. Personally, I’m always looking to learn new things from those who do other things great. I never wanted the opportunity to meet Coach Belichick to be…just that. I asked him tons of questions about his team captains, their work-ethic, etc. We’ve built a strong relationship since then, and both contribute to two great Boston sports franchises.
Shawn White obviously elevated the X games with his mass market appeal, do you see yourself in that role for lacrosse?
Shawn White is a special, multi-talented individual. His mass market appeal is studied on all levels in sports and business. If I could make a marketing impact that is a fraction of what he’s accomplished in action sports, than I’ve done something unique for the lacrosse world. The key for me is to continue to achieve success on the field as a great team player and off the field as a businessman.
Other than Warrior, what other non-lacrosse brands are you working with these days?
In addition to Warrior, I work with two phenomenal blue chip companies in Red Bull and Polk Audio. Both companies help me grow as an athlete by providing me with fuel to stay active, excited and adrenalized. Additionally, both Red Bull and Polk have helped craft a lifestyle component around my brand. I’m a big believer in having successful partners in business. And in this case, when those partners are rich in both product and lifestyle, it adds so much brand value through association. I’ve been able to deliver a lot of my message using their extensive platforms. In addition to this, I also have two more non-endemic partnerships with Nooka Accessories and EFX bracelets. I’ve always felt Nooka accessories are some of the most trendy and fashionable pieces on the market, and like Red Bull, EFX bracelets help me with active recovery and workout preparation.
Professional lacrosse appears fractured because of the indoor and outdoor divide in governance, do you think there will be a time when both games are run jointly on the pro level?
I hope so. There’s no doubt that the NLL and MLL divide is apparent in the mainstream market, and can cause pro lacrosse uncertainty. Five years ago when I went pro in lacrosse, I was often in conversation with a stranger around the thought that they didn’t know pro lacrosse existed…which was always humbling. Now, I’m recognized in more public spheres than ever, and the question I often receive isn’t whether or not there is pro lacrosse, rather which league I play in, and when are the seasons…so, not exactly where we want to be with the pro lacrosse brand yet, but the overall public perception has changed drastically. If the leagues ran jointly, we would see significant growth – similar to the winter and summer X-Games, two different seasons with different talents, under one umbrella.
What is your favorite city to play in and why?
I love playing in Boston. I was fortunate to be drafted first to the Cannons in 2008. The support the fans show in Boston at every home game is tremendous. We see well over 10,000 fans at each game wearing our jerseys and rooting us on. Now, being with the Philadelphia Wings in the NLL, I’m very excited to be a part of such great tradition and support the city of Philly gives all of their teams. In that regards, my answer to this question in the future would be cities), in Boston and Philly…is that possible?!
Philly is known for having its ravenous fans…any stories from playing there that you want to share yet?
This is my first season with the Wings in the NLL. I’ve played in Philly as the opposition…and I heard it! I can’t wait to don the Red and Black this season and play my hardest for the city that has shown a lot of faith in my abilities.
From a business perspective, what are the benchmarks you set for yourself for success?
This is a loaded question…and there are a lot. I think the most important thing about building business from sports, launching a brand message and delivering the best presence across all TV, digital and print media is sticking to three basic foundations:
1. Never lose sight of continuing to work at being the best lacrosse player in the world
2. Build a personal, strong, unique and consistent brand message across all platforms
3. Each partnership and project I build should activate a new market in lacrosse, with goals to be built out into mainstream sports and media.