Paul Rabil is on pins and needles as the Premier Lacrosse League gets set to decide its second champion amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’ve been pretty fortunate," Rabil said. “Guys are excited to get out and play, not only for themselves but for their teammates and all lacrosse fans and sports fans. This year has been a hard year.”
The PLL's second season never got started. Rabil and brother Mike, co-founders of the seven-team, tour-based league, had to shift into overdrive to come up with a viable plan after the sports world came to a screeching halt in March.
The Rabils mulled about a dozen different scenarios, and after talks with NBC, league commissioners, and health officials they opted for a 16-day tournament that will be played at Utah’s Zions Bank Stadium with no fans. Players and staff will be tested for COVID-19 and sequestered under strict quarantine during down time.
Action begins Saturday, and the players are eager for the opportunity.
“It’s been weird not playing lacrosse," said Connor Fields, a star in college at Albany (N.Y.) and now one of the league's marquee players after a standout first season. "I think we’re all pretty excited about playing again. We’d rather be out there playing and competing for a championship than staying home.”
The tournament represents an important moment for lacrosse. Broadcast partner NBC will air all 20 PLL games live across its various platforms in desirable time slots originally reserved for the postponed Tokyo Olympics.
“Seeing one of your windows that’s condensed over a 16-day period will feel like March Madness or the World Cup,” said Paul Rabil, who starred in college at Johns Hopkins and in the rival Major League Lacrosse before forming the PLL. "It’s one of those things that is fraught with anxiety and trauma that our country has been in during this global pandemic. We are sometimes given an opportunity to find the silver lining. For us as a sport and as a league, being able to find a solution that will give us more exposure than we would have ever dreamed of having I think is something that we’re really excited about, our players are excited about, I think the fans are excited about.
"We feel that lacrosse is the greatest game in the world, but if you can’t shout that out from the top of a mountain or at least be in front of 100 million homes, no one’s going to know.”
Major League Lacrosse also is conducting a tournament this week without fans at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland, to crown its 20th champion. Games are being broadcast on ESPN networks.
The PLL has created a different version of lacrosse in an effort to make the game more exciting and more appealing, especially to younger fans. Among the changes are a field shortened by 10 yards taken from the middle of the normal 110-yard length to create more chances for transition and scoring, and shortened playing time and shot clock duration. The league also developed a new partnership with sports betting provider DraftKings for the championship tournament to encourage fan engagement.
That's all a far cry from the version Native Americans played 400 years ago, which could feature teams of 100 men — or as many as 1,000 — on fields stretching for miles. But it works for fans who like a fast pace and goals that often come in bunches.
“One of our many objectives when we launched the PLL was to not only service the lacrosse fan in a way that they’ve never seen the pro game before, but also go after new fans,” said Paul Rabil, at 34 still a star on the field for his team, Atlas. "This is that moment.”
The Rabils also have developed a strong social media presence and made mic'd-up players the norm so they can comment live after big plays. The PLL uses as many as 15 cameras to shoot the action, giving the audience bird's-eye views of every big play.
“Whenever we expose our best athletes, it is a credible opportunity to spread the good word about how exciting our sport is,” said Steve Stenersen, president and CEO of U.S. Lacrosse, the sport's national governing body. "Showcasing the best athletes at the highest level and trying to maximize marketing exposure and media exposure of our best athletes is invaluable.”
Lacrosse has twice been a medal sport in the Summer Olympics (1904 and 1908) and last appeared in the 1948 Games as a demonstration sport. There’s a push afoot to get it in the 2028 Los Angeles Games.
“The sport is becoming more and more relevant and it continues to build a following ... around the world,” said Jim Scherr, chief executive of World Lacrosse. “We have some cause for optimism, but we don’t take anything for granted.”
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