Imagine if LeBron James left the NBA to start his own rival basketball league, and then, two years later, the leagues merged and moved forward under the name of LeBron’s league.
That’s what just happened in the niche world of professional outdoor lacrosse.
On Wednesday, MLL and PLL announced the leagues have merged, and will move forward under the PLL name. The leagues are not sharing financial terms of the deal.
Rabil left MLL because he felt the league was “broken.” (MLL Commissioner Sandy Brown told Yahoo Finance at the time that Rabil, then the league’s all-time scoring leader, “didn’t want to be part of an org chart.”) Now it’s hard not to view the merger as Rabil winning.
“I think it’s lacrosse winning,” Rabil told Yahoo Finance in a phone interview on Wednesday. “There has been some temporary disruption over the last couple of years, and I think good, healthy competition is what a lot of industries require to hit their sweet spot. My hope was always that a merger would come at some point. For us, being the new league in the room, we had a lot to accomplish and prove, and that wasn’t easy, but our year-over-year growth and sponsorships helped. And I think when you think about the public conversation about professional lacrosse, it has certainly grown since 2018.”
Indeed, PLL since its launch has scored financial backing from household names like Raine Group, Chernin Group, and CAA, as well as individual investment from Alibaba executive Joe Tsai, who owns the Brooklyn Nets, New York Liberty, and indoor lacrosse team San Diego Seals, and played lacrosse at Yale. The league has a broadcast deal with NBC, which Rabil has said was crucial to its growth. PLL also signed sponsors like Ticketmaster, Capital One, Gatorade, and Adidas.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, PLL returned in July for 16-day, 20-game, quarantined tournament played in Utah. Games were shown on NBC, NBC Sports Network, and the NBC Sports Gold streaming platform. Ratings for the tournament, though tiny compared to other major pro leagues (153,000 viewers per game, on average), were up 27% from the 2019 season, a success story despite the pandemic.
“We were lucky to get this deal done to wrap up a tumultuous 2020,” Rabil says. He compares the merger to the unions of the NFL and AFL (1966) and NBA and ABA (1976).
As part of the merger, the Boston Cannons will join the PLL as the league’s eighth team, and the remaining MLL franchises will be eligible for future PLL expansion. The Cannons will become the Cannons Lacrosse Club to fit with the PLL’s tour-based model, in which teams are not city-specific.
But Rabil does say the league could eventually assign teams to cities, and could launch a franchising model (PLL teams are currently owned by the league, and players can get stock options).
“We’re poised and positioned to transition, if it makes sense in the future, to a model similar to MLS,” Rabil says. “They call their ownership groups ‘operators,’ and I think that’s unique.”
PLL will announce the schedule for its 2021 season in January. “PLL will enter its third season, but with 20 years of MLL history bolted on,” says Rabil. “We’re pretty excited about that.”
Daniel Roberts is an editor-at-large at Yahoo Finance and specializes in sports business. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.