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Paul Rabil on the Championship Series, Sixes, and the PLL going forward

The PLL Championship Series wrapped up just outside of Washington DC on Sunday, having crowed Chrome the inaugural champion. The title game was thrilling, high scoring, exciting, and had just about everything a casual or well weathered lacrosse fan would love. It came down to the final position, there were physical plays, goals in key moments, star power on the field, and plays that made you marvel at what you just saw.


Fans, media, players, coaches, just about everyone was still very new to the Sixes format before this event. It was first on display at the World Games in Birmingham, a sort of dry run of the format that is billed as a way to get lacrosse to the Olympics in Los Angeles. No poles, shorter field, shorter clock, and no faceoffs after goals are the hallmark rule changes, and PLL further expanded those by adding a 13 yard two point line and allowing more contact. The two point line has become a staple of pro field lacrosse, although it is two yards deeper, and the contact invited more of a box lacrosse element to Sixes.


After the event, I think the hope was the have some answers about this format, this event, it’s future, and what happens now. But for any answers we got, there are more questions. After the Championship Series title game was over, PLL Co-Founder and former All Pro, Pro Champion, and World Champion Midfielder Paul Rabil met with the media to offer perspective and insight about the week, and what happens next.


Entering the room and as he sat down, Rabil had the same glow as a fan sitting in the bleachers for the title game. The Championship Series surely won some traditionalist converts over to the Sixes format; the title game had seen to that if nothing else. It was as if Rabil knew that the league had showcased a game that brought players and coaches to a childlike level of joy and love for the sport.


LEARNING FROM THE WEEK THAT WAS


“It was an incredible week. I have to say I thought the product we saw on the field exceeded any expectations. That’s saying a lot, because we have lofty ones at the Premier Lacrosse League. Putting it together was nuanced; the game and the rules have been submitted a few times over the last three or four years. Incorporating a version of the PLL, with the two point arc, contact, I thought our officials did fantastic. Players and coaches were amazing. I was anticipating the knockout stages in particular because I knew some of them were holding back some strategy,” Rabil opened.


“In the end so much gratitude for all of you for coming, fans for watching and supporting, fans for attending, and our league front office for a hell of an effort to put this all together. We look forward to continuing to build it in future years and I know from the four teams that didn’t get in, they are chomping at the bit to finish in the top four this year. And that’s part of the narrative we want to create in professional lacrosse.”


As fans, there’s always a feeling of the players and coaches knowing more than anyone else about the way to play a sport. They’re the pros, the guys on the TV who do nothing but play this game at the highest level. For Sixes though, they were just as new to it as some fans might be. It was a level playing field in that regard. And the adjustment would have to be made by all to this format where scoring would be fast and furious, there’d be no time for breaks, and the biggest play of the game always felt seconds away.


“I said it to start the week, I thought teams would quickly understand the weight of a goal. For me, that’s sort of defined by when we play 10 on 10 field lacrosse and someone scores, you get together and you decide how the hell that happened. You build a scouting report, and your job is to try and hold them to fewer than seven for really good defenses. Same thing in hockey, same thing in soccer. But different in basketball, because you just know you’re going to get scored on. So how are you playing with that dynamic strategically, how are you understanding an 8-minute quarter, 30 second shot clock, and playing a team that has range in this version of Sixes versus a team who doesn’t,” Rabil said.


In addition to the play on the field, the broadcasting of Sixes is fairly uncharted waters. Outside of streams from the World Games, fans haven’t seen much and broadcasters haven’t called much. But Sixes did offer an opportunity to solve a common problem from field.


“We’ll learn more about it, especially as we fan survey and pull in data from other property heads. One of which is when we think about how the game is related to a casual sports fan on TV. There’s a difference from field lacrosse, with 12 guys on side, 6 on 6, and a goalie, not every guy is typically on the picture. One of the things we get back from casual sports fans is that it’s difficult to track the ball. It took me decades to sit in and listen to that. Because as a player, I track it. But what we found here is the 10 guys on the field were all in the picture, and it’s closer. So that wasn’t a complaint. It wasn’t as hard to follow the ball,” Rabil said.


That seems simple, but it’s a part of making the game accessible to the new lacrosse fan, or the person who is watching for the first time, which is what’s at the heart of this format.

The broadcast is still evolving, as even a seasoned lacrosse broadcasting veteran and brilliant lacrosse mind, like Ryan Boyle is finding his footing. The game moves so fast in Sixes, it can be challenging to really get analysis in during games and not strictly stay in the play that’s happening live. Replays are difficult when the play never stops.


FROM THE FRONT OFFICE


From the business side of things, Rabil sounded happy with the results of the weekend. In fact, an event like this has been something the PLL has been considering for years.


“We’ve discussed for several years now, what would it look like if PLL goes into a market and creates a stadium? We had this beautiful world class facility, but in the end, you really have a turf field. So, we worked with the St James folks and they were fantastic, as well as Events DC. Thinking about our markets, this venue fit. And we trialed a lot here, so it was a great learning experience. But we were able to see, if you build something up, especially that feels so exciting, there is a lot more commercial value there. We are really pleased with the venue and Events DC, Ticketmaster came on and supported it, and we brought in other partners,” Rabil said.


The build of the event featured some PLL weekend staples. The Premier Zone was set up at one end of the field, with tents and things for families to do as the game went on behind them. Flanking one sideline was a hospitality area with suite type seating. On the other end of the field was the Bar Down area, a 21+ section with a multiple bars, seating, games, and food. This was something the PLL hadn’t really done before from the ground up, but was successful, as the Saturday crowd in particular was robust and very much enjoying themselves.


The tournament also, as Rabil said, offered learning experience.


“At the ground level, selling tickets, we really learned a lot. And we thought we did a good job. We learned a lot because we’ve never played a game on a Wednesday night. We’re in February here, high school tryouts have kicked off, they’re finishing at six, and ESPN2 gave us our first window at 5:30. So there were a lot of things at play here. We were really excited to see that there’s some staying power for four teams that aren’t tied to a market, in a market, playing in five consecutive days,” he said.


Rabil said they went into almost as a loss leader, and then found they could create something really valuable. And now, his focus turns to connecting USA Lacrosse, World Lacrosse, Canada Lacrosse, and others to try and enhance the bid made for the Olympics in 2028.


Of course, the question had to be asked of Rabil. Did he consider playing?


“When I retired, and we were starting to think about Championship Series. I was like, well, if the Cannons make it…then I had a second knee surgery. So, it actually might have been harder if the Cannons were here. But I would have loved playing in this format. It brings me back to the seven years playing in the National Lacrosse League and learned so much playing that game. There’s so much skill in it. But before I was ever introduced to that, my foray into indoor lacrosse was much like this,” said Rabil, adding, “Growing up in Maryland, it gets cold for a long time. At Hopkins it would snow in March. I played a lot of indoor lacrosse with six-by-six nets and it was amazing. I would have loved this. The version of myself that I see is more like Romar. The older version, I’m probably cutting more.”


PLAYER BUY IN


With an event like this, it’s easy to have criticisms about player buy in at the ready. It’s a week-long round robin tournament with no real impact on the summer season. So it was easy to suggest players might take it easy, and have something like an NBA All Star game approach to the event, scoring plenty of goals while playing at 60% effort. But these pros aren’t wired that way.


“I was at a round table discussing the prospect of LIV Golf coming around with some PGA executives. We were thinking through the integrity of what golf was feeling and if it was at risk. We don’t make the wages of PGA players. Every athlete, whether you’re a golfer, NHL player, MLB, NFL, NBA, Premier League, Premier Lacrosse League – when you’re the best at what you do, there is more at stake than wages. Your reputation, your legacy, with these guys it’s part of how their bred. It’s so difficult to make it to this level in any discipline. And that was put to the test for 10 years of my career in MLL and 20 years of others. You hear about it from Ryan Boyle and our inaugural Hall of Fame class, talking about how they would have loved to play in this environment today. They laid the ground work for where we are today, and what we are doing now creating this supplemental property,” said Rabil. He also added that the compensation for players to the tournament was significant.


All players who participated in the Championship Series got $5,000. Every player and coach on the team that won took home a bonus check for $10,000. The runners up got $2,500 per player. To win the tournament, meant you were going home with $15,000 for a week long event.


“Frankly, to be out here and play for $15,000 in five days is not something that came along much for professional lacrosse players. We want to continue to build on that like we have with our summer season. There are more steps ahead of us to create a more exciting environment. Every day when I get up, I think about how I get these guys paid more, to being full time, as many of them as possible,” said Rabil.


ON WORKING WITH SPORTS BOOKS


The explosion of sports wagering in the United States means that whenever a sporting event is announced, the immediate question that follows is, “can I bet on it?”


Six different sports books offered odds on the PLL Championship Series. This despite having no real data to go on. It’s a brand-new format, with some new players, all sorts of unknowns. But betting has been part of the PLL plan since the pandemic.


“I give credit to our strategy team and some of the folks on our BD team who have been working with sports books since 2020. The halting of professional sports in March that year enabled us to sort of jump to the front of the line proactively, and work on all the licensing, clearances, and governance required to get in. That would have taken ages if it wasn’t for the pandemic putting everyone on hold. Since then, we worked with DraftKings in an official capacity in the 2020 and 2021 season. Now we’ve unlocked, in a non-exclusive capacity, six books” said Rabil.


In the future, Rabil said the PLL hopes that events like this create enough of a ground swell that these books will build their own in house data teams for lacrosse. For now, the PLL business intelligence team continues to provide data. Either way, wagering is a key part of growth.


WHAT HAPPENS NOW


There’s already a lot to review. From building the event in a way that had new features, to playing mid-week games, evaluating the data from the wagering side of things, and trying to align with World Lacrosse and talk through this version of Sixes, there is no shortage of big picture things to do. And it doesn’t end there.


Currently, the top four teams in the PLL regular season enter the Championship Series the following year. However, Championship Series results don’t currently have any impact on the upcoming regular season. Could that change?


“We hadn’t thought about the benefit of winning the Championship Series into the subsequent season, it’s mainly been in reverse order. I think what we put on has made all eight teams really compete for those top four seeds. Just like everything, we’ll take a look at it. We’ll see where it works, where we need to improve. There are all sorts of things where, as we continue to grow both properties, we might unlock other connective tissue for the two,” said Rabil.


It was hard to find a lot about the Sixes event that went wrong. There will be criticism from fans who want to see poles, see faceoffs, and full 10 on 10 as the game they love most. That’s completely valid and it’s fair to like whatever version of lacrosse you want. Because none of that isn’t going anywhere. The PLL isn’t going to become a Sixes league in May.

This felt very much like a trial run of something that could be a special event every year. Research and development, study and grow. Study not just things about the game you might want to change, but about the experience of the PLL. Venues, fans, locations, timing, and all on the basis of it being driven by fun.

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