A story in Front Office Sports by A.J Perez reported that last year, Netflix had talks about acquiring the Premier Lacrosse League. As the lacrosse world is often want to do, we launched into our takes, this is good, this is bad, and of course #GrowTheGame sort of discourse. Upon reading the story, which for now is really a non-story from the lacrosse side as PLL declined to comment and the story as a whole was more about Netflix trying to get into live sports than it was a story about the PLL, I began trying to understand how it would work and why it would make sense for Netflix to do this. I still can’t.
Netflix wants in on live sports and is trying to find ways to do it. No stunner there really. Talks with PLL, and the World Surf League, went fruitless. Netflix tried to get the broadcast rights to F1 racing. Given that Netflix has Drive to Survive, a massively popular reality show that follows F1 every year, this makes plenty of sense, but ultimately as Front Office Sports says, ESPN kept F1.
The PLL portion of this is where the interest is to me, and where I tried to make sense of it. The reporting isn’t that Netflix was going to get the rights to show PLL games, the reporting is that Netflix had talks to acquire the PLL. The whole thing. That’s a big distinction. And at that point, I asked myself, is Netflix really trying to be in the business of operating a pro sports league?
They would be able to show live games. But if you acquire the PLL, you also have to operate the league. All that back office work, marketing, ticket sales, merchandise, player deals, everything else OTHER than the game. You do it all. Does Netflix want to do that? The simple answer is almost certainly not. But that’s an easy one to solve. Netflix just retains all the operations folks the PLL has right now to keep doing their jobs. They do their thing, Netflix does the TV thing. But is that worthwhile?
PLL valuations, as I’ve been told, in recent years are in the nine figure range. That’s what they’ve been raising money on. Just to keep numbers easy to think about, let’s call it $100 million. Hypothetical here. That means Netflix is going to pony up in the neighborhood of $100 million just to keep paying all the people who currently work for the PLL and broadcast live games? And not just any live games, live pro lacrosse games. Consider the floor of the PLL broadcast audience, that absolute lowest number they’ve done, because that’s the number of hardcore fans you can count on to watch every week. Let’s be generous a bit here and say it’s 100,000 people watching the random mid-season game that doesn’t have much buzz (two PLL games this year had audiences of 74k and 66k viewers). The scenario now is, Netflix pays $100 million to buy an entire league so it can keep paying the employees of that league to operate it and they can broadcast live games of a niche sport that has a viewership floor of about 100k viewers per game. I’m not exactly seeing a really sound investment there. Netflix has played fast and loose with money before. They have billions in cash to spend on just this kind of thing. But that scenario, even for Netflix, seems like a poor spend. I’ll watch every week. If you’re reading this, you probably will too. But Netflix doesn’t need me to watch. They’re making a $100 million bet that they can find, or make, 25-50 more of me, you, and those other hardcore folks.
Let’s go back to F1 for a second. There was a lot of talk around how Drive to Survive really bolstered the popularity of F1 in the US, and that’s true. Netflix can probably look at that and say that they, as a viewing platform and network, may have actually dropped the ball there. Why? Because people watch Drive to Survive then flip on ESPN to watch the race. Netflix did the hard part. They cranked up the sport’s popularity but aren’t able to really reap what they sowed because they aren’t showing the live competition for the sport they just gassed up, pun intended. Naturally the question follows, can't they just do that for lacrosse?
The docu-series angle is an interesting one. Because then the Netflix bet is more interesting. Netflix saying, “let’s see if we can give the PLL the treatment we gave F1” is worth considering because this time, they’d be making a play to be the winner on the back end of the popularity growth. If they are thinking they can do a PLL Drive to Survive, help the sport's popularity explode, only this time they also would get the benefit of showing the games. Tune into the Lax To Survive episode of the week on Friday, enjoy the PLL games on Saturday and Sunday, all on Netflix. That sounds like a Netflix type endeavor. There’s some wrinkles to that too though. The PLL already is out there with pretty solid media exposure in the US. They had the NBC deal, they have the ESPN deal, they are showing up on Sportscenter, Paul Rabil is talking to Stephen A Smith, they released Fate of a Sport on both ESPN+ and broadcast, they constantly let us know how great their social and app usage numbers are. The PLL is a long way from being in desperate need of further media exposure. Yes, it would all help, but F1 had none of those kinds of things before, and PLL is already in a ton of those channels.
Fate of a Sport is also interesting because it shows the PLL sort of already did the docu-series thing. That was it. The documentary about Paul Rabil and the launch of the PLL. Could the PLL spin up a new docu-series for Netflix? Probably. They have cameras running on all things all the time. No doubt there are hours and hours of footage that could be used to get something like that moving. But that sounds like the kind of thing the PLL would be pitching to Netflix, not the other way around. Either way, it seems more likely that Netflix be interested in something like that, and try to get broadcast rights as part of it, rather than buy the entire league. PLL is currently on ESPN, along with men's and women's college lacrosse, NLL, Athletes Unlimited, world lacrosse, you name it, if its lacrosse ESPN has it. That wasn't an accident.
If you want to really run wild with this, I’ve got a take for you. Netflix explored buying the wrong lacrosse league. Netflix and the NLL is a better partnership. NLL is closer to the F1 comp than the PLL is. Box lacrosse also has popularity across North America and is growing. The league is older and more established, has set geography with history, rivalries, players with stories, celebrity ownership, all sorts of things that people love. What the NLL doesn’t have is the level of exposure in media that the PLL generates for itself. The NLL also doesn’t really have quite the same rich, prep school kid stereotypes that field lacrosse does. Or at least if it does, they get dispelled in about two minutes of game viewing. It’s the lacrosse they play in Canada. A docu-series is more likely to, in my eyes, have the F1 effect on the NLL than the PLL.
All in all, I ultimately think this discussion is a bit of nothing. As we noted, Netflix is desperate to get into the live sports game. They have billions to spend on doing so. What they also probably have is someone whose has the job of connecting with sports leagues that are a niche but possibly acquirable. Lacrosse, surfing, so forth. They try to get ahold of the person responsible for media rights deals in pro leagues. Any pro league that will answer the phone, they're calling. If it’s pro sports and viewable anywhere, make a connection. Get a meeting. To that end, yes, I bet a "talks" happened. But I struggle to believe Netflix really wants to be running an entire pro sports league. And if they aren't, even with the absurd amount of cash on hand, buying the PLL doesn't feel like it fits.