This edition of Quotables is a transcript of Paul and Mike Rabil’s press availability on Saturday, September 23rd, prior to the PLL Championship Game. They were available following media interviews with the Waterdogs and Archers.
Thoughts on the season and Championship Weekend…
Paul Rabil: We’re excited to be here. It’s great to see you all, everyone online. I would first say that being in Philadelphia, now for the third time hosting a championship game, has been nothing short of extraordinary. With the city, the way the Philadelphia Union support us, the lacrosse fans around the area. Second thing I’d like to acknowledge is mother nature and all of her different characteristics that will show up this weekend (smiles). This is a very nice reminder that we are playing the native american game. And the form it shows up in on Sunday will be a form of celebration. I’d also like to give a shout out Coach Bates, Ryan Ambler, and Michael Sowers. It sounds like they have about as many tickets purchased for the game as there were people in the stands at my rookie year first game in New Jersey. Shout out to those three, I wish I had played with them then. We’re really excited for this game. This is a game to me that I’ve sort of been crossing my fingers and hoping for after seeing both of their matches in Dallas and Salt Lake. These are two teams that dominated their opponent in the semifinals. 17-6 Waterdogs won, 14-6 Archers won. They played two one goal games, 19-18 and 14-13, both of them have incredibly exciting about powerful offenses. But judging by two weeks ago, two Canadian goaltenders, both national team players in Brett Dobson and Dillon Ward, will make this game even more special. I would expect some big runs like both of their first matchups had. I think in the first game there was a big run in the 1st quarter, second game there was a big run in the 4th. And stints of great goaltending and great defense. Hoping for another one goal game, we are super excited to be here, and I can’t wait to see it all unfold.
Mike Rabil: This year has gone by really fast. I can’t believe it’s our fifth season. The numbers are still coming in, but it’s going to be a growth year on the business side again, which is a testament to all the hardwork of the PLL, our colleagues, and the players. They really lean into promotion and spreading the word. You heard Tom [Schreiber] talk about his time on sportscenter, the accessibility of the players give not only to fans but members of the media, is unlike any other sport I think, from what I’ve seen. Win or lose these guys shake hands, they sign autographs, that’s special and unique. It gives Paul, myself, and our colleagues energy to continue to push this sport forward at the professional level. A couple stats that we are excited about. We make investments at the end of the year, we make investments with our board, we get approval and hope it turns out well. One of the big ones was an investment in technology and our app. Our thought was, there’s a lot of consumer fatigue around apps. We wanted to make it a place of value. So this year you saw a completely revamped experience throughout the entire app. You saw fan gamification called PLL Nation, that rewards fans through their engagement with the PLL in every single stage, real life and digital. Obviously our stats and exclusive content you can get throughout. I just got a notification to make sure I was playing fantasy; our fantasy is experience is new and improved, it changes every single week. We have to provide value to our fans and our technology team and our product team led by our VP of Product has really leaned into that investment and created an amazing experience. In app usage is up 300% this year. Another area that we really invested in was fan experience. We created Bar Down lounge and a better Premier Zone experience. We brought our fans to create more experiential engagement with fans. That’s led to a 20% increase in ticket sales this year so far. The last one is the continued effort on the partnership marketing side. We have a great leader in Kristen Bandos. A lot of our tier one partners continue to come back and invest. You see what CashApp is doing this weekend throwing a pregame party. You saw partners like Ticketmaster, Champion, and Progressive continue to support and lean in at that tier one level. We new partners such as Lax World doing an amazing activation on site. Rebel Bourbon, Charlotte’s Web, ReCreate, you even see Dude Wipes, who picked the Waterdogs as a jersey partner and are riding that to the championship. We’re really excited about this year and what we’ve been able to do, and like Kieran [McArdle] just said, the job's not finished.
On the grassroots marketing in Philadelphia being elevated, and if how close it would be to a home market team experience
MR: It’s a good observation. And that credit goes to our marketing and growth teams. It’s a concerted effort, it’s called out Shield Team. A lot of what they’re doing is exactly what you’re saying, testing out community activation, engagement, spreading the word hand by hand. Really going out there and meeting the community fans where they are in addition to Ops at the game, understanding the market, and building activations around iconic places in a city. We’ve been doing that all year long, it’s led by Mick Davis and Allie Fowler, they’re doing an incredible job. But that is the baseline foundation of how we will be doing things next year. Obviously it’ll be even more unique and specific to the teams in those markets.
PR: I would add that our Academy team beginning in the first year did a really good job of deploying players in markets; hosting camps and clinics on game weekends. Then a special shout out to Eric Mathieu and Tommy Goldman on our Assists team that did this all year long. They would connect with players and go to local hospitals. So Assists, Academy, and our Shield team are all a part of this full on effort to bring teams into communities especially as we go into next year.
What has Philadelphia come to mean to both Mike and Paul?
PR: I would start by saying Philadelphia is a really important market to us. One that has now hosted the Championship three times and the semifinals once. The only regret I have is that they didn’t get a regular season weekend. But there’s a reason that lacrosse, for us and even my time prior to the PLL, excelled in Philadelphia. My first Final Four in 2005 was at The Linc. There is something in the air around the culminating game I suppose. We love this venue, we work closely with the Union, and I think that, among a number of other reasons, being sort of central to the North Atlantic and Mid-Atlantic regions, has positioned the market really well for these major games. As we wrap this season and look into next year, especially with Project Next, those factors are a big part of our decision around where teams go. But it’s safe to say that regardless of our eight teams locations, Philadelphia is going to be on the map for us long into the future.
MR: I think Paul nailed it. There is something about the people in Philly and how much they care about the sport that we feed off of. We love hosting our Championship games here. It feels like the appropriate place to culminate. There is pure energy for the sport, some of the best players ever have come from this town. It feels like where championships are played. That’s what we say, championships are made here. We love this town.
Lacrosse having momentum right now, and what lacrosse being in the Olympics would mean for the growth of the PLL and the sport in general?
PR: There’s two areas that come to mind. One is that ultimate global validation of the sport when you hold the Olympic rings, which as you all know we once did. It’s a great stamp of approval. The second is unlocking resources internationally. Once you are participating in an olympic games, then you are by discipline granted a position at the training grounds, and additional resources pending the country and the governing body. So that’s really important because I think most of the leaders in lacrosse over the last 25 years have done their fair share in trying to resource the growth of the game. This would then take on the national governing bodies in a new way. Whether we get into LA or not, we’ll find out shortly. I can’t express enough how important it is that we are an Olympic sanctioned sport and we got that recognition by the IOC. There’s a lot of phases that can be confusing but the phase that we are on now is getting into the next games. I’m hopeful that we can. And then we’ll immediately start focusing on how do we get into 2032. Because it’s not a final decision there. But we are excited about being here and having this conversation.
MR: Paul hit the nail on the head. For me, it’s an appreciation for the work that Paul has put into this. Paul doesn’t get his flowers enough so I’m here to do it (laughs). Especially Jim Scherr at World Lacrosse and Joe Tsai, and Jim’s team, we have some folks at the PLL on the strategy side, who have all been spending a lot of time to try and help this effort. It’ll be a collective effort if it happens. There’s been a lot of work that people don’t see that Paul and Joe and Jim’s team are putting into this, and I’m appreciative of it.
How close are we adding more teams or more games to the regular season? And are there moments you are most proud of?
MR: Man, that’s a lot. I think on the teams side, it’s something we always evaluate. That said, we are big fans of, we started five years ago with six and we’re at eight, and we’re always looking to the future as Paul noted earlier around expansion, parity is important. Competition in game play is important. That helps growth, that helps keep people engaged, that keeps eyeballs throughout the season. And that’s ultimately how this wins. So we keep a close eye on that, our lacrosse product team is focused on making sure there are opportunities not only during the regular season. With the addition of Championship Series, that gave a lot of new opportunities for players that maybe couldn’t necessarily break a roster, were a better fit for that style, or there was an injury and they stepped up. So we want to continue to create more opportunities for players, but we have to have an eye on parity and competition. I think more games is something we are considering all the time. Just from a tonnage perspective, that’s also how you can drive revenue to the league, just more games. Again, parity needs to make sense. More means maybe issues around just too much. At the same time, we want to look at how to expand our season in the right way, and we'll continue to push on and think critically internally.
The last piece, favorite moments, I think there are all the small things. I try to reflect more on the journey than the end result these days, and focusing myself to do so. The journey moments of whatever happens tomorrow in the rain, or not the rain. The hard work late in the office with someone, unlocking something creatively. Moments when you’re able to hug a player extra hard for whatever they were able to do on the field, win or lose. Those little micro moments that aren’t on a camera I think make the journey what we’ll look back on 30 years from now as what we remember the most.
PR: I’ll add on the schedule front, we’re really excited about this year’s championship series. I think the teams are as well, having gotten a chance to see the product last February and the excitement, the flow, the pace of that game. It’s something we want to continue to improve on in the way we are marketing, promoting, and activating in the Championship Series. We have some announcements coming up this offseason that’ll bring more clarity around it. The four teams that are in there are gonna bring it. It’ll be the first time we see four teams representing home markets as well, which is pretty unique. I’m excited about that and how that property can evolve, especially dovetailing on the question around Olympic inclusion for LA 2028 or not. But very excited about Sixes as a property and the Championship Series.
MR: Street Lacrosse?
PR: Yeah that was a good moment.
MR: I’m just guessing that’s yours.
PR: Oh (laughs). Street lacrosse is one of my favorite moments of the last two weeks. Tom Brady would say favorite moment is the next one. I think there are too many to pick one. I remember June 1st, 2018, opening weekend at Gillette. Not playing in that game, but being on the sideline, giving this guy [Mike] a big bear hug. Then being between games, I remember not thinking through how to get to the facility on the other side. Because Atlas was practicing between the two games. So I went from having a conversation with Burmeister on the field to a quarter mile jog around Gillette and unfortunately having to pass on some photos and autographs with young Boston players to get to the practice. Then being like, “holy shit, the enormity of this is crazy.” Follow that with the second week at Red Bull Arena. We learned so much about our business then. It was hard to move tickets that weekend. That was the biggest weekend of the summer for youth tournaments, and I think we learned about the PATH train from Manhattan, we learned about New Jersey as lacrosse fans, and we learned so much that when we played at Red Bull for the Quarters it was a totally different experience that same year. I had the distinct honor to retire in this league, and now just the pleasure of continuing to be a part of it.
Paul, can you describe the importance of relationships like the one with the Union and with other venues, particularly with an eye on Project Next.
PR: I’ll let Mike take it, he often leads the conversations with our COO Andrew Sinnenberg around partnerships, venues, tours and groups.
MR: With the Union specifically, some of the front office at the Philadelphia Union are lacrosse fans. That helps. They are lacrosse parents too, and they’re fans of the PLL. So that helps often. They have a schedule to work around with MLS and concerts and things. Just generally for Project Next, we look at folks in market. When I say folks in market I mean pro sports owners, sports commissions, tourism boards, and then stadium owners. Those things are part of the algorithm that we have to fit into what makes this a good three to five year lock. And then the future from there is obviously still to be determined. But that’s part of the recipe that goes into this. Obviously the fan vote is a huge part of it, it’s not just us picking on a white board, there has to be a lot of things that fold into it. Then our broadcast relationship with ESPN, which is one of the most important relationships we’ve ever had. We need to make sure that where we go, and the dates we choose, fit with them and we’re able to optimize for eyeballs. All those things are part of the calculus. And somehow our COO Andrew Sinnenberg has kept every hair on his head the last five years, I don’t know how.
You both come from extensive athletic backgrounds but now being firmly entrenched in the business world, what kind of overlap have you personally experienced this week leading up to a Championship? Adrenaline, nerves, pressure, how does it feel, and is it similar to actually playing?
MR: Paul is far better to talk about championships, I never won any championship, I’ve never been to any championship games. I played college football for a champion. My coach who I was lucky enough to play for at Dartmouth recently passed away, Buddy Teevens, this week. What he would have told me is that I just need to be prepared for everything. That’s what he was always doing. I remember my senior year, I was lucky enough to captain for him. I thought I could beat him on Sunday mornings after Saturdays to the film room. Saturday night, sometimes guys go out, so I would try and get up there at like 8am and think that I would beat Coach Teevens to the locker room to watch film. He was already there, already finished a workout, already watched the film twice and already had me graded. So what I take from that is to be prepared. Our team is incredibly prepared right now. We’ve thought through all the different situations that can happen, ensuring it’s going to be the best experience that we can make and we can control both for fans and for players. That’s what we focus on, it’s part of our mission statement. So for me, I’ve never been a champion like Paul, I’ve never been to championship games, but I played for one, Buddy, so this weekend I’m going to remember what he taught me when I played for him.
For Project Next, what are you thinking branding wise in terms of using a city as a name like Philadelphia or Boston, or do you lean into a region like Carolina or New England?
PR: There is a blend I would say. Every pro sports league has a version of city, state, and region that’s represented and all three do quite well. I like to study the Premier League, and understand how in such a concentrated region you can have so many clubs that represent a relatively small mileage but have global brands. Then you look at the New England Patriots, the Golden State Warriors, the Carolina Panthers. A lot of their logo design was around reaching both North and South Carolina. Mike had sort of touched on the data that’s important to us. From a branding standpoint, I believe the branding will fit organically into the data. The stories are so vast in lacrosse adn the opportunity to play is really in every market across the US. Our branding marketing team is, not necessarily “up for the challenge” but really excited about how the respective teams connect with their fans.
Who ya got tomorrow?
PR: So, I think the Waterdogs played the most complete game of the year against the Cannons two weeks ago. It’s a really formidable team, and well coached. The Archers have the best resume of the year. I said this to start, but both games have been unbelievable to watch this season. We’re all hoping for a similar one. I didn’t answer the question on Championship mindset, but Tony Resch is one of the greatest coaches our sport has ever had. He has told stories in the past around Championship time. A lot of us will debate an entire roster and say in the championship it comes down to your best players. And if they play better than the other team’s best players. It’s not to say that you don’t have incredible emerging moments, whether it’s the college final four and a freshman goes off, or in a PLL final you’ll have a second line midfielder go for three. But your top has to play top. And the fun part about tomorrow is we have Dillon Ward and Brett Dobson. Make no mistake, and I wasn’t at training camp, but I’m sure that was a battle for starting position that was a difference of one or two saves. Then you have last year’s game MVP in Michael Sowers vs this year’s league MVP in Tom Schreiber. I would say, among those two matchups, Dillon and Brett have the ability to turn a game more than Michael and Tom because of their supporting groups. So I would keep a closer eye on that. If I were to say one or the other, I’d say Dillon. He’s 7-0 this year, and has won a World Championship and a PLL Championship. That’s just looking at it side by side. Dobson has been up against it his whole career, and he loves the doubt. So it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he responded.
MR: I should flip the question back to you guys. Because to give you guys your flowers, the members of the media this year, you guys are on the road with us, you come to games, you follow it closely, and I think lacrosse media has never been better, never been stronger, never paid more attention. Paul and I and the front office really appreciate the work you guys put into this. You have families, you have friends, you dedicate a lot to this and so do we, so I appreciate that. For me, I don’t purport to be able to make any sort of prediction because I am not as skilled in that as you guys. There are times where we see a team or lose or get knocked out of the playoffs and you feel for the guys. In any pro sport. You think man, they put their entire lives into that. Training all year round, this is their last moment to win or they retire the next year, the team won’t be back together. We spend a ton of time with the guys too. So if there’s a way for both of them to win tomorrow, then I’m rooting for that.