Lacrosse may not leap to every mind when thinking of sports media juggernauts, but the centuries-old game is rapidly becoming a buzzy new draw with a fast-growing, young-skewing audience.
The Premier Lacrosse League leveraged the momentum this week, announcing a merger with more established predecessor Major League Lacrosse. The deal means the PLL will expand to eight teams for its third season next summer.
Paul Rabil, who plays for the PLL’s Atlas club, co-founded the league along with his brother, Mike, in 2018. Backers include CAA, The Chernin Group, Blum Capital, the Raine Group and Alibaba billionaire Joe Tsai, who also owns the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets.
A linchpin of the league’s creation was its media rights deal with NBC Sports. Under the multi-year deal, a handful of games are broadcast by NBC, dozens more on NBC Sports Network, while others stream on NBC Sports Gold. The subscription service launched in 2016, well before Peacock’s 2020 debut. The PLL last August earned acclaim for its response to the daunting limitations of 2020, convening a 16-day tournament in Utah without a single positive Covid-19 test result.
In an interview with Deadline, Rabil said lacrosse is ideally suited to streaming. Both the league and NBCUniversal have been pleased with the results in the first two seasons, and as the last year of the rights agreement is played in 2021, he anticipates that Peacock will be a major focus of a renewal.
“This all came at a really great time,” he said. Youth lacrosse participation has exploded across the U.S., and the college Final Four draws tens of thousands of fans at stadiums designed for football. Disney’s ESPN+ has extensive streaming rights to college lacrosse.
On NBC Sports Gold, “we did 3x their expectations,” Rabil said. Even with fewer games streaming on Gold, its subscriber base went up 133%. As a result, he said, “We are talking to NBC about potentially transitioning to Peacock.”
Live sports has been a key element of Peacock. In a staff memo Thursday, NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell said Premier League soccer matches have been the top driver of premium subscriptions and engagement. (Peacock Premium is offered at no extra cost to some pay-TV subscribers and costs $5 a month for others, or $10 for an ad-free version.) In January, Peacock will stream an NFL playoff game.
Even without a presence on Peacock, PLL viewership on NBC and NBCSN rose 33% in 2020, with a 47% spike in the prized 18-to-49 demo.
Of course, those gains were from a small base. In the NBCU ecosystem, though, PLL games are promoted on the company’s more established sports properties, so growth and visibility should continue, at a time when many sports — even the NFL — are seeing tune-in decline. NBC’s Olympics coverage in 2021 and 2022 — which Shell’s predecessor, Steve Burke, described as an “afterburner” for Peacock, will bring more attention to the sport. Lacrosse was played in two early-20th century editions of the Games and has been granted provisional recognition from the International Olympic Committee, putting it on a path toward a possible return for the LA Games in 2028.
Rabil, 35, sees streaming as a natural sandbox for the PLL. In developing his business interests alongside his playing career (he was a standout at Johns Hopkins, where he majored in political science major with a minor in entrepreneurship and management), he has admired figures like UFC president Dana White.
“The UFC was in our pitch deck from the beginning,” Rabil recalled. “What Dana White was able to do is exactly what we were aiming to do. He took a sport that had existed for a long time and he just presented it in an appealing package. Part of the reason we were so bullish on lacrosse was that it hadn’t been professionally produced and distributed before the PLL.”
After White overhauled the kinds of mixed-martial-arts bouts that had been staged for decades, the UFC eventually found enough of a potent, youthful following that Endeavor led the $4 billion acquisition of the circuit in 2016. Streaming, both through the company’s Fight Pass subscription service as well as partners like ESPN+ and DAZN, is a key strategic pillar.
The central role for Peacock in the outlook of NBCU and Comcast gives Rabil reason for optimism. “We pride ourselves on being innovative,” he said. “That’s why we’re excited to be exploring this transition.”
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