Meet the professional athlete who started his own league

MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. — Perched above Paul Rabil’s bed are a pair of knockoff Jackson Pollock paintings. A mishmash of green and blue and red dominates one canvas, black and yellow splatter another. They’re inexplicable. Pollock was known for spearheading the abstract expression movement in art.

Rabil, who painted the pieces with his mother, has long been lacrosse’s most famous player, known as much for his prowess off the field as on it. In 2013, he was declared lacrosse’s first million-dollar man, a testament to his personal business endeavors.

His rise was, in one part, standard. He built a business network, consumed as much knowledge as possible and strained through 80-hour workweeks. But the way he did it, the way he made money off a sport no one else can seem to significantly profit from, has been more Pollock.

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He’s obsessed with presentation. He only uses high-resolution photos, retaught himself speech therapy and attended improv acting classes. Their combination creates Paul Rabil the influencer, who’s been on an all-out social media blitz for more than a decade.

It’s all brought him here, to a 1,100 square-foot apartment two blocks from the Pacific Ocean, an hour removed from a shooting session. A list of meetings and appointments wait for him in an office down the road, but he pauses them all to explain the purpose behind his next venture.

“Being able to change the narrative around an entire community in sports,” Rabil says, “is something that's really exciting.”

Paul Rabil is the face of the new Premier Lacrosse League. (Getty Images)
Paul Rabil is the face of the new Premier Lacrosse League. (Getty Images)

Last October, he launched his latest project: the Premier Lacrosse League. Rabil and his brother Mike, a fellow co-founder, hope the league brings professional lacrosse mainstream, something that’s eluded the sport since the inception of Major League Lacrosse in 2001. In that year, 253,931 players — both men and women — participated in lacrosse. Since, the numbers more than tripled, according to US Lacrosse data. Still, in 2017, there were only 270 professional lacrosse players.

There’s room for growth in the sport, and Rabil wants to guide it there, the same way he built himself. Rabil’s long been sponsored by Red Bull and up until recently represented New Balance which owns the popular lacrosse equipment brand Warrior. Fans adore him on social media (see his 353,000 followers on Instagram) and he somehow became a big enough sports personality to attend events like the ESPYs and the Super Bowl, the facey events normally reserved for a real athlete.

But Rabil’s always had the itch to innovate. So, he left what was already successful and aggravated MLL owner Jim Davis (who also owns New Balance), eventually leading to the termination of his New Balance sponsorship, and a contentious back and forth with members of the MLL. At 33, he doesn’t have the time to train like he always has. He’s playing with a torn meniscus in his knee and slipped discs in his back because he knows the fans want to see the PLL’s top jersey seller on the field. Now ostracized from part of the sports professional market Rabil’s band, the one that put him in the position to start the PLL, is as vulnerable as its ever been.

“If we do this right,” Rabil says, “ the community benefits, the industry benefits, sports as a whole benefits, and then those who took all the risk can benefit from it as well.”

For those outside lacrosse, Rabil’s just another lacrosse player who thought he could revamp the sport. Maybe he’s successful, maybe he’s not. For those in it, though, they want to see what will become of the grand idea from its most favored son. Is it a masterpiece? Or is it splattered paint against the wall? The answer could determine whether he keeps the money, fame, and status he’s achieved, or whether he loses it.

‘The marketer’

Josh Lane, a fan from Florida whom Rabil had never met, released a video on YouTube after Rabil’s junior season at Johns Hopkins University. Breaking Benjamin rages in the background. The clips play: a crushing hit on a goaltender, an overtime game-winner, a six-point performance in a 2007 NCAA National Championship victory.

The video has more than 672,000 views. It was one of the first lacrosse videos to reach a wide internet audience. Soon, Rabil exceeded more Facebook friend requests then he could accept. He had reached Facebook’s capacity of 5,000 friends and the requests piled up.

He connected the dots. The exposure from social media and the television broadcast had made him a person of interest. As soon as he could, he swapped his Facebook profile from a personal account to a fan page, which didn’t limit the number of people who could see it. At that moment, Rabil decided to “go long” on social media, his favorite phrase for investmenting in something.

The first YouTube video posted on his account is a Q&A session for his blog. Rabil’s been documenting his life, both personal and athletic, ever since. He even jokes now that he wished he videoed more then, harping on himself for being too text and photo-heavy in his early days.

Atlas' Paul Rabil before a Premier Lacrosse League game on Sunday, July 7, 2019 in Washington. (AP)
Atlas' Paul Rabil before a Premier Lacrosse League game on Sunday, July 7, 2019 in Washington. (AP)

“I'm a marketer man,” Rabil said. “If I wasn't an athlete, I'd be working for Wyden Kennedy [known for work with Nike] or starting my own agency in sports or media ... I just care deeply about storytelling and what motivates people why they do what they do.”

Rabil was drafted as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 MLL draft when he signed with his first agent, who compared Rabil to a new car driving away from the dealership. The more time that passed from the national exposure in college, the less value Rabil’s brand would have. Not long after, Rabil fired the agent.

From his basement, Rabil videoed himself answering lacrosse questions and his first video to reach over 100,000 views is an explainer on how he tapes the bottom of his stick, featuring a lisp he’d eventually train himself not to use. At that point, he was still working a job in commercial real estate and the videos went on his blog Rabil’sarmy.com

Over the course of the next year he caught the eye of Under Armour, and lacrosse brand Maverick, eventually signing an endorsement deal worth $20,000 (He’d eventually send Lane a pair of Under Armour shoes). While pulling in around $25,000 from camps and clinics throughout the year, Rabil’s income averaged around $60,000. In June 2009, he decided he’d made enough money to quit his day job.

This opened a new world for Rabil, who said he was constantly trying to dispel the “weekend warrior” label slapped on lacrosse players. For many players at the time, it was true. The MLL player model included working a regular work week before cutting out early on Friday to commute to practice the night before a weekend game.

While Rabil’s peers were in a cubicle, he was posting his workouts with Jay Dyer, his former strength coach at Johns Hopkins. “This is important for us to be filming this stuff and sharing this stuff,” Rabil would tell Dyer when convincing him not to hide off camera. He created social media accounts for Dyer and preached to others at their workouts about posting online.

Rabil says he earned his degree in social and digital media “on the street.” It started with using a smartphone or GoPro, whom Rabil later made a sponsor. He’d spend hours editing his own videos and sharing them across platforms, always sporting his sponsors with a Red Bull hat or Warrior cleats. He experimented with the content produced and what social platforms were best, eventually leading to a five-year hiatus from YouTube.

In 2012, he went corporate. Rabil signed with Octagon, a sports and branding agency that represents athletes such as Steph Curry and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Octagon didn’t have a lacrosse category, so they labeled him a “personality.” His already existing influencer status on social media led to campaign-style ads which included a series called “Rabil’s Kitchen,” which was a collaboration with FitMenCook and Avocados from Mexico.

“[Social media] is about experimenting,” said Will Yoder, the former head of digital at Octagon. “You don't know what's going to work until you try it. So, he just tried to get out ahead of the curve.”

In 2013, Rabil and Yoder traveled to Austin, Texas, for South by Southwest, a conference attended by influencers across various mediums. It was abnormal for Yoder to attend a conference with a client, not a co-worker, but Rabil settled in quickly, filling an empty panel seat to discuss sports gambling and the future of content in sports.

For him, It was important to be up on that stage as an influencer, to be that lacrosse guy who people wondered about. He’d do the same at the ESPYs, where he used connections to slide onto the red carpet the first year and eventually became a regular at the Super Bowl and NBA All-Star weekend.

“You walk the red carpet,” Rabil said. “You act you like you belong. ... If an athlete or an entertainer is comfortable on a red carpet then [cameras] start flashing.”

As much as Rabil’s rise to lacrosse’s first millionaire was creating his brand, it was also figuring out how to use it. He introduced himself to industry professionals, like Philadelphia 76ers CEO Scott O’Neil. He slotted contact information and the content discussed into a document on his laptop.

That first year at South by Southwest, Rabil sat in the audience and listened to John Cena, who entered his informative session with his famous walk-up song and further captivated the room by speaking Mandarin at one point during the presentation. Cena’s main talking point was the WWE’s success with fans outside the broadcast. He talked about social media engagement and how the tour based model helped grow WWE.

After the conference, Rabil knew these were events he needed to attend. He contacted his publicist.

“What are the big sorts of conferences every year?” Rabil asked. “Where are they? And how can I go?”

Growing the game

Leaning on a stand-up desk in his office, Rabil describes the “morbid position” MLL executives had about the state of lacrosse. Loud banging echoes off the wall as his league’s core values are hung up outside Rabil’s office.

Think critically. Encourage creativity. Create like an owner.

There was a time when Rabil wanted to bring those ideas to the MLL, where he was twice an MVP and a 10-time All-Star. He felt the league was stagnant. In an analogy, Rabil’s brother compares MLL to waterfront property. The potential is there, but just owning the land won’t maximize the value.

Though the MLL added three teams between 2011 and 2018, the league’s overall attendance dropped by 3,000 attendees. Rabil recalls former MLL commissioner David Gross explaining to the players that they weren’t in meetings with major sponsors like Adidas and Nike or Coca-Cola and Pepsi. He told them none of the sponsors wanted anything to do with professional lacrosse.

“Why the hell are we even here?” Rabil remembers wondering. “I’m used to optimism. Even if it’s pseudo optimism.”

Paul Rabil (right) is no stranger to events like the ESPYs. (Getty Images)
Paul Rabil (right) is no stranger to events like the ESPYs. (Getty Images)

Rabil had already contributed to the game’s growth for years. Along with a business partner, he created Project Nine. Modeled after football’s Elite 11, the top level-prospect camp serves as a bridge between recruits and college lacrosse. He started a subscription-based program titled the Paul Rabil Experience, which allows anyone to pay for tutorial videos online.

There was an interest in lacrosse, it just didn’t work like other sports. Rabil wanted to innovate but MLL executives thought he didn’t understand what went into operating the league.

Other players saw what Rabil had done and wanted a bigger social media presence to promote the brands of themselves and their teams. They wanted larger contracts and healthcare benefits. They yearned for the life of a mainstream professional athlete, Rabil’s life.

“We thought that they just never listened to us because nothing ever happened because of it,” said Kyle Hartzell, a player who switched from the MLL to the PLL.

In 2015, Rabil’s contract with New Balance was expiring and he needed to re-negotiate with CEO Jim Davis, who also owned several MLL franchises. He didn't want to re-sign at New Balance without interviewing for leadership positions atop the MLL. Rabil and his brother interviewed, but feel they were never viewed as serious candidates.

Eventually, Rabil and his brother didn’t want to contribute to the league in executive roles anymore; they wanted to own it. That also failed, but Mike had already left his job. The Rabil’s were going to fund a new league with or without the MLL.

A few weeks before the Rabil's announced PLL, the brothers met with Brendan Kelly, an MLL owner, and Sandy Brown, the MLL’s commissioner, who had consumed the role just months before.

Brown hadn’t been in all of the meetings, the ones where the Rabil brothers felt their powerpoint presentations loaded with ideas for the league weren’t respected, where they were challenged to raise funding and threatened to start a competing league.

Brown wasn’t prepared to uproot his existing league and the Rabil’s weren’t planning to kill their dream. They had raised funding at this point, with support from well-respected investors, and had already acquired top-level players and inferred they may be fleecing the MLL of its talent.

“The MLL has been around for 19 years and it'll be around for another 19,” Mike Rabil remembers Brown saying.

Major League Lacrosse declined to make Sandy Brown available for this story.

“The attack was ‘we took all the best players so you guys are going to fold within months,’ ” Kelly told Yahoo Sports. “I just started laughing. I said, ‘Oh.’ I was like, well, that's not going to happen. I'm not folding."

On Oct. 22, 2018, the Rabil brothers appeared on Bloomberg and discussed the launch of their league.

“He's just been an incubator of doing this his whole entire life,” said Hartzel, Rabil’s former roommate. “He just didn’t know it.”

The bottom ticker on the Bloomberg broadcast read “Wall Street backs lacrosse league” as the brothers hyped their tour based structure and the focus on new media, the same way WWE and Cena had done.

The startup

With a newly acquired back brace and a freshly faded haircut, Rabil strolls the 13th floor of the PLL’s WeWork office space on the Pacific Coast Highway. The grey brace strapped to his waist like a reverse fanny pack should help keep him on the playing field. The fade will be covered by a black top hat later that evening as part of his outfit for Sports Illustrated’s Fashionable 50 event. They’re both equally important to promoting his and the league’s brand, so it’s worth the roughly two hours of driving which he must fill with phone calls to keep pace on the day.

“Listen, I’m the godfather of social,” Rabil says, glancing in the direction of a young PLL video host. “You were in middle school when I started on Facebook.”

Rabil pops by the social media corner of the office to workshop a tweet that will announce new rules for faceoffs in the All-Star Game. He decides comparing the new rules to other sports will make it more relatable for a broad audience.

“As you know people get caught in the words we use,” Rabil says.

The PLL isn’t adopting the new rules. It’s implementing them.

The league’s assumed Rabil’s social strategies. Everything’s recorded, and game broadcasts feature mic’d up players, bringing the drama of HBO’s “Hard Knocks” to a live game. When the PLL was stuck on how to announce which player’s teams, Rabil suggested custom Bitmojis. If league sponsor Adidas wants to create new jerseys, it goes through Rabil, the company’s chief strategy officer.

He has his own content creator now who records and edits content for Rabil’s social media accounts. He decided podcasting was the long-form medium to translate his old networking briefs. He circled back with prior connections and made new ones with influencers in sports and media to create his podcast, “Suiting Up with Paul Rabil.” Eleven years after his first video, Rabil records many of his vlogs in his upscale apartment near the ocean and the PLL will be releasing a documentary series on the league’s inception.

So far, the television ratings and attendance numbers reflect people like what they’ve seen on the canvas, which means Rabil will keep flinging ideas.

“One day when this league is where it’s going to be,” Rabil says as he shoots a slippery ball wide on the net, “we’re going to have a [new] ball for every play.”

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