The business of lacrosse

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In Paul Rabil’s large, tanned hands, the half-pint glass of beer might as well be the queen of England’s teacup.

Shortly after 6 on a Tuesday evening, the poster-boy of professional lacrosse grabs a bar stool at The Wharf Rat in Fells Point, not far from his Canton home. He tells the man tending bar he likes lighter beers, and then gets served a Barking Squirrel, which he sips approvingly. His hair, brown and shoulder-length, is still damp from the shower he took after his workout. His left foot pushes down on the floor to sturdy the muscular 6-foot-3, 220-pound frame on the stool. On top of Rabil’s head sits a fitted, flat-brimmed, blue baseball cap, innocuous enough except for what’s emblazoned on the front—the logo of energy drink manufacturer and part-time daredevil impresario Red Bull, which has been his corporate sponsor for more than three years.

It’s not just Red Bull that has put money into the 28-year-old midfielder from Gaithersburg. Rabil has endorsement deals with EFX, makers of athletic wristbands, and funky Nooka watches. He has an eponymous line of apparel and on-the-field lacrosse gear, including lacrosse handles and heads (the lacrosse stick, for we non-laxers) with the Warrior brand, owned by deep-pocketed New Balance. Bill Belichick, the sullen-faced New England Patriots coach, has been photographed wearing a T-shirt from Rabil’s Warrior line. (We hear he’s a fan.)

Widely regarded as the finest player in the sport, Rabil plays in both pro leagues—the outdoor Major League Lacrosse (for the Boston Cannons) and the indoor National Lacrosse League (for the Philadelphia Wings). He was the top pick in the 2008 MLL collegiate draft and earns an annual salary of $65,000—in a sport where the average income for pro players is about 20 grand a year. (The old adage about not quitting your day job holds true in professional lacrosse; Rabil plays alongside stockbrokers, sales reps and other guys with typical nine-to-five jobs.)

But Rabil’s life—and net worth—are about to skyrocket. By the end of 2013, Rabil was sponsored by about a half-dozen companies, according to Ira Rainess, his Baltimore-based advisor, who has also repped Cal Ripken Jr. and Ray Lewis. And over the next several years, these sponsorship deals will net him a couple million dollars, making Paul Rabil the first professional lacrosse player to earn seven figures.

While Rabil’s forthcoming financial milestone is decidedly a product of his own likeability and success—including two NCAA lacrosse championships with Johns Hopkins University, a gold medal with Team USA in the world lacrosse championships in 2010, and a 2011 MLL championship in with the Boston Cannons—he’s gotten a boost from the sport’s surging popularity.

Lax is the fastest-growing sport in the last 10 years, according Baltimore-based US Lacrosse, the sport’s national governing body. More than 720,000 players at the under-15, high school, collegiate and professional levels play the game, compared to roughly the 250,000 counted in 2001, the inaugural season of Major League Lacrosse. Long confined to New England and the mid-Atlantic states, the sport is now spreading to the South, the Midwest and West, with clinics popping up in Louisiana, Utah, Colorado and California.

“Over the last 30 years, it has become a very, very cool game,” says Michael French, co-owner of the Philadelphia Wings, one of the nine teams in the indoor National Lacrosse League founded in 1987. “We’ll go and play against the Mammoth in Colorado and they’ll have 18,000 people at the game. It’s no longer a sport of the Northeast.”

Those attendance figures have marketing and product development teams spinning at some of the biggest brands around the county.

“Their research is telling them to get into the game now,” says Rainess, who himself played lacrosse at Pikesville High School. Just one gem of a statistic: A recent Sports and Fitness Industry Association survey found that 43 percent of lacrosse players come from households with annual incomes higher than $100,000.

“It’s a market where there’s plenty of disposable income to buy products—and lacrosse fans are very enthusiastic about the game,” Rainess continues. “In the next two or three years, you’re going to see a lot of companies investing in this sport.”

Note to Under Armour: put your chips in now before some other apparel company or shoe brand ends up owning the sport at the professional level.

Interestingly, Paul Rabil—a middle-class kid whose mom is a Catholic school art teacher and dad is a sales rep for a printing company in Washington, D.C.—was more excited about soccer and basketball up until he hit high school. He didn’t even touch a lacrosse stick before sixth grade, when a neighbor invited him to play.

“It’s an extremely technical sport, so I was behind,” Rabil says. “I was always sort of ahead athletically, with my size, but I struggled with it, and wanted to quit, because I was so far along in basketball and soccer.”

Instead of quitting, he doubled down and went to DeMatha High School to play lacrosse exclusively.

“I was the biggest lacrosse rat you could imagine,” he says. “For me, it was all part of growing up. As a kid, you look for ways to express yourself—and there’s nothing more comfortable than doing so on a field for me.”

During the season, Rabil practices twice a week and he lifts weights and shoots around every day. Over the summer he hosts lacrosse camps where he coaches 50 high school-age, offensive players he hand-selects.

Off the field, Rabil also works to grow the sport he loves by bringing it to the next generation. Through the foundation that bears his name, for instance, Rabil, in conjunction with Warrior, bought all the lacrosse gear and equipment for the Baltimore Lab School—and he personally provided coaching and consulting—to help develop the school’s first lacrosse team.

“Within a year they had men’s and women’s varsity programs with full schedules,” says Rabil, who has a strong affinity for helping kids with learning differences. Rabil has auditory processing disorder and his little sister, now in the fashion business in Boca Raton, has dyslexia and attended the Lab School of Washington, where he offers an annual scholarship. “We’re also working with the Jemicy School now to help redesign their uniforms and strengthen their lacrosse program. They really welcomed me with open arms,” he says.

Rabil’s passion for his sport—and his desire to pass it on—are palpable, but the athlete is in nearly equal measure a business strategist. Described by Rainess as a “very intellectual and professional” guy, the political science major who graduated from Hopkins with a 3.5 GPA and a minor in entrepreneurship meets with his advisor every single week on the top floor of a downtown Baltimore office building. There they talk over the possibility of Rabil endorsing different products that companies send in, and manage current sponsorship deals together. Before the deal with Warrior was etched in stone and the Rabil Collection officially rolled out, the two of them spent 18 months poring over the particulars, with Rabil using much of that time to test out the on-the-field gear.

“I really take pride in the entrepreneurial spirit and being a part of what my sponsors are doing,” Rabil says. “I don’t just want to wear a logo, I want to help grow and build brands.”

Of course, in many ways, Rabil is the brand.

“We’re looking to build up a Paul Rabil experience, or platform,” says Erin Kane, who heads up an internal team entirely dedicated to the Brand of Rabil at New York City-based marketing agency Octagon, where he signed a few months ago.

“Warrior is trying to replicate what Michael Jordan did with Nike,” says Howe Burch, executive vice president and managing director of TBC advertising agency in Fells Point, who has also spent time in the sports marketing departments of Fila and Reebok. “They’ve built a collection around Rabil, and hopefully that collection will endure long after he stops playing.”

Big shoes to fill indeed, but the man behind the lacrosse helmet—a man whose biceps are louder than the decibel level of his voice in a crowded bar—doesn’t get caught up in thinking of himself professional lacrosse’s prime-time player, even if The New York Times once crowned him the guy who will make lacrosse sexy to a national audience.

“That’s one of those things I don’t really think about,” Rabil says. “I get pegged on it occasionally, and I’m cool with it, but I really, truly do believe that lacrosse as a sport will one day be a mainstream game, and the growth will be unbelievable.”

Indeed, as more players like Rabil sign endorsement deals and present a version of lacrosse divorced from the perception of the college-age, beer-guzzling “lax bro,” Rainess predicts other companies will take the pro game seriously and gravitate to it.

“The growth of this sport is not going to stop,” says MLL commissioner David Gross. “It’s been growing at a 10 percent clip for the past decade. And once people get exposed to it, they get hooked.”

Read STYLE’s Q&A with Paul Rabil here. >>

 

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