Former Johns Hopkins star and Premier Lacrosse League co-founder Paul Rabil sat comfortably in a chair, one leg crossed over a knee, at Homewood Field on a hot Saturday afternoon, and he admired the scene.
Roughly 8,500 fans sat in the stands or milled about the fence that borders the artificial turf at what’s considered the Yankee Stadium of lacrosse. Droves of kids, some carrying lacrosse sticks, wore jerseys of their favorite pro players. Adults in hats wore sunscreen. The capacity crowd soaked up the late-summer heat and the first game of a pair of weekend PLL doubleheaders.
“Incredible,” Rabil said, taking a few moments to talk as the league-leading Archers Lacrosse Club faced the Atlas Lacrosse Club at the 100-plus-year-old venue on the north edge of the Johns Hopkins University campus. “Three o’clock on a Saturday. Dead of summer. Four games sold out both days. Standing room-only tickets left.”
The environment was everything Rabil, 37, imagined when he decided to launch the PLL in 2018 with his brother, Mike.
And a little bit more.
At home at Homewood
As he spoke Saturday, Rabil — who is from Gaithersburg, lived in Canton for a decade after starring at Johns Hopkins, then moved to California when starting the league — sat amid two rows of temporary seats at midfield in front of screaming fans who moments earlier had begged for autographs. Near him were family and friends including Rabil’s former college coach, Dave Pietramala, and Miles Harrison, the former Morgan State Ten Bear and father of 2005 Tewaaraton Award winner Kyle Harrison, who was in the press box providing commentary for ABC’s national broadcast.
“It feels like home,” Rabil said.
Home. That was an apropos word.
Depending on your familiarity with lacrosse, it might be new information that a professional form of the game exists. (Rabil, who was nicknamed the game’s first “Million-Dollar Man” a decade ago for his income earned mostly from endorsements, wants to make sure you know it does). Or, perhaps it would be more surprising to you to learn that Baltimore hasn’t been home to a pro men’s outdoor lacrosse team since 2006. Yet that might change soon, too, if Rabil has anything to say about it. And he does.
Baltimore, arguably the hottest of lacrosse hotbeds (only people from Long Island and perhaps central New York have legitimate arguments) is a favorite to be one of eight first-time home bases for PLL clubs when the league begins a sixth season next year. An official announcement on home sites should come in November.
Until now, the PLL has operated on a U.S. tour-based model. By design, teams have not been linked to any particular city or region during summerlong barnstorming schedules around the country. But that’s about to change.
In late May, Rabil announced that next year each of the existing eight PLL clubs will for the first time be assigned to home cities. The teams will still mostly play in a barnstorming format, but they will each host a weekend doubleheader in their home city or region in which they’ll play two games rather than one.
Last month, the league named 26 finalists for home bases, with Baltimore, the state of Maryland, and Washington, D.C., among them. Homewood Field, where Rabil starred as a player from 2005 to 2008, has hosted PLL events each year the league has toured, with more than 16,000 fans showing up for three games during the league’s inaugural visit in 2019.
“Baltimore is one of our favorite, highest-performing markets. There’s no question that a professional lacrosse team could have this city as its own,” Rabil told The Banner.
But it’s not a sure thing yet.
“What we have to also consider is the versatility of our business,” Rabil said. “We don’t own venues. We also know that in the great state of Maryland, where lacrosse is the official team sport of the state, you have areas like Annapolis, Montgomery County, Rockville, the DMV that identify with these teams as well.”
An alternative league
Rabil created the PLL as an alternative to now-defunct Major League Lacrosse — which he played in for 10 years with the Boston Cannons, Chesapeake Bayhawks and New York Lizards — in response to frustrations about the league’s lack of growth. Lacrosse’s best men’s players followed him to the new venture.
The start of a pivot toward locally affiliated teams — ”We’re being measured,” Rabil said — is an effort to grow local fan bases, have a year-round marketing presence in specific markets and possibly create more geographically oriented rosters. For example, the Archers’ Tom Schreiber, one of the top midfielders in the league, could be the Philadelphia Archers’ Tom Schreiber, and visit the area to do camps or clinics and interact with youth players.
PLL has had a remarkable reach on social media and television in its short existence, getting exposure on national broadcasts on NBC, ABC and ESPN. Last year, a game between the Archers and Cannons on ABC drew an average of 452,000 viewers, a record for a pro lacrosse game.
“We feel excited and ready to give fans of the PLL home teams,” PLL board member and Alibaba co-founder Joe Tsai, a Yale lacrosse alum and owner of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets and the San Diego Seals and Las Vegas Desert Dogs of the pro indoor National Lacrosse League, said in announcing the move. “It’s a big step. Teams that are embraced by their communities can become a symbol of how to engage, support and believe in something together. I’ve learned that every market interacts with their favorite team and players differently.”
The four-pack of well-attended games at Homewood Field over a sultry late-summer weekend marked a strong final audition before the league picks its eight host cities. It would be an appropriate choice since, way back in 1998, a sold-out men’s world championship final between the U.S. and Canada inspired the creation of the MLL in 2001.
“It’s such a beautiful venue,” Rabil said. “Not only its history of lacrosse but its capacity for PLL games. We’re playing four over the course of two days, which is a different sell than just one game. It’s easier to sell out one game; it’s hard to sell out four. This just shows the stickiness in the market.”
A brief history
The MLL’s Baltimore Bayhawks started playing at Homewood Field from 2001 to 2003 but moved to the campus of Towson University from 2004 to 2006 before relocating briefly to Washington and then Annapolis. That is where the franchise switched its name to the Chesapeake Bayhawks and enjoyed its greatest success at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium from 2009 until Rabil started the PLL venture and eventually merged with Major League Lacrosse in late 2020.
Numerous reasons have been given for why pro outdoor lacrosse hasn’t worked here, including the challenge of overcoming lacrosse saturation in an area where club tournaments, in which many would-be pro fans are playing themselves, are pervasive in the summer and follow busy school spring seasons. Other people lament convenient parking options, which Navy has many more compared to Johns Hopkins’ Homewood campus.
In any case, Rabil knows the potential of the area. Six NCAAA Division I men’s and women’s programs play within a 45-minute drive of the city: Johns Hopkins, Loyola, Towson, UMBC, Maryland and Navy. Many more private and public high schools do, too, and they send players to local colleges and around the country to play. Lacrosse nets on front lawns in certain neighborhoods are an expected part of the landscape. And the area has been home to post-collegiate teams for decades going back to the legendary Mount Washington Lacrosse Club team founded in 1904.
In one way, the area is already proving a renewed appetite for pro lacrosse. At the same time the PLL games were going on last weekend, USA Lacrosse headquarters in Sparks was hosting the third season of the Athletes Unlimited women’s professional league. Four straight weeks of games there, each broadcast on ESPN+, conclude Aug. 13.
To Rabil, the key is creating an event worth coming to and a product worth watching in an era of diminished attention spans and digital highlights. PLL games feature in-game music, an enthusiastic (and sometimes screaming) roaming PA announcer, good old-fashioned T-shirt tosses, a beer garden, sideline VIP ticket options, high-quality broadcasts, and players wearing cutting-edge jerseys for unconventionally named teams such as the Whipsnakes and Waterdogs (sponsored by Dude Wipes, allowing for a Dude of the Game in-stadium promotion). Social media influencers are invited to capture it all and share video on TikTok and YouTube. It works.
“The Baltimore Bayhawks were the OG team playing here,” Rabil said, “It’s like the old saying in ‘Field of Dreams,’ ‘If you build it they will come.’ Homewood’s built, but they don’t come unless you present an opportunity, especially in the dog days of summer.”
Players and coaches widely applauded the atmosphere at Johns Hopkins. “I’ve coached here a bunch of times back in my college coaching career,” said Atlas’ Mike Pressler, the former coach at Duke, Bryant and of the U.S. men’s national team. “It’s an awesome venue. The Cordish Center is here to house all the teams right here on campus. You’re playing in Baltimore in front of people who know the game and love the game and are fans of the sport. It was a great venue.”
Archers coach Chris Bates, who coached Princeton when it visited Johns Hopkins many times, said one of his players, former Virginia attackman Matt Moore, remarked, “Wow, this is cool,” when stepping on the field for the second half Saturday afternoon at what may have been peak capacity. After Saturday’s first nationally televised game, fans kept the stands packed for another tilt, which featured a heavy University of Maryland presence.
Baltimore, Annapolis or both?
Asked if Annapolis could also be home to a PLL team, Rabil didn’t rule it out but suggested the preference is focusing on as narrow a geographic area as possible. He mentioned the ultimate goal of attaining the mainstream pro sports model of teams playing entirely in home cities.
“The thing about our model is that, if there is a team in Maryland, you have the versatility of playing in Baltimore and Annapolis,” Rabil said. “So we looked at the regional benefits, but we also understand the more city-based benefits, which I think are more empowering. I look at the English Premier League, and you have teams that are defined by their neighborhoods that have a global presence. So I think fundamentally we want to start locally and build statewide, regionally, nationally and internationally.”
In Sunday’s weekend finale, for example, the Cannons Lacrosse Club roster featured seven Marylanders — Ryan Drenner (Westminster/Towson), Zach Goodrich (Kent Island/Towson), Kyle Hartzell (Archbishop Curley/Salisbury), Marcus Holman (Gilman), Stephen Kelly (Calvert Hall), Mark McNeill (St. Mary’s of Annapolis) and Matt Rees (Boys’ Latin/Navy) — two others who played at the University of Maryland, and the Cannons’ coach, Brian Holman (Marcus’ dad), went to Johns Hopkins and played goalie many moons ago. Maybe they could end up as the Baltimore Cannons.
“Coach Holman and Marcus are from right around the corner,” Drenner said. “We have a lot of guys that are from around here. It’s nice to be able to play in front of your friends and your family. A lot of Towson guys came up and shook my hand, and a lot of guys who I coached at York [Pennsylvania] and will be coaching at Gerstell [Academy, starting this fall]. There are so many connections. This area supports lacrosse, and a lot of them came out to see the games today.”
Corey McLaughlin is a veteran writer and editor who has covered sports in Baltimore for a decade, including for Baltimore magazine, USA Lacrosse Magazine and several other publications.