When the Premier Lacrosse League realized it was going to have to pivot to a bubble scenario in 2020, only its second season ever, it knew it’d need significant player buy-in. As a smaller league with just seven teams and fewer than 200 total players, it didn’t have the budget and resources of legacy leagues like the NBA. What it did have was greater agility and a family business mindset. At the PLL, it’s common for the co-founding Rabil brothers to call on staff and players directly; Paul Rabil even plays as a midfielder for PLL’s Atlas. Success meant leaning into that upstart vibe.
“We’re obviously a lot smaller. We don’t have the layers and layers of staff other leagues have, but we have agility,” says PLL doctor Catherine Logan. “Since we haven’t been doing this for decades, we aren’t stuck in old ways of thinking.”
In early April, the lacrosse league announced that it was postponing the start of its 2020 season, which was set to begin on May 29 in Foxborough, Mass., due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It swiftly formed a committee led by Logan and infectious disease experts to craft a lengthy document outlining the league’s COVID-19 response and protocols. It pivoted from the 14-week traveling season it had in its inaugural season to a two-week, 20-game season in Salt Lake City at Zions Bank Stadium.
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While a logistics crew got to work on securing the hotel and arena where the bubble would take place, the medical team built a health app in two weeks and dedicated resources to educating players about the threat of coronavirus and their role in compliance. They tapped enterprise app builder OutSystems to develop a custom internal app for health surveys, enabling them to easily manage everyone on site. All participants began filling out a 10-question survey about COVID-related symptoms two weeks before they went into the bubble, which Logan says was to “get them into a habit of playing close attention to how they were feeling and show that there’d be support from physicians if they weren’t feeling well.”
PLL assigned social captains to each team, who were responsible for taking their teammates’ temperatures each morning and acting as a liaison with the league staff. That way, “we had a visual on them” and could immediately isolate if someone showed signs of illness, says Logan.
“All the work we did beforehand gave us the most success,” she says. “When we entered the bubble, everyone had already done their prep and understood how things were going to go down. We tried to include everybody in the whole process.”
As a result, the PLL not only incubated a culture in which people were encouraged to speak openly about symptoms, it also reported zero positive COVID-19 cases during the tournament from July 25 to Aug. 9. And by executing its season in a bubble, it maintained all of its 2019 sponsors and added new major sponsors, including DraftKings. Just 10 days before the tournament kicked off, DraftKings became the official sports betting partner of the 2020 Championship Series and the league. It co-developed a proprietary lacrosse data analytics platform that highlighted key trends and lacrosse statistics that were showcased through analytical content on DraftKings’ platform and NBC broadcasts.
One of the secrets to this success, according to Rachael DeCecco, who was hired in the first week of March to head PLL’s youth academy, was athlete buy-in.
“I think everyone understood and was grateful we were going to have a season at all,” says DeCecco, who abruptly shifted her focus after the sports shutdown to help PLL design its bubble championship. “Everyone felt responsibility for the success of this and they felt part of it, and that went a long way.”
“Being small is really an advantage in these types of scenarios,” she adds. “Everyone feels a sense of responsibility, and that includes the players. So when Mike Rabil calls you directly and says this is what we’re going to do, you take that really seriously. Transparency, buy-in and communication allowed us to keep the bubble intact.”
Of course, larger leagues like the NBA and the NHL also emerged from their bubbles unscathed (the PLL only had 300 people in its bubble versus closer to 1,000 for the NBA). But as a coronavirus crisis now sweeps collegiate sports amid a spike in positive cases on college campuses, there’s value in looking at how small, lean leagues like the PLL emerged successfully without monster resources.
At SportTechie’s Sports Capital Symposium, held virtually two weeks ago in partnership with Monumental Sports and Entertainment, Paul Rabil said “the bubble model works.”
“We had already been doing this in a way. We take that kind of PGA Tour or that individual sports model as one week of a regular season. So we knew how to do it from an ops standpoint,” he says. “We extended it for three to four weeks if you include training camp, overlaid a really sophisticated medical health and safety protocol, and got perspective on how we could build an environment that was safe and operable. Then once we had that, it was like, ‘OK, this is business as usual.’ ”
To make up for the lost ticket sales, PLL leaned on content and gaming to drive impressions. In addition to the DraftKings partnership, it held a free-to-play bracket style fan championship where fans could predict winners for a chance to win prizes from brands like Hyperice and lacrosse gear maker STX.
“In a really compact season, or a tournament, you can actually pack in almost a full regular season’s worth of total impressions,” says Rabil.
The bracket tournament proved popular because a round robin-style of play was digestible for fans. It also attracted non-endemic sponsors that were interested in dipping their toes in lacrosse with a shorter-term commitment. An abbreviated season also reduced pandemic-related variables, a positive for sponsors. The NFL, MLB and college sports have all had to navigate complicated COVID-19 waters since their return and attempt at regular, fan-less seasons, leading to postponements in the major leagues and outright cancellations in the NCAA.
Rabil says the PLL might double down on the bubble model even as COVID-19 dissipates. “We’re learning a lot about this environment and ways that we can continue to roll out properties that may look like a bubble, just hopefully with fans in the future,” he says.
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In the same way that PLL was one of the first major sports to return in a bubble, the high school-level Nebraska Shrine Bowl was one of the first football events in the country to return. Held in a bubble that included a one-week training camp ahead of its July 11 game, it yielded no positive COVID-19 results.
With hardly any staff and a shoestring budget, the Shrine Bowl had to rely on the enthusiasm of players, their parents, and volunteers. Dave MacDonald, executive director of the Shrine Bowl of Nebraska, says buy-in was critical. “The parents of players were encouraging us to move forward.”
With just three months to completely overhaul the 62nd annual event, which raises money for the Shriners Hospital for Children, MacDonald and his team compiled a team led by Dave Regier, the Nebraska Shrine Bowl’s director of sports medicine, and drafted a lengthy plan in-line with state and federal health guidelines at a time when the state’s mandate on contact sports was shifting rapidly. And they did it with a core team of just 12 people. A handful of volunteers helped during training camp (25 people) and on game day (around 100).
“Because we are a charity event and the charity itself is looked at as being such a good cause, people were willing to step forward and help out,” says MacDonald. “It’s also considered the premiere high school football event for our state outside of the state championships, so from an athletic standpoint, it’s kind of the senior players’ dream to be able to participate. The cooperation we got from the community is not surprising, but the neighborly mentality helped enormously.”
The coronavirus pushed the high school to adopt new technologies. For the first time ever this year, Shrine Bowl Nebraska sold tickets online through its own website (it permitted fans to about 40% capacity, roughly 2,500 attendees). During game week, volunteers, coaches and players were given temperatures checks twice daily. They kept track of results using an online form managed by volunteers with an iPad. It also pushed out a livestream for only the second time ever to engage fans at home.
Like the PLL, the Shrine Bowl relied on social captains—but in a different way. It didn’t use them for COVID-19 accountability, but to help manage the event’s efforts to engage fans through social media during the first-ever capped Nebraska Shrine Bowl. The captains participated in social media takeovers spotlighting their teammates and coaches, actively reporting on life in the bubble through first-person videos about what they were doing for meals and how they were training.
The 2020 Nebraska Shrine Bowl was the first with social media captains, giving the event a new opportunity to engage with younger, more tech-savvy fans. It also created an opportunity to teach athletes about the importance of media, personal branding and content creation, an effort fueled by the uniqueness of a year without in-person fans. The Shrine Bowl brought in Striv.tv, a technology platform that helps schools livestream sporting events, to host a social media bootcamp for the 2020 players.
Striv.tv guided them through the process of what to post about and provided them with graphics cards featuring their headshots, similar to the digital bio graphics you’d see at the college or pro level.
“Striv.tv put together an informational educational program that helped players understand how to create, and not just consume, content,” says MacDonald. “We wanted to educate players about branding. Not just our brand, their own brand.”
The benefits extend beyond the athletes. Jon Ruybalid, president and COO of Striv.tv, says the streaming platform has seen an uptick in business by helping schools boost their livestreaming offerings in response to COVID-19. “Schools are not only concerned about their fans, they’re also worried about money,” he says. “How do they make up the gate revenue? They can do that through selling ads and running those ads during the livestream. Without a streaming option, they’re really stuck.”
At SportTechie’s Sports Capital Symposium last month, PLL’s Paul Rabil said the league learned early on that it has to “create more value for athletes.” Without even realizing it, the Nebraska Shrine Bowl did that through its inaugural social media bootcamp by engaging athletes and communities in simple, yet powerful ways. “We’re in a place in the world where I think athletes want to be entrepreneurs and investors, and investors and entrepreneurs want to be athletes,” Rabil says. “We’re seeing more athletes expound on their interest off the field, and it’s no longer a threat through the traditional lens of a GM or a coach.”
Meanwhile, MacDonald says the Shrine Bowl is planning for another social media bootcamp in 2021.
“One of the things we learned this year is you can have a lot of things thrown at you that you haven’t planned for, or even thought of before,” he says. “But if you take a step back and really think things through, and if you engage people in the right way, you can accomplish monumental tasks.”
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