The upstart Premier Lacrosse League, which begins its inaugural season on June 1, has a new high-profile backer: Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. billionaire Joe Tsai.
The league just closed a Series A funding round that was led by Tsai, who also owns a stake in the National Basketball Association’s Brooklyn Nets. He’s joined in the investment by Hildene Capital Management President Brett Jefferson, who played lacrosse at Syracuse University, and the Raine Group, which led the league’s initial round in September. Terms of the latest financing deal weren’t disclosed.
The investors are betting that growing demand for live sports -- along with lacrosse’s fervent and well-heeled fan base -- can help sustain a new league. The PLL was co-founded by Paul Rabil, lacrosse’s most high-profile player, and brother Michael, a former football player at Dartmouth who serves as the company’s chief executive officer.
PLL players will be full-time employees, and they’ll receive health benefits, performance incentives and an undisclosed equity stake in the organization. By contrast, some players in the sport’s most successful current outdoor league, Major League Lacrosse, have second jobs. MLL has said it will raise its salary cap by 51 percent this season in a bid to stay competitive.
Tsai, who played lacrosse at Yale University, said he’s encouraged by the sport’s growing popularity, particularly among young people. According to the Sports & Fitness Association, the participation rate has grown 35 percent since 2012.
“With increasing youth participation and parent awareness, Rabil & Co. can bring lacrosse into the mainstream consciousness,” said Tsai, whose sports holdings also include an indoor lacrosse team in San Diego and the New York Liberty of the Women’s NBA. “I hope I can bring my experience from business generally, and professional sports specifically, to the table.”
Landing a strategic investor like Tsai is a coup for the six-team PLL, Paul Rabil said.
“He’s the co-founder of one of the largest companies in the world in Alibaba, with financial, legal and M&A expertise, as well as a superior understanding for the intersection of technology and commerce,” Rabil said. “And finally, Joe grew up playing lacrosse, caring deeply about its continued growth. Passion for the sport is table stakes for our investor and executive team.”
Tsai has a net worth is $10.3 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. In 2017, he agreed to buy a 49 percent stake in the Nets in a deal that valued the club at an NBA-record $2.3 billion. He can assume a controlling stake by 2021.
Unlike traditional U.S. sports leagues, which tie teams to cities, the PLL will use a tour-based model. Clubs will travel to a particular place at the same time and play a series of games during a weekend.
Both traditional networks and digital companies are increasingly looking for live-sports rights. With streaming services proliferating, there’s huge appetite for content -- and sports is often seen as more compelling than other programming.
The PLL has a multiyear broadcast agreement with NBC Sports Group, which will show games across its platforms. NBC will show three, while another 19 will be broadcast on NBCSN. Games will also be shown on the network’s website, mobile app and NBC Gold, a subscription streaming service.
Rabil, among the most visible athletes on social media, has said the PLL would be the first U.S. sports league to give players access to league assets that they can use across their personal platforms, including Instagram and Facebook. That could include images of the players on the field, and highlights of their performance during games.
The league hasn’t announced where its teams will play. Cities being considered include Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto and Vancouver.
By Scott Soshnick