Lacrosse has recently stormed into the spotlight, as young athletes have begun to flock to this sport like never before. This sudden growth in lacrosse has caused many people to wonder whether or not there’s a pro lacrosse league out there that actually exists.
Lacrosse has multiple pro leagues for both men and women. Currently there are three pro men’s lacrosse leagues (Premier Lacrosse League, Major League Lacrosse, and National Lacrosse League) and two pro women’s leagues (United Women’s Lacrosse League and Women’s Professional Lacrosse League).
Each of these pro lacrosse leagues have their own backstory, which will be discussed in depth below. Read until the end to see how these pro lacrosse leagues are faring in terms of popularity and revenue.
The Five Professional Lacrosse Leagues
Major League Lacrosse
- Founder(s): Jake Steinfeld & David Morrow
- Year Founded: 1999
- Type of Lacrosse: Men’s Field Lacrosse
- Amount of Pro Teams (*As of 2020): 6 Total Teams
- Amount of Pro Players (*As of 2020): 150 Total Players
Overview – Major League Lacrosse has been one of the more successful lacrosse leagues on this list. Established in 1999, the MLL has been around for quite some time compared to other pro leagues on this list. Although the MLL was in the works in 1999, the first game was not held until 2001.
Prior to 2001, lacrosse players did not have any way to play outdoor field lacrosse after their collegiate lacrosse career. Given the rapidly growing popularity of lacrosse at this time, Jake Steinfeld and David Morrow were astounded that no pro outdoor lacrosse league had been created yet. They eventually decided to form a league of their own, establishing the first pro outdoor lacrosse league ever (source).
After joining forces and attracting solid viewership for the first few seasons, they drew the attention of New Balance Athletic Shoe Inc. in 2003. New Balance acted as a main contributing sponsor, playing an integral part in the overall development of the league.
Paul Heffernan, Executive Vice President of Marketing for New Balance, had this to say about the partnership with the MLL:
This partnership has obviously paid huge dividends, as New Balance is still considered an anchor level partner of the MLL.
From 2001 to 2005, there were a total of six MLL teams. Over the years, the total amount of teams in the league has gone up and down, varying from six teams to ten teams. These teams have been hosted exclusively in the United States.
The MLL still remains one of the longstanding pro lacrosse leagues, streaming on ESPN and Lax Sports Network. In fact, the 2019 MLL season was a momentous one in terms of aggregate viewership, attracting the likes of over 724 million viewers. A large portion of those viewers, 297 million to be exact, tuned in for the last four MLL games (source).
Premier Lacrosse League
- Founder(s): Mike & Paul Rabil
- Year Founded: 2019
- Type of Lacrosse: Men’s Field Lacrosse
- Amount of Pro Teams (*As of 2020): 7 Total Teams
- Amount of Pro Players (*As of 2020): 182 Total Players
Overview – The Premier Lacrosse League (PLL) is another men’s pro field lacrosse league. The PLL is a relatively young league, founded by lacrosse superstar Paul Rabil and his brother Mike Rabil.
The backstory behind the creation of this league is rather intriguing, given that Paul Rabil was a player icon in Major League Lacrosse before splitting off to establish his own league.
Up until the conception of the PLL in 2019, Paul Rabil played in the MLL for a decade, from 2008 to 2018. In this decade, he performed extremely well, winning the MLL MVP award in 2009 and 2011 and earning All-Star honors a total of ten times (source).
Despite all these accolades, Rabil was left unsatisfied with how the MLL was managing the brand and treatment of its players. In a new technological age where branding is everything, Rabil recognized this disconnect between the MLL and its players. Rather than try to improve the MLL, Rabil decided to address this problem on his own by taking the more radical approach.
It’s important to note, however, that creating the PLL was not his first thought. In an interview with the Washington Post, Rabil stated:
PLL founders Mike and Paul Rabil made it their primary objective to center the league around its players. In the 2018 MLL season, players were paid a standard salary of $8,000. The PLL, on the other hand, upped the salary cap, paying its players a standard salary of $35,000. This larger standard salary is also supplemented with health-care benefits and stock options in the league (source).
Rabil is extremely transparent about exactly why he created the PLL and has actually addressed these questions outright by sharing his thoughts with the world online. To hear Rabil’s definitive reasoning as to why he teamed up with his brother to create the PLL, click on the clip below.
The larger payout, supplemental benefits, and realistic hope to take lacrosse in a new direction appealed to the majority of MLL players in 2018, causing them to abandon ship and follow in the path set out by Rabil.
With the player pool established, six teams were created with heavy input from the players. Rather than having city-based teams, the PLL opted to take a touring approach with no ties to any particular cities.
The PLL has implemented several bold initiatives to help revamp lacrosse to make it more marketable to casual sports viewers. Some of the more prominent changes include:
- Greater Social Media Presence – The PLL has invested a great deal of time and effort into establishing a social media presence to connect with the youth demographic. They release exclusive content on all their social media platforms, such as YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and even Tik Tok.
- Live Interaction with Players in Game – Another novel innovation that the PLL has introduced is an all access approach to media coverage. After players score goals, they can be interviewed afterwards on the sidelines, even if they’re huffing and puffing. There are also mic’s installed into the helmets so that fans can listen to the real live game communication that players use in game. All of these efforts make viewers at home feel like they’re completely involved in the game.
- Legalized Lacrosse Betting – The PLL came to an agreement with the popular sports betting company DraftKings in 2020. This move allows fans to legally bet on PLL games, something that wasn’t available to the general public in years prior (source).
- 15 Yard 2 Point Arc – The addition of the 2 point arc changes the whole dynamic of lacrosse, granting teams the ability to build up a sizable lead and come back from a large deficit rather quickly.
- Shorter Field Dimensions – Normal lacrosse field dimensions are 110 long and 60 yards wide. A regulation sized PLL field is 100 yards long, bringing the goals 10 yards closer together. This increases the element of transition, which ultimately increases scoring.
- Allowance of Fighting – The PLL has also allowed fighting to occur in some instances, much like the brawls settled on the ice in hockey. Although these fights are rare, they have happened in the past.
Questions have been raised as to whether or not the market for lacrosse is substantial enough to support two pro leagues. More than likely, one league will survive and the other die off. Only time will tell whether the MLL or the PLL will stand the test of time.
National Lacrosse League
- Founder(s): Russ Cline & Chris Fritz
- Year Founded: 1986
- Type of Lacrosse: Men’s Box Lacrosse
- Amount of Pro Teams (*As of 2020): 13 Total Teams
- Amount of Pro Players (*As of 2020): 247 Total Players
Overview – The National Lacrosse League (NLL) is a professional box organization that’s run in North America. For those of you that do not know, box lacrosse is the indoor version of lacrosse. The NLL has the most extensive history out of any other pro lacrosse leagues on this list, with its roots tracing all the way back to 1986.
Although this professional box lacrosse organization is known as the NLL today, Russ Cline and Chris Fritz didn’t brand the league with this name originally. Initially named the Eagle Pro Box Lacrosse League, the league only consisted of four teams at the onset. Although only six regular season games held during that debut season, the league revealed that 124,536 fans had shown up to watch these games (source).
Cline and Fritz knew they were onto something, so they continued to push the envelope and organize subsequent seasons. This time, however, they rebranded the league as the Major Indoor Lacrosse League (MILL). Attendance steadily increased and the league continued to expand as a result, introducing new teams into the fold.
From this time up until the present, teams have continued to pop up and wither away across various locations in North America. As of 2020, there are 13 NLL teams whose host cities are situated in both the United States and Canada.
The NLL continues to garner new viewership year after year. Reportedly, digital viewership was up 151% in 2017-2018 from the previous season (source). With the 2017-2018 season being the 32nd season that the NLL has been around, a 151% increase in viewership is quite remarkable.
United Women’s Lacrosse League
- Founder(s): Digit Murphy & Aronda Kirby
- Year Founded: 2015
- Type of Lacrosse: Women’s Lacrosse
- Amount of Pro Teams (*As of 2020): 4 Total Teams
- Amount of Pro Players (*As of 2020): 48 Total Players
Overview – The establishment of the United Women’s Lacrosse League (UWLX) served as the first opportunity for women’s lacrosse players to continue playing lacrosse out of college.
The UWLX was created by Digit Murphy and Aronda Kirby with the hope of taking women’s lacrosse to the next level. Since this league is relatively young, there are only four rosters within the league as of 2020. Expansion teams will be formally introduced as the UWLX settles in and gains a foothold in the women’s lacrosse community.
Women’s Professional Lacrosse League
- Founder(s): Michele DeJuliis
- Year Founded: 2018
- Type of Lacrosse: Women”s Lacrosse
- Amount of Pro Teams (*As of 2020): 4 Total Teams
- Amount of Pro Players (*As of 2020): 49 Total Players
Overview – Shortly after the founding of UWLX, the Women’s Professional Lacrosse League (WPLL) was founded by Michele DeJuliis in 2018. DeJuliis has an interesting backstory in that she was formerly the league commissioner of the UWLX. Following the 2016 season at UWLX, DeJuliis opted to go a different route and create her own league.
As of 2020, there are four WPLL rosters. The WPLL manage to strike a deal with ESPN, which agreed to stream the regular season ESPN3 and the ESPN App (source). This is a good sign for the future, as ESPN will help to gradually draw more sports fans to the WPLL over time.
Are Pro Lacrosse Leagues Growing in Popularity?
Many people are surprised to find that pro lacrosse is on the brink of something great. Lacrosse is one of the only sports that has seen a steady increase in participation year after year.
According to US Lacrosse, lacrosse participation totaled in at 253,931 players in 2001. That number rose to 829,423 players in 2018, a 227% increase (source).
There have been instances where pro lacrosse has proven that it can attract this massive target audience. For example, following the debut season of the PLL, NBC announced that the PLL has been a marked success, despite it only being a startup season.
Many of the PLL games were streamed on the Premier Lacrosse League Pass, a service that’s associated with NBC Sports Gold.
In week 2 of the debut season, one of the games racked up 412,000 viewers across all the NBC streaming platforms. At that time, it was the most watched outdoor lacrosse game in history. Keep in mind that this was not the championship game or even a playoff game, it was a regular season game!
The audience is certainly there, the only problem is that multiple pro leagues are vying for dominance. With men’s field lacrosse, it’s a battle between the MLL and the PLL. The same issue applies to women’s lacrosse, where the UWLX is fighting for viewers against the WPLL.
The only real league that has established itself as a forerunner in its respective version of lacrosse is the NLL, the leading professional organization for indoor lacrosse. This is a major reason why it has continued to be successful even after thirty years of existence.
Until a pro league is able to reign supreme in men’s field lacrosse and women’s lacrosse, the talent pool and the viewership numbers will be diluted. Lacrosse will only be able to properly grow in popularity once this battle for dominance is finished.
Will Pro Lacrosse Leagues Ever Hit Mainstream Status?
With all this talk of the growing popularity of lacrosse, some sports fans are curious as to whether or not pro lacrosse will ever be able to reach mainstream status.
Since pro lacrosse is still largely in the startup phase, it’s hard to judge the viability of lacrosse as an established professional sport. However, I strongly believe that pro lacrosse is making great strides toward putting lacrosse on the map.
When I first started lacrosse, there was barely any information online regarding the sport. I had to scour the internet to unearth pro lacrosse clips and mark my calendar when the next pro lacrosse game would come on.
Now that pro lacrosse commissioners are taking a more radical technological approach to their marketing, this is no longer an issue. With each passing year, it’s becoming easier for fans to stay connected with pro lacrosse through multiple social media avenues. People are starting to take notice of pro lacrosse because of these efforts.
Personally, I never thought I would see the day where pro lacrosse was streaming on the TV screens at my local gym. Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised to find that lacrosse has reached a point where this is acceptable. Just yesterday, I was able to watch the Whipsnakes win the PLL championship while running on a treadmill at my local gym. A decade ago, doing something like this was not possible.
Due to a strong passion for lacrosse, I’m inherently biased toward believing that lacrosse will make it to the main stage one day. Only time will tell whether or not lacrosse is fit to rise up in the ranks and establish itself as a reputable sport in the eyes of the general public.
The Bottom Line
Lacrosse has multiple pro leagues, too many in fact. In the coming years, it’s likely that a couple of these leagues will either die off or merge with other leagues so that fans have a single recognizable name to go to for all their pro lacrosse leagues.
Until that time, we’ll only be able to speculate which pro league will be able to come out on top. The viewership numbers are promising, but league consolidation is the next big step to elevate pro lacrosse to the next level.