Every sports team and league has its diehards. But every team and league also knows they can’t thrive at scale on diehards alone. That’s why so many are perpetually chasing the casual fan. The curious observer that can one day turn into a diehard. And even the biggest, most established leagues in the world still don’t have 100% penetration, there is always room to grow.
If cultivating more fans is a challenge for the longstanding major pro sports leagues, imagine an upstart league with an emerging sport. This was what the Premier Lacrosse League and its founders Paul and Mike Rabil were and remain up against. Lacrosse participation is growing, sure, but the viability of the PLL rests on its ability to bring its sport, teams, and players to the masses — whether they’re lifelong players and fans or just discovering it for the first time.
But it’s happening. They’re doing it. The PLL is still just getting started, but RJ Kaminski, the league’s Director of Brand who has been there from the start, sees fans being borne. His charge and his efforts are a big part of it. Kaminski recognizes that fans aren’t built in a day. There are steps along the way as the fan goes from just noticing the PLL to consuming more to the point where they’re buying swag and making plans to go to a game. For Kaminski, to see the process in action is so gratifying.
Kaminski described it: “The most satisfying part has been watching the fan who really doesn’t have an interest in the sport of lacrosse, but something along the way — a campaign that we did — sparked their interest enough to follow along, which led them a little bit further down the fan funnel to potentially watch a game with us, and then they’re really in it. And then they’re potentially picking a team and then they’re potentially appearing in person.
“Watching some of those fan journeys just on Twitter as you can see when someone follows along or when you see someone start to engage and then see them actually come to a game — watching that probably has been the best part.”
There is no one way, no magic pill campaign that can create fans. But the path to fandom involves emotion, getting fans to care. For the PLL, playing a sport with which the majority of people are not familiar, this means highlighting plays and players to inspire awe, empathy, and exhilaration. Kaminski talked about bringing out the stories of their players, citing an example of Redwoods star Myles Jones recounting his dreams as a kid playing lacrosse. Those human stories can ignite the initial intrigue.
“[The Jones story] was an inspirational bit [and makes them ask] ‘What is the PLL? Who is Myles Jones?’” Kaminski explained. “And then they follow along and whether it’s just from a passive capacity and they’re just keeping an eye on what we’re doing or whether they’re ready to come to a game or turn on the TV to see a Redwoods game, whatever it may be — there’s an interest sparked.”
Once fans have a reason to care, Kaminski and the league can watch them dive in, while showcasing what makes the PLL so great. Start by making fans care, then connect, and then fall in love or find someone or something to latch onto. Clearing this pathway is why Kaminski and his colleagues mix the slick shots and moves with scenes that show the human side of the players.
“So you’re sitting at home and you’re watching someone like Myles Jones barrel someone over and put it in the back of the net from two and then you see him in the locker room with his shirt off drinking a beer, celebrating with his teammates, making jokes, and singing along to his favorite Drake album,” he said. “Those are the moments that humanize our players and really deepen the fandom that already exists there and potentially attracts a new fan to follow along with someone like Myles.”
So there you go, right? Drive fans to find players they can love and who can make them go wow in highlights. That’s not the finish line, though. Such fandom may play well on social media and stories off the field, but the most invested and engaged fans care about the final score, too, and not just who scored the sickest goals. The PLL has had fans of its players from the earliest days of the league, but creating fans of the teams is more challenging because of the nature of the team.
The eight Premier Lacrosse League teams don’t represent a city or state like most of the PLL’s pro sports counterparts. They’re relatively arbitrary. But the PLL knows the best fan experience involves them cheering on a favorite team to win the game, bringing an intensity that only rooting on one side and against an opposing side can deliver. Kaminski talked about why getting fans to pick a team is an important objective for the PLL.
“It’s [about] building rivalries, man,” said Kaminski, who can be seen hosting a lot of the PLL social media content. “It’s getting the opportunity to have competing fan sections at games. It’s what you see in the more traditional sports media landscape.
“It’s being able to attend a Redwoods-Whipsnakes game, and have one part of the stadium cheer when a ball goes in one net, and then the same for the other side. That’s happening and we’re progressing there, but there’s a lot of work that goes into actually getting a fan to pick a side, to pick a team or pick two teams or just follow a superstar.”
So how does the PLL go about differentiating the teams, such that being a fan of one and not another really means something? Social media plays a big role here. It’s where, through the content shared, the tone, the personality, the sights and sounds — where all that can create a vibe and, eventually, a unique brand for fans to choose to wrap their arms around and identify with. That’s easier said than done, of course, because it has to fit. A team shouldn’t have a jokey brand if its players exude intensity. So Kaminski and his colleagues take care in building these team brands.
“It’s largely driven by the culture that’s developed from the head coach and the players of those clubs,” he said.
“For example, I think Chaos is one that we can start with — a team that quite literally is incredibly chaotic in the locker room. Pregame speeches, and for those that don’t know who are listening, the Chaos are led by Andy Towers, who’s an incredible head coach. He’s about six foot five, he’s bald and you can hear him from a mile away. [He] gives incredible pump-up speeches, usually has an incredible anecdote to get his guys fired up, and it usually goes viral the next day for how he got his guys going in the locker room. “
All the best marketing, human stories, and entertainment wouldn’t get the PLL all the way there. They’re a professional lacrosse league, their primary product is the game its players are paid to play. But Kaminski is confident that once fans get in the door, they’re not leaving. The PLL has a winning product, so, while conceding that it’s not easy or a given to keep fans in the fold, that he’ll bet that fans who sample it will stick around for the long run.
“Retention can be one of the hardest things to succeed in for a sports league,” he said. “But when the product’s there and the product’s the best out there that combines [with] what we’re doing in the broadcast side and the talent in the booth, to me it’s gonna be tough for them to flip the channel.”