- Innovative start-up league schedules quarantined tournament in lieu of traditional campaign
- NBC networks will broadcast competition during the empty Tokyo Olympics window
- Feeding and accommodating roughly 300 participants among logistical challenges
It is no coincidence that the first sports organizations making their comebacks from the Covid-19 pandemic shutdown in North America have touring models, which are not restricted by franchises tied to particular cities, venues, and communities.
As professional sports leagues look to navigate healthy and safety protocols that vary from state to state – and spread across the international border between the United States and Canada – it has so far proven extremely valuable to have a structure that allows organizations to be nimble and flexible in their logistical operations.
This is why the tour-based Professional Bull Riders became a first-mover in making its return in Oklahoma in late April, and was quickly followed by the Ultimate Fighting Championship in Florida last weekend. They will be followed by Nascar later this month, then the PGA Tour and IndyCar in June.
Meanwhile, the city-based major leagues who have roughly 30 teams – namely the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, National Hockey League, and Major League Soccer – remain in the planning stages of reactivating their teams which are spread across North America.
Now the Premier Lacrosse League, the innovative start-up league founded by brothers Paul and Michael Rabil, has leveraged its structural flexibility to schedule its own return to action in a quarantined, spectator-less tournament this summer.
The PLL’s 2020 season was originally scheduled to begin on May 29 at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, and tour North America across numerous major markets over 15 weeks, before it was postponed due to the coronavirus crisis.
In its place will be the 16-day PLL Championship Series, which is due to take place from July 25-August 6 and will be broadcast across NBC networks, helping to fill the the US network’s programming void from the rescheduled 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Over the two-week window, the league’s seven teams – including expansion team Waterdogs Lacrosse Club – will compete in a 14-game group-play format to determine seeding for the following week’s single-elimination tournament.
The 20 total games will be aired on broadcast network NBC, cable channel NBCSN, and NBC Sports Gold. All televised games will also be streamed live on NBCSports.com or the network’s app. The result will be one of the most concentrated showcases of lacrosse ever in the US, particularly as it relates to broadcast television.
Ticketmaster is the title sponsor of the PLL Championship Series, having joined as a commercial partner earlier this year. Four or five more sponsors are expected to be added before the event begins.
The location for the tournament has yet to be determined, though sites in the Mid-Atlantic, Southeast, and Midwest are being considered. Inside Lacrosse reports that the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, and the Lawrenceville School in Lawrence Township, New Jersey, are among the locations being considered.
To meet with health and safety requirements, fans will not be allowed in attendance, while the PLL will implement a series of Covid-19 preventative measures. This will include three phases of testing for the coronavirus: at home, upon arrival, and throughout the event.
An estimated 300 people will be on site in total, including players, medical staff, PLL staff, and broadcast personnel. Participants will not be allowed to leave until the tournament is completed. Should anyone test positive for Covid-19 after arrival, the remainder of the event will be postponed, Variety reports.
According to Bloomberg, players will be paid a pro-rated amount of their original 2020 salary, which could amount to 50 per cent of the full season amount depending on how many games they play in the tournament.
Despite the inevitable loss of ticket and merchandise revenue – as well as an inability to gain valuable in-market visibility – the league will be able to largely satisfy its financial backers, sponsors, broadcast partner NBC, players, and fans by staging the PLL Championship Series.
By contrast, the rival city-based Major League Lacrosse has yet to announce its 2020 plans after postponing its season in early April. Meanwhile, the indoor National Lacrosse League has canceled the remainder of its regular season and, with teams spread across the US and Canada, it remains far from clear if and when a postseason can be played this year.
PLL chief operating officer Andrew Sinnenberg spoke to SportBusiness about the opportunities and challenges of staging the PLL Championship Series.
How important is it for the PLL business to have some form of competition this year?
Like any league, when this [the coronavirus crisis] all hit we immediately went into scenario planning and we created 15 different scenarios all the way from having our season as planned to having no season and quite a few permutations in between. For us, we have been focused and have a desire to put on…as close to a full season as possible as long as we can do it safely.
The biggest reason is we are just very excited to build on the momentum that we built in year one. We got a lot of people interested in us as a league and as a business, players all had an incredible time. So for us we knew that if there was an opportunity to play again and we could broadcast our games and build on the momentum that we developed as a league, that would be the priority and the preference.
The no-season was kind of the worst-case scenario, we always had it on the list, but for us it was important to have some form of programming to continue to build on the momentum that the league has developed in the past year and a half.
At what point did you realize you would not be able to hold your season as scheduled and needed to pivot to a new model?
We had a board meeting in early March when Covid was starting to become a bigger part of the news cycle and spread in the US more and more, and as of then we started entered into scenario planning. What were the different options to what our season could look like? Is there a world where we start a bit later and then make up the weekends we missed in the later part of the season in bye weekends? Do we just shorten the season? The tournament option was on the list back then as well.
From that point we went through an exercise – based on the data we had, the information we were getting from other leagues and just us following the news – to try to make the best interpretation of what was more and more feasible. I would say over the past month and month and a half, it became clearer and clearer to us that having fans this summer would probably not be an option. So we started to put our resources and efforts towards this quarantined, fanless tournament scenario.
Has it been a complicated process to undo or changes all the different contracts you had in place for the 2020 season, such as with venues?
We have tried to be as communicative as we could be through this entire process. We announced the postponement a month ago and even before that we were very active with our venues in terms of discussing where we see our season heading. The benefits of those conversations is that we are all in the same boat so to speak. Similar to us, they want to produce a safe and healthy experience for their customers in their market and across the board the venues were very understanding in where we were coming from. Fortunately there weren’t many issues.
Do you think your touring model and structure better enables you to put on the PLL Championship Series rather than if you were a city-based league?
I do think it’s helpful. Obviously, it’s our DNA to go find new homes. We went to 14 different venues last year for 14 different weekends. We do have the experience of being able to make any space our own. The other benefit is just our size of seven teams and being on the small side allows us to be a bit nimble here. We’re not accounting for 30 teams. When we think of what our footprint looks like for this tournament, it becomes a more manageable number as we have fewer teams than some of the other leagues. It’s helpful that the tour-based model is in our DNA because this is just a one-stop tour but it will be a new venue.
How will you decide the location of the PLL Championship Series?
Obviously, the safety and health approach to this tournament as at the top of our list in terms of priorities and concerns. That is informing every decision we make and especially informing the location that we choose. The highlight criteria are, we are looking at something that is all-inclusive so where we can have fields and lodging in close proximity to each other so once people come we’re shortening the distance of where they need to travel from practices or games. We need to feed them in that area as well.
Obviously we’ll consider broadcast infrastructure – there is a big opportunity about what we get to do here with our partnership with NBC. We are obviously monitoring the federal and state-by-state landscape in terms of approaches to Covid. So it’s similar to our venue search year to year for our tour-based model: there is a stew of variables and this stew just has a few more ingredients than us just choosing our normal tour-based stop.
Around 300 participants are expected at the event, what are the logistical challenges of housing all these people, feeding them and so on for two weeks?
All of that feeds into the venue search. In terms of housing people: it’s can we find a venue with lodging on site? If we don’t have a venue with lodging on site, is there a hotel nearby which we can have to ourselves or work with a hotel where we can develop the appropriate protocols? It’s similar to what we have to do with a PLL weekend or a training weekend, it’s just times 10: 20 days rather than two. It’s really just what we normally do but just on a broader scale. It’s the same nuts and bolts pieces and so it’s it’s not just over a longer time horizon. It will take a bit more planning just because of the duration but the elements are similar to what we normally do.
The timing of the tournament is when the Tokyo Olympics would have been. Was NBC particularly keen for the PLL to fill a void in the schedule then?
It was a collaborative effort to land in that space. When we started in this direction, we quickly got on the phone with NBC and started discussing this regularly and chatting through with them about where best to situate this type of programming within the calendar. Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of inventory that disappeared with the postponement of the Olympics and so based on our needs and what we were looking for and what NBC was able to offer us in terms of linear programming slots, we both landed on the Summer Olympics window being the best fit.
Have you been in touch from other sports organizations who are returning to action about putting on such an event in these circumstances?
We certainly try to act collaboratively and find best practices. We want to make sure we develop the best medical protocol possible and we want to do that with all the learnings that we can have access to and we can share with others. Paul [Rabil] has a done a very good job of keeping in touch with all the major leagues, such as the NBA, MLS, PGA Tour and down the line. We try to open our line of communication that’s two-way, where we can share best practices about how we are thinking about approaching these things. We want to be collaborative because we’re all working towards the same goal of producing sporting events as soon as is practical.
Are you confident you have strong enough structures in place to get through a shortened 2020 season and resume in 2021 relatively in tact?
We’re certainly excited about trying out the tournament format this summer. Under normal circumstances, it probably wouldn’t have been an option that we would have had so I’m curious to see what innovations we can get out of it and what we can take as learnings to the tour model going forward. We are fortunate to be in good shape and we’re excited to go back to the PLL tour model in 2021 – but we’re also super excited about being able to pursue what we think is this unique platform for 2020.