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How the Premier Lacrosse League Built Its Bubble Tournament

When the coronavirus derailed the PLL’s campaign before it began, a last-ditch idea in a shared Google Doc became the Championship Series. With the fanless bubble tourney now underway in Utah and other leagues reopening across sports, we spoke with those involved about what it took to make the PLL’s second season happen.

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A few days before the world changed, Paul Rabil, the cofounder of the year-old Premier Lacrosse League as well as one of its players, sat courtside at Staples Center with Brooklyn Nets owner Joseph Tsai, a key PLL investor. It was Tuesday, March 10, and Rabil’s brother, Mike, and Tsai’s wife, Clara, were at the game, too, taking in some Lakers-Nets action following a PLL board meeting.

The Rabils had added a few last-minute slides to their board presentation earlier that day, wanting to bring up the rising threat of COVID-19 “and to begin thinking through normal case and worst case,” Rabil, 34, tells me over FaceTime about four months later, in early July, as SoCal palm trees sway behind him. The slides were open-ended and nonspecific, more of a call for discussion than anything else, and with the start of the seven-team PLL’s second season still months away at that point, the meeting ended on a note of wait-and-see. “It was like, ‘You guys are thinking about it the right way, we really appreciate your proactivity, it shows critical thinking,’” recalls Rabil. “‘But, you know, our business right now is tracking towards doubling revenue this early into Q1 of 2020, and like, keep the ball rolling.’”

The Nets edged the Lakers by a bucket that night. The Rabil brothers flew across the country the next morning for an upcoming Paul Rabil Foundation fundraiser at the Hearst Tower, then decided to cancel the event shortly after arriving in New York. That evening, on March 11, the NBA postponed its season. (A few days later, news surfaced that several Nets players who had been at Staples Center had since tested positive for COVID-19.)

With cancellations piling up and businesses and pro sports shutting down, the Rabils, realizing they ought to return home to L.A. sooner rather than later, changed various itineraries and got back on a plane. It was March 13, a Friday night, and they opened their laptops, began a shared Google Doc, and pecked away for the entirety of the flight, trying to sort out their future.

Last year, more than 100 pro lacrosse players decamped from Major League Lacrosse to join the PLL, which promised a new tour-based model, higher pay, player equity, and better marketing and promotional muscle. This summer’s second season had been scheduled to hit a dozen cities for multigame weekend festivals over 15 weeks. Now, the Rabils tried to figure out what might be possible for Season 2. In the shared Google Doc they laid out 12 scenarios that ran the gamut from the optimistic (Scenario 1: a full season) to the moderate (Scenario 6: a compressed schedule) to the faraway (Scenario 11: kick the can down the road to the fall). Only one of them, Scenario 12, began with the premise of playing in front of zero fans.

In the weeks that followed, what began as an outlier idea—a quarantined, fanless tournament—would become the league’s chosen option. Rabil began speaking daily with a small circle of league executives and outside investors. By early April, Rabil says, they were canceling pre-pandemic contracts with stadiums. He connected with the commissioners of the NBA and WNBA to discuss the realities of playing in front of no fans. In the first week of May, Rabil unveiled news of the PLL’s “Championship Series” on the Today show, though the league still hadn’t picked a location. That changed quickly, when the Utah Sports Commission reached out to suggest Zions Bank Stadium, a scenic venue outside of Salt Lake City.

In the past month, as COVID-19 cases have again risen around the country; states have swung back and forth with ordinances and reopenings; and a number of other pro sports leagues, from the MLB to the NBA to the NHL, have begun to emerge from hibernation with mixed results, I’ve checked in with people around the PLL to get a week-by-week sense for what it was taking to implement and execute their own unusual return. As a young upstart league, the PLL has been eager to prove that it can be as agile, creative, and aggressive in its pursuit of a safe return to lacrosse as its own athletes are on the field.

Last Saturday, on “Lacrosse Island,” per some merch, the PLL kicked off its planned 20-game tournament. In the first week of competition, there have already been sweet overtime winners, rude fights, rain delays, and jolly televised interviews about lacrosse with both Drew Brees and Bill Belichick. And if things continue to go as hoped for the PLL, there will be more between now and the title game on August 9. In my conversations with people ranging from players to league executives, from a coach to a physician, from a broadcast veteran to a logistical mastermind, I heard about quarantine weighted-vest workouts and bro hugs. I heard about alarming cardiology results and CDC guidelines. And then last weekend, on network TV, I heard the sounds of real, live lacrosse.

Four Weeks to Go: “I Was Harsh”

No pressure on Courtney Ellis or anything, but the success of a quarantined lacrosse tournament is largely in her capable hands. It is the final week of June, a month before the PLL is scheduled to play its first game in Utah, and as the league’s events manager, Ellis is involved in every last aspect of planning and execution. Ellis is accustomed to organizing fundamental chaos, having previously spent four years coordinating Tough Mudder competitions. But as she books flights, communicates with food vendors, and tries to write a run-of-show for each practice, a large part of her job, especially during this crisis, is to prepare for what’s ahead by thinking in reverse.

For example, it’s not enough to book plane tickets for the combined 270 athletes and league employees heading to Utah. “We can’t have everyone come in at the same time because then you’re all in this huge group standing together,” Ellis says on a video chat from her New York apartment. The protocol that she and the PLL are following as they make their way through planning and executing the event was assembled by an eight-member COVID-19 task force consisting of four medical professionals, three league executives, and a health care investor. But even with guidelines in place, every answer begets new questions. When Ellis sought input on players’ breakfast requests and one player mentioned protein shakes and smoothies, it sounded straightforward enough—until she considered the logistics of ensuring safe blender conditions. As ever, her list of things to look into further grows longer.

One of the people on the league’s medical committee is Dr. Catherine Logan, the PLL’s head league physician who is also an orthopedic surgeon in Denver. On June 30, a few nights after I speak with Ellis, Logan delivers a presentation for some 175 people, according to Rabil’s tally, who are logged in to a town hall for PLL players and coaches. The hope is to impress upon a bunch of strapping, healthy dudes the need to avoid gatherings during the upcoming Independence Day weekend, and to break the athletes’ instincts to try to power through physical ailments. “This isn’t the famous Michael Jordan flu game,” is how Rabil puts it to me in layman’s terms. “Stop with any fucking July Fourth plans.”

The presentation shown to the players demonstrates the alarming coronavirus landscape at the end of June. Dozens of pro athletes across other sports have tested positive during similar early rounds of monitoring as they seek a return to play, with 16 cases in the NBA and 26 in the NHL, among others. (“Total new cases per day has increased by 59 percent this week,” the presentation notes.) The presentation also includes headlines about the Orlando Pride, a NWSL team forced to preemptively withdraw from that league’s own bubble tournament after 10 players and staff tested positive in an outbreak traced to a bar visit in Florida in mid-June.

The messaging is effective: “I was getting side texts from players,” Rabil tells me the next morning, on July 1. “They were like, ‘Wow, the way this is being framed is causing me to think about this differently and more seriously.’” Redwoods LC coach Nat St. Laurent says the same. “It really put things in perspective,” he tells me on a video chat that same morning, “because it’s not Coach telling [the players] this. It’s not something they’re seeing on TV. It’s: ‘Flights are booked. Opponents are out. It’s starting to get real. And oh, by the way, your test is coming in the mail. Numbers are spiking. What have you been doing?’” St. Laurent plans to practice what he preaches and lay low, even when it’s emotionally rough: Over the holiday weekend, his 6-year-old son will be playing in one of his first big lacrosse tournaments, but St. Laurent will stay home. It’s easier to just not go than to stress about keeping his distance from the crowds.

Speaking by phone outside of the Denver hospital where she works, Logan laughs through her medical mask when I mention the reaction. “I was harsh,” she says, but that was by design. “Quarantine is like this sustained process that can drag on you and wear you down,” she says, “and that is the exact time that you have to engage your discipline.” The problem, she says, is that she knows that her audience is not always a bunch of rule followers, especially after this one time last season, when she stitched up a player’s hand in the locker room one day and then saw him competing in a strong-grip competition at the Jersey Shore on Instagram two days later.

“A normal 23-year-old guy, no discredit to them,” she says, “they’re going to be that much more of risk-takers, and they’re going to feel much more invincible.” She hoped to leave the players a little bit shaken, because that’s how they should feel. “I know when a situation is serious,” she says, “and I don’t overreact. And COVID is a serious situation.”

Three Weeks to Go: “There Can Be No Progress Without Struggle”

There are multiple screens worth of faces, some of them wearing masks, on the PLL’s weekly all-hands Google Hangout on July 7: social media coordinators; spreadsheet wizards; a few players who work full time for the league; and a special guest named Tari Kandemiri, a 23-year-old who goes by @OfficialLaxGirl online. “So, depending on your personality type,” says league cofounder Mike Rabil, addressing his employees at the start of the call, “when you see 18 days until we’re on NBC main, that can either shoot some adrenaline through your veins, or, potentially, stress. But the good thing is: If you feel either/or, it means you care.”

The PLL may be a sports league, but it’s also a startup, and the meeting’s cadences register as more new-age mantra than old-school macho. As part of an ongoing routine, one employee offers a prepared “Gratitude,” (“I’m thankful for adversity,” he says. “There can be no progress without struggle.”) Shout-outs are given to two others who have been crushing it at work lately; in PLL parlance, they are the “Operator” and “Bulldog” of this week. Paul Rabil holds up his hands and does appreciative sorority-snaps in his little Google Hangout box.

Kandemiri, who has tens of thousands of Twitter and Instagram followers and has been writing about her love for lacrosse since she was a teen, shares her personal story with the PLL staff: of growing up in Zimbabwe; of moving to the U.S. and falling in love with a new sport; and of being disappointed in the lack of diversity at the highest echelons of women’s lacrosse. Kandemiri was invited to the meeting by Kyle Harrison, a 37-year-old longtime great and lacrosse scion who plays midfield for the Redwoods and works for the PLL as director of player relations.

“She’s such a prominent voice in this sport,” Harrison tells me, “and she didn’t do it the conventional way. So I’ve always been a fan of hers from a distance.” Kandemiri’s presentation is one of a number of ways in which the league has sought to support the Black Lives Matter movement this summer. In late June, Harrison and two of his teammates, Myles Jones and Jules Heningburg, were part of an online roundtable organized by the Intercollegiate Men’s Lacrosse Coaches Association. The moderator was their coach, St. Laurent, who at the beginning of June had pulled his car over to the side of the road one morning and recorded an impromptu and emotional video about the BLM movement.

“I was heading to get a puppy for my wife,” says St. Laurent, who is wearing a T-shirt that says REBUILD OUR CITIES when we speak. “It was my first time alone with my thoughts on everything that was going on. I normally don’t do that, but I think guys like Kyle have inspired me, like it’s time for me to step up and do more.”

The league encourages its personnel to establish these sorts of personal platforms, as well as promoting them through other channels, ranging from the PLL’s in-house multimedia team to segments on NBC. Which is part of why the PLL’s weekly meeting agenda also includes an announcement about the league’s first acquisition: a deal to buy The Lacrosse Network, a small operation that, in Mike Rabil’s words, will allow the PLL to “develop our bench” of lacrosse coverage that can, in turn, help continue to promote the league’s players.

“My personal excitement around TLN,” says RJ Kaminski, a PLL video host with a warm Jay Baruchel–Jeff Spicoli vibe who was hired from The Lacrosse Network last season, “comes from understanding what it did for me.” Throughout quarantine, Kaminski has continued to put together lacrosse highlight vlogs, strolling the streets of his neighborhood while recording content like: “What Makes Trevor Baptiste the BEST?” (A day earlier, he says, a neighbor of his came outside to ask why he was yelling.) He is one of the few non-players who will be in the bubble in Utah, where he will interview athletes and create video content for the league. It is July 9, and in a few days he will be responsible for picking up and completing his first COVID-19 test.

That means he will have to spit and seal the test on video in front of a telehealth specialist, then mail the sample to a lab located a mile and a half from the tournament venue in Utah. He’ll need a negative result before being allowed to board the plane, and he’ll be tested a few more times after he gets there. Like everyone else, he knows what to expect. “Statistically, we most likely will have a few positive tests,” he says.

Two Weeks to Go: “We Were Quarantined Together, You Know, Kind of Like a Family”

Everyone has their own vivid stories of what they were doing in those last few days in mid-March before widespread lockdowns kicked in, and about how they’re coping now. Blaze Riorden, a PLL All-Star goalie for Chaos LC who plays forward for the professional indoor team the Philadelphia Wings in the winters, was “coming off the best game of my career,” he says in a phone conversation from his apartment in Philadelphia, when he got an email that the rest of his indoor team’s season was canceled. He and a few of his Philadelphia teammates “were quarantined together,” he says, “you know, kind of like a family.” Together they continued to train however they could, running up and down “the Rocky steps,” Riorden says, in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Kyle Bernlohr, another goalie who won the league’s inaugural title in net for Whipsnakes LC last season, was already a game-film enthusiast, but he spent even more time watching tape while stuck at home. In a guest column he wrote for the PLL website in March, he gave delightful scouting reports on some of the league’s top shooters, describing (with respect) Archers LC’s Tom Schreiber, arguably the best player in the world, as “alligator-armed.”

St. Laurent, an Army veteran who in addition to coaching in the PLL also founded and runs the men’s lacrosse program at Ohio Northern University, had to break bad news to his NCAA team about the season being canceled. “Worst locker room I’ve ever been in,” he recalls. “I had a senior underneath my arm crying, and I’m fighting back tears.” Now, as he prepares for the bubble rather than a sprawling, touring PLL season, St. Laurent has spent time speaking with U.S. national team coaches about the nuances of condensed tournament roster construction.

This time around, Vegas will be paying attention to his decisions. It is smack dab in the middle of July, and the PLL is preparing to announce publicly a new official partnership with DraftKings that will be incorporated into the NBC broadcasts. Christian Henze, head of strategy at the PLL, says that one inspiration for the deal was TNT’s golf special between Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Tiger Woods, and Phil Mickelson. “They had in-game betting options that popped up on the screen,” he says, “which I thought was super cool.” He brought it up in conversations with DraftKings, emphasizing how much he hoped to ”do something, anything that resembles that for the PLL,” he says.

Riorden, Bernlohr, and St. Laurent are all part of various teams that enter the Championship Series as among the theoretical favorites of this admittedly highly unpredictable tournament. Riorden is pleased to know that his team is considered a top contender by the sportsbooks, but he also has a few other matters on his mind, truth be told. He and his roommate will be moving into a new place in Philadelphia when they get back from Salt Lake. (They found it on what Riorden describes as an app that is “like Tinder for apartments” and signed the agreement after taking a virtual tour.) In the days to come, they’ll make one careful, masked-up trip to put all their stuff in storage, log on to take their spit tests on video, wait for the green light, and then board a charter bus that will take them up to Newark for a charter flight to Utah.

Courtney Ellis brightens when I mention Riorden’s itinerary a few days later; thrilled to hear that at least one athlete knows what time he has to show up for the bus. “First of all, I’m so glad that Blaze knows that,” she says. “It means he read my email!” It is July 15, and Ellis is packing to leave for Utah the next day; she’ll be among the first to arrive. Behind her, clothes hang on the backs of chairs, drying. Her biggest headache right now is that airlines have been canceling and rerouting flights, and with many athletes flying commercial, that means a lot of back and forth.

In recent days, Ellis and others around the PLL have, like so many others, kept an eye on the social media accounts of NBA players arriving at their own quarantine bubble in Orlando. Seeing some of the discourse around the meals delivered to players as they self-isolated upon arrival, “we amped up the amount of food we are going to deliver,” Ellis says, upping the ounces per meal, adding additional snack packs “that are like, really good,” Ellis says, “like jerky.” Whatever wound up happening with the blender logistics, I ask? “If guys want a smoothie,” she says, smiling, “they’re gonna have to bring their own blender.”

The Final Countdown: “It Gave Us a Little Bit of a Window”

Mike Rabil is agitated. It’s July 18, and the tournament starts in a week. In about 12 hours he will be leaving for the airport to fly to Salt Lake City, but the events of the past 24 hours have made it hard to think that far ahead. Over FaceTime, he fidgets with his AirPod case and explains. The COVID-19 tests taken by all the PLL players have been processed, and—as was to be expected, given the results in other pro sports leagues—a couple of players have tested positive. Per the medical protocol released by the PLL earlier this month, this ought to make them ineligible to compete.

Instead, the league has announced something different, and not everyone is pleased. One night earlier, on July 17, the medical committee decided in its weekly Friday night meeting to amend the PLL protocol based on evolving CDC guidance about the appropriate length of self-isolation by individuals who have tested positive for the virus. No longer would a positive pre-travel test mean instant disqualification from the tournament (and no paycheck); instead, a player could isolate for 10 days, clear the infection, have a full physical and cardiological exam, and get the green light.

“It gave us a little bit of a window,” Logan tells me, “to say that someone that tested positive pre-travel, they could actually make it into the bubble at some point. But you know, that’s also up to the coach, too.” If a coach chose to reserve a roster spot for such an athlete who ultimately couldn’t wind up playing, there wouldn’t be any replacement. One team decided against pursuing such a risk. The other team, Atlas LC, opted to save a spot for Tucker Durkin, a top defensive player in the league who tested positive but has been asymptomatic.

In a comment on the PLL Instagram post announcing the decision, a player named Ben Reeves wrote: “@pll you guys changed the rules at Rabil’s convenience” before later deleting the remark. Its implication was that Paul Rabil, who also plays for the Atlas, sought to tinker with the rules so that his teammate could return. Mike Rabil massages his leg with a Hyperice device as he recounts something he said to Paul earlier in the day: “I was like, well, maybe it doesn’t make sense for you to play anymore,” he admits, “because these guys are just coming at you. And I was like, I can make an argument that you’re more valuable as an executive.” This underlying player-operator tension has existed for as long as the league itself. “It’s definitely intensified, especially in Year 2,” Paul Rabil tells me a few days later. “Fans, including players, they’re basically holding me to the fire every day around what are really nuanced decisions that the league is making.”

As Mike Rabil and I speak, he gets a text from Heningburg, who at 24 is one of the game’s most promising young players. In mid-June, Heningburg attended a friend’s birthday and tested positive for the coronavirus about a week later, exhibiting symptoms that he would describe to US Lacrosse Magazine as lethargy, aching joints, and a foggy mind. He felt better by July, however, and has been training hard in the weeks since recovering. Based on the recommendation of its medical committee, the PLL plans to have him fly to Utah and go straight to a cardiologist for a thorough checkup before he can be cleared to play. That checkup, however, will ultimately yield more bad news.

“After undergoing cardiology tests here in Utah,” Heningburg will write on Twitter on July 20, “I recently found out that I am at high risk for cardiac arrest under high intensity training. I have been training for a month very hard, unaware that my heart and body could have failed me at any moment.” The Durkin decision may have raised eyebrows over the update to the PLL’s protocol, but Heningburg’s brave transparency about his experience demonstrates why people care. It is a chilling wake-up call about what the virus can do to an otherwise healthy young person, a demonstration of why the PLL’s protocol matters, and also a reminder of its limits.

Game Time: “You Can’t Dodge the Ball, You Have to Save It”

Time crawls as players endure delayed flights on July 19. Time stands still as everyone isolates in their hotel rooms upon arrival, playing Nintendo 64—“once the controller was in my hand it all came back to me,” says Riorden—and waiting for confirmation that another test they took upon arrival is negative before they can venture out of the rooms. Time flies when four days of training camp begins. And then, just like that, it’s July 25, game time, with three contests scheduled in one opening weekend on the NBC family of networks—which in the before times would have been right in the thick of airing the Tokyo Olympic Games.

As customized cutouts of lacrosse fans watch from the stands and the Cottonwood mountain range rises in the distance, the opening games are an appropriately bizarro showcase of lacrosse’s potential. There is slo-mo worthy play from the usual suspects, like Connor Fields. There are exciting debuts: Veteran Rob Pannell, who left the MLL for the PLL this past offseason and spent the past few months roaming the streets outside his parents’ Long Island home in a weighted tactical training vest, proves himself to already be a playmaking engine for the Atlas LC offense. (“It’s been a long time coming,” he tells me of playing his first PLL game, “and it was a relief more than anything.”) Playing in his first PLL game on Monday night, Grant Ament, the first overall pick in the collegiate draft this spring, picks up a hat trick. The pace is fast, the scoring is high, and most memorably, the mics are real, real hot.

Pushing the envelope with audio has always been a top priority for the league, which mics up players (and officials!) and interviews them midgame through their helmets, including after they’ve given up bad plays. “It’s really cool and unique,” NBC producer Dan Steir tells me in a phone call, praising the work of his on-air team, particularly former lacrosse pro Ryan Boyle. “It’s not an easy thing in the midst of analyzing a replay to incorporate a question to the subject,” Steir says. “He does it flawlessly.”

Still, shenanigans do result. One particularly loudmouthed rookie, Chrome LC’s Matt Gaudet, has decided to use all this audio to his advantage on the Championship Series’ opening day, cackling near the crease and loudly chirping Riorden again and again, all in earshot of viewers. “You can’t dodge the ball,” he yells, “you have to save it!” Based on social media chatter, this is one of the top lacrosse stories of the day: His audacity is met with a mix of amusement (one recap compared Gaudet to Joel Embiid), annoyance (from lax dads on Twitter), and analysis (“Gaudet’s Chirping: Effective Strategy, ‘Just Part of the Game,’ Classless or Contrived?” reads one thorough headline on Inside Lacrosse.) It also provides an instant narrative that would give even a brand-new viewer a foothold.

“I felt disrespected when a first-game rookie went on air with Ryan Boyle and said what he said,” says Riorden in a text message after the game, “but at the end of the day it’s part of the game and I don’t take it personal, it worked because they came out with a W.” It’s enough to make one hope for a rematch between the two teams in the elimination round, which begins on August 4, but there’s a lot of other lacrosse to play first. And if anyone has learned anything over the past few months, it’s that a whole lot can happen in one week’s time.

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