The face of lacrosse is obscured by a tugged-down-low winter hat with the logo for Red Bull, one of the corporate sponsors that have made Paul Rabil the sport’s first million-dollar man.
Also included in the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Rabil’s endorsement portfolio are New Balance Inc.’s Warrior brand, which features a Rabil line; Polk Audio; Nooka watches; EFX performance bracelets; and Snap Fitness Inc. All will combine to pay the 27-year-old “a couple of million dollars” in the next several years, the first time a lacrosse player has topped seven figures, according to Ira Rainess, his Baltimore-based agent.
Helped by friends and classmates now on Wall Street, the Johns Hopkins University graduate is building his brand amid a surge of interest in his sport.
“Paul’s a force,” says Dick Long, 66, Rabil’s former coach at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Maryland.
Speaking over lunch in Philadelphia, where he plays for the Wings of the indoor National Lacrosse League, Rabil said a predecessor such as Gary Gait might have been a marketing behemoth had he played during a time of Facebook (FB) pages, Twitter feeds and 24-hour sports networks.
“The biggest thing has been social media,” said Rabil, who has 34,000 Twitter followers and more than 63,000 likes on his Facebook page. The cumulative total should be 500,000, he said.
Rabil and the companies that pay him are encouraged by how many lacrosse fans there are, where they are, how much money they have and how easy it is to interact with them.
“It’s certainly a different world,” said Gait, 45, a lacrosse Hall of Fame player who is now coach of the women’s team at his alma mater, Syracuse University. “Paul is doing things that people have never done before.”
According to a Sports & Fitness Industry Association survey, there were about 1.5 million lacrosse players in the U.S. last year, up 37 percent from 2008, the largest jump in team sports. In that same time, baseball participation fell almost 13 percent and tackle football dropped about 18 percent.
“There’s a big upside for lacrosse,” says Randy Freer, president of News Corp.’s Fox Sports Networks, which show college lacrosse.
Forty-three percent of lacrosse players come from households with annual incomes of more than $100,000, tops among team sports, according to the industry association survey. Youth lacrosse, 15 and under, had 361,275 players in 2011, up 11.3 percent from the previous year and the fastest-growing segment, according to USA Lacrosse, the sport’s national federation.
Lacrosse is expanding from its traditional Mid-Atlantic and New York roots. According to the SFIA survey, there are just as many players in the New England and South Atlantic regions, with participation up in California, Oregon and Washington.
“As the game gets bigger, Paul’s the guy who’s going to continue to rise with it,” said Sol Kumin, chief operating officer at SAC Capital who is a former Hopkins lacrosse player and Rabil’s friend.
His future as a pitchman is directly tied to the sport’s growth on television, said David Gross, commissioner of Major League Lacrosse, an eight-team outdoor league where Rabil -- a member of the Boston Cannons -- is a two-time Most Valuable Player.
Gross in 2007 negotiated a 10-year contract with ESPN, which this year will show 25 games on its networks. The CBS Sports Network will show 20.
Producers for the ABC show “The Bachelor,” which featured former National Football League quarterback Jesse Palmer, have inquired about using Major League Lacrosse players. Palmer parlayed his reality TV fame into a college football analyst job at ESPN, like ABC a unit of Walt Disney Co. (DIS)
Rabil, who lives in Canton, Maryland, a block from Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, is far from the highest American endorsement earners. Golfer Tiger Woods reaped about $54 million last year, according to Sports Illustrated. LeBron James of the Miami Heat received $33 million, while quarterback Tom Brady of the New England Patriots took home $10 million.
Woods is ranked No. 12 on The Marketing Arm’s Davie-Brown Index, which measures U.S. awareness of about 2,800 celebrities. James, a two-time National Basketball Association MVP, is No. 373, while Brady, a two-time NFL MVP, is No. 382. Rabil didn’t make the list.
Shawn Bryant, a former NBA executive who specialized in player marketing, said it will be hard for Rabil to approach the popularity of snowboarder Shaun White, who benefits from the Olympics and X Games exposure.
“He certainly has a tough road to that kind of breakout success,” Bryant said. He added that the sport’s influential followers, including Sean Bratches, ESPN’s executive vice president of sales & marketing and a member of the Rochester Institute of Technology Sports Hall of Fame for lacrosse, may help Rabil gain attention.
Rabil, who majored in political science and minored in entrepreneurship and management, took out his mobile phone to display a photograph from another well-known booster.
Shot at an airport in Costa Rica, it shows three-time Super Bowl winning coach Bill Belichick of the Patriots wearing a shirt from the Rabil collection, with a man in the background in a Rabil jersey.
“Marketing isn’t my thing, but I have no problem aligning myself with Paul Rabil on anything,” Belichick, who played lacrosse at Wesleyan University and whose daughter, Amanda, is an assistant for the Ohio State women’s team, said in an interview.
Rabil has lacrosse pals in finance, including Kumin and Steven Mitchell of SAC; former Hopkins roommate Stephen Peyser of Goldman Sachs Group Inc.; and Ted Goldthorpe, chief executive of Apollo (APO) Management Holdings.
He is a partner with five other former college athletes in Endurance Companies, a holding company.
“In any business you’re only as good as your relationships,” said Peyser, an equity trader. “Paul is extremely good at building and maintaining them.”
Rabil said endorsements build relationships and that he requests, though doesn’t always get, equity in companies that use his name and likeness. He’s working with Arlington, Virginia-based Activ8Social, which helps develop social media strategies.
Long, Rabil’s high-school coach, said his former player’s approach goes back to the 1960s, when Arnold Palmer paved the way for athletes to get paid by companies seeking to cash in on their fame.
“He’s the face of lacrosse,” Long said.
A face connected to corporate logos.
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