As the 2020-21 NBA season gets underway, its minor league counterpart—the G League—is still figuring out what this season will look like. Unable to finish last season due to the pandemic, the NBA’s largest feeder system has been on pause since March 12. That has left many prospects in limbo—including Northwestern’s Pat Spencer, a late bloomer in the basketball world who chose the sport over a career in professional lacrosse.
The Davidsonville, Maryland, native began his college athletic career on the lacrosse team at Loyola University in his home state. By 2019, he’d notched first-team All-American honors and finished as the sport’s Division I career assists leader. He hit second on the all-time points list and took home the top individual honor in college lacrosse—the Tewaaraton Award. But he decided to use his final year of eligibility to play hoops at Northwestern as a graduate transfer.
Like Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray, Spencer was presented with the choice of two possible professional athletic careers, one seemingly much more certain than the other. The spring before he started at Northwestern, Spencer was drafted by both professional outdoor lacrosse leagues, the Premier Lacrosse League and Major League Lacrosse.
Picked No. 1 overall in the PLL’s first-ever draft and seventh in the MLL draft—the latter by his hometown team, Chesapeake—Spencer instead opted to pursue basketball. Now, after an interrupted hoops season in Evanston (where the 6-3 guard averaged 10.4 points on 43% shooting, 3.9 assists and 4.1 rebounds per game) and a delayed November NBA draft where he didn’t hear his name called, Spencer waits, like all other G League hopefuls. The league has yet to announce plans for 2021, or sign any players for the season.
“I was pretty straightforward with both [lacrosse leagues] about my dream to play hoops,” Spencer, currently training in upstate New York, said in a phone interview. “Don’t get me wrong, I was thankful for the opportunity and honored from the PLL and MLL standpoint. But at the end of the day, basketball was something I wanted to pursue and I can’t put a price on that.”
Ironically, Spencer actually would’ve likely made more money as a professional lacrosse player than he will—at least at the start—pursuing his hardwood dreams.
The starting salaries between the two sports are comparable. Every G League player signed to a standard contract gets the same deal: $7,000 per month over the course of the season, or $35,000 during the league’s typical five-month run. The standard contract is only one season long, with no longer-term offers made to G League players.
The handful of hoopers on two-way deals with an NBA team can earn more or have lengthier contracts as they wind up on the franchise’s payroll instead of the G League’s, but the rest go season by season.
The PLL’s average salary is similarly $35,000, higher than the MLL’s part-time pay precedent that existed for decades before the PLL played its first season in 2019. The leagues have since merged under the PLL umbrella, as Sportico first reported, but had Spencer picked the newer league, his contract likely would’ve carried around the same value as the G League would. Given Spencer’s college success and professional potential, however, the league could have offered him a contract worth more than the average salary. Here’s where lacrosse edges ahead in terms of earning opportunity.
“PLL players get on-field wages, healthcare and stock options in the company, but with any No. 1 pick, what becomes additionally compelling is the sponsorship and appearance value that takes place outside the lines,” said PLL co-founder Paul Rabil, known as “lacrosse’s first million-dollar man” because of the deals he himself has been able to land.
Rabil’s young league has uniquely integrated a number of its top players into off-field earning opportunities, frequently roping individuals into sponsorship pacts with companies including Bose, Utz and CBD brand Mendi. The PLL prioritizes players’ social media and personal brands, boosting potential for endorsement or sponsorship deals, and offers opportunities to earn additional income with the PLL Academy.
Endorsement opportunities would have almost been guaranteed for Spencer in lacrosse, a number of agents in the space agree. That supplemental income stream isn’t as common among G League basketball players, who get less exposure than their NBA counterparts. MLL commissioner Sandy Brown described Spencer as a “once in a lifetime talent” in lacrosse—a lock for plenty of exposure in that sport’s world.
Rabil was “100%” confident a stick and ball sponsorship would’ve been in the cards for Spencer, and felt as strongly that the prospect could have secured a footwear and apparel deal as well. In his opinion, Spencer “would be looking at north of $100,000 in value based on his on- and off-field brand in lacrosse.”
As with any sport, the value of endorsement deals in lacrosse varies depending on the player, product and opportunity, but agents agreed with Rabil’s assessment of Spencer’s potential earnings, estimating his off-field deals could have been worth a high five figures if not more.
G League officials confirmed that their standard contract allows players opportunities to sign endorsement deals, host camps and the like, but few have successfully landed large endorsement deals prior to arriving in the NBA.
And yet none of that potential lacrosse money could sway Spencer, who notes that the long-term earning potential is where the opportunities differ most dramatically, if he can make it to the basketball big leagues.
“The platform for the NBA is there currently,” Spencer explained. “The PLL is growing, much like the game of lacrosse as a whole. What they’ve done getting guys a salary that’s doable for a full-time job is big. They’re taking a step in the right direction branding [lacrosse] and turning it into something that’s more of a real, full-time sport. The differences are clearly from a financial standpoint: The PLL has a long way to go [to compare to the NBA]. The NBA is a major league already. It’s completely global.”