Playing lacrosse is technically a part-time job for Paul Rabil, but promoting the sport is without a doubt his full-time gig.
Rabil, a midfielder for the Boston Cannons of Major League Lacrosse and the National Lacrosse League’s Philadelphia Wings, is considered one of the sport’s greatest ambassadors. It’s only fitting, then, that the 28-year-old will represent the United States at the World Lacrosse Championships, which begin Thursday in Commerce City, Colo.
“When I was first out of college, a lot of people asked me what lacrosse was. Three years later, it was whether there was professional lacrosse,” Rabil said. “Now it’s, ‘Who do you play for?’ I think the mainstream sports viewer knows and is very well aware of lacrosse.”
The World Championships go through July 19. The USA opens Thursday night against Canada (9 p.m., ET, ESPN2). Both are among the favorites as are Australia, England, Japan and the Iroquois team comprised of Native Americans. Games will be shown on either ESPN2, ESPNU or ESPN3.
A two-time NCAA champion with Johns Hopkins, Rabil did what most college students do when they graduate – he got a job. The only difference is most company’s new hires aren’t also the MLL’s No. 1 overall draft pick. Rabil spent nine months post-graduation working at Cassidy and Pinkard, a leading real estate firm in Washington, D.C. He would work selling commercial real estate Monday through Thursday before competing every weekend.
Rabil was not alone. During his rookie year in 2008, he estimated that half of the players on his team were also working on Wall Street and in real estate. But the 6-foot-3 midfielder saw untapped potential in his sport. At the height of the financial crisis, he decided to go all in on lacrosse.
“I looked at the decision not as I wasn’t able to do both, because everything I go up against I always think I can accomplish,” Rabil said. “I wanted to really push the limits on what could really be done in lacrosse both on and off the field.”
While most other players were still working second jobs at the time, Rabil decided that entrepreneurship within lacrosse would be his second job. He worked heavily with his primary sponsor, Warrior lacrosse, to develop his own product line and promote his brand on a growing social media site called Twitter.
“There’s really no escaping Paul Rabil in the lacrosse world,” said Cale Werder, brand manager for Warrior lacrosse “A lot of athletes claim to be involved in the development of their product line, and those contributions can really start and end with cosmetic input. Paul is really immersed in all of the development phases of his equipment, and he’s really involved in both product and marketing discussions.”
The lessons Rabil learned in the business world came in handy when promoting his lacrosse brand. So did his willingness to think bigger than his sport. In Boston, Rabil became fast friends with New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and would often look to him for advice. He spent time during the offseason with the NBA’s Washington Wizards and followed transcendent superstar LeBron James to figure out how he managed his endorsements.
As Rabil’s brand grew, so did his sport. Lacrosse is one of America’s fastest growing team sports, with youth participation increasing by 77% since 2006, according to US Lacrosse..
“When I was 12 years old and first picked up a stick, the end game was the Final Four,” he said. “Now when kids are picking up a stick for the first time, they’re telling me that they want to play for the Boston Cannons or the Chesapeake Bayhawks or Team USA. There’s an ultimate profession in lacrosse and that wasn’t there when I first picked it up, so it’s fun to be a part of that.”
Even as his sport’s biggest figure, Rabil continues to interact directly with his growing fan base, hosting a series of youth camps and starting his own foundation to build lacrosse programs at schools that specialize in students with learning disabilities. This is an incredibly personal project for Rabil, who grew up with auditory processing disorder, a condition that he contends helped his budding lacrosse career instead of hurting it.
This year will be the second time that Rabil has represented his country at the World Championships. In 2010, Rabil earned tournament MVP honors and led the United States to the title. Four years later, the sport has continued its growth worldwide and nine more nations are competing in the 38-team tournament.
With the championships being played on American soil for the first time since 1998, Rabil believes this year’s tournament could be another huge step for global involvement in the sport.
“You take on a lot of really strong emotions being able to represent your country — everyone that plays lacrosse,” he said. “I remember watching the championship game in Baltimore in 1998 (when there were 11 teams playing in the tournament). It just shows the growth of the game at a global level.”
Rabil says he has about eight years of professional lacrosse left in him. But when one of the sport’s most decorated athletes hangs up his cleats, he still wants lacrosse to be his full-time job. The midfielder’s goal is to work with lacrosse’s governance to unify the sport’s two professional leagues and promote the league for further television exposure.
For now, Rabil has more than enough lacrosse-related projects to focus on. Perhaps his biggest is continuing to normalize his occupation into the lexicon of professional athletics.
“I still get asked, ‘So what do you do for a living?’ Do people ever ask NBA players that? Since when are we defined by our on-field wages?” he said. “I don’t ask someone who’s in real estate what they do for a living. They’re in real estate – that’s what they do. I’m in lacrosse – that’s what I do.”