Paul Rabil, a Gaithersburg native, announced his retirement from professional lacrosse at Audi Field in D.C. Credit: Courtesy PLL

The 2021 Premier Lacrosse League season marked a resurgence for Paul Rabil. After registering just five points in five games for the Atlas Lacrosse Club in 2020, the 35-year-old midfielder and co-founder of PLL recorded 22 goals and seven assists in 10 games this year for the Cannons Lacrosse Club. In addition to having his best statistical season in three years, Rabil also reclaimed the record for most career points in professional field lacrosse history, finishing with 657 points all-time. 

It seemed, by all accounts, that Rabil was back at the top of his game. But Rabil’s third quarter goal in the PLL playoff quarterfinals between the Cannons and Atlas on Aug. 21 would be the last of his career, and the Cannons’ loss to Atlas would be his final game. On Sept. 14 at Audi Field, Rabil announced his retirement from professional lacrosse.

“Very few athletes get the opportunity to decide on their terms. Some get cut, some get traded, some get injured, and some don’t make a roster in a subsequent season,” Rabil tells City Paper. “Spending a lot of time in the ‘bubble’ during the 2020 season matched with where I am from an age standpoint made me start thinking that either this season or the following season would be my last. And the more I contemplated, the more I felt that it was going to be this [season] for a number of reasons, not only as a player, but also as a co-founder of this business.”

The news of Rabil’s retirement surprised lacrosse fans who viewed his play on the field in 2021 as a sign of longevity. Rabil built his brand on documenting his career, whether in behind-the-scenes videos on YouTube or appearances on late night talk shows, so it would have made sense if Rabil chose to make a major announcement leading up to his final season, instead of a quiet announcement weeks after what ended up being Rabil’s final professional game. While Rabil says he contemplated announcing his retirement at the start of the season, his decision to keep it quiet stemmed from being traded to the Cannons in the offseason and joining a new locker room.

“Getting traded was a big turning point for me,” Rabil says. “The last thing I wanted to do is be in a leadership position with guys who I hadn’t played with before, announce my retirement, and make the season feel to them as if it was about me and getting the headlines every weekend.”

The trade also represented his “return” to the same team that had drafted him back in 2008. The Boston Cannons were one of the original six teams when the first iteration of professional field lacrosse, Major League Lacrosse, began in 2001. After a period of frustration with MLL’s low wages, lack of health benefits for players, and limited media presence, Rabil and his brother Mike Rabil attempted to buy the league in 2018, and when those plans fell through, eventually launched the competing PLL.

A young fan watches the PLL playoffs championship game between the Chaos Lacrosse Club and the Whipsnakes Lacrosse Club at Audi Field. Credit: Kelyn Soong

The PLL flipped the idea of a traditional sports league on its head. Not only were players paid a significantly higher wage than they did in MLL with health benefits, they were given equity in the league. In 2019, the average player salary in PLL was $35,000, compared to $8,000 in the MLL the year prior, according to CNBC. Teams were no longer based in geographic regions and instead traveled together to a new city each weekend. And for the first time in professional field lacrosse, the sport had a multi-year media partner with a national reach.

The approach has worked so far. After just two years, the Rabils were able to orchestrate a merger with MLL that brought the players back under one league and allowed PLL to create an eighth team—the Cannons Lacrosse Club. Just a few months later, Rabil was traded and became the first player on the new incarnation of the Cannons.

“Anytime an athlete is traded, it can be a devastating shot to your confidence.” Rabil says. “But getting out on the other end of it, I couldn’t have been more appreciative of how I was treated on this new team and I think that my play really benefited from it.”

Rabil deemed this last season successful enough that he considered returning for another year, but ultimately felt it was time to hang up his cleats and devote his full attention to the business side of PLL. Things had finally come full circle for the Gaithersburg native. He was retiring with the same team he started his career with and he was doing so less than 30 miles from where he first started playing lacrosse, at Audi Field.

“As we got closer to the midway point, my decision was more and more solid,” Rabil says. “Looking at our schedule and seeing that I was going to be in my home city around championship weekend felt like the right time to make the call.”

Audi Field proved to be the perfect backdrop for Rabil’s retirement announcement, which many of his family, friends, teammates and coaches attended. The roughly 50 people in attendance on that Tuesday were then contrasted by the approximately 15,000 that watched the Chaos Lacrosse Club beat the Whipsnakes Lacrosse Club, 14-9, to win the PLL Championship.

“We don’t have the final numbers yet, but the numbers are tracking towards the most attended game in PLL history, which is important as we move into our next offseason,” Rabil says.

While Rabil’s days of playing professional lacrosse are now in the past, he’s not finished propelling the sport to new heights. The dual threat, who is as much an entrepreneur as he is a professional athlete, will now devote his full efforts to the sport as PLL’s chief marketing officer and leader of a new initiative, “Goals For Greatness,” that he hopes will grow the sport.

“Goals for Greatness is something that I’ve thought through pretty extensively over the last five years and built a vision board around what could dramatically impact lacrosse, participation and lacrosse awareness,” Rabil explains. “Stick manufacturers do a good job of getting sticks in hands across the world, but there hasn’t been a significant push to get goals on fields. Basketball courts, baseball diamonds, soccer fields and such not only provide outlets for communities to play, but they also create awareness, just in their proximity to people. The latter is actually a pretty dramatic change that, if done right, will allow lacrosse to become more recognized and appreciated.”

Rabil’s mission is to resource lacrosse goals in all 50 states beginning in 2022 and is just one of his many future endeavors in retirement. Rabil’s other retirement plans include working on the PLL’s next broadcast TV deal, innovating the on-field product, scheduling expansion down the road, and evaluating the league’s eventual shift to a city-based model.

“I’m excited to be able to spend more time [on the business],” Rabil says. “If we pull on the right levers, we can become what the UFC did to MMA in a shorter time period, and that’s the continued path for me and for the PLL and I think we can get there pretty quickly. It’s obviously a tall order, but that’s where my ambition lies.”

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