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Can tech help niche sports go mainstream?

Professional lacrosse player Paul Rabil talks about the intersection of social media and sports on the latest Too Embarrassed to Ask.

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Professional lacrosse player Paul Rabil in 2015
Professional lacrosse player Paul Rabil in 2015
Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images

If you go pro in a sport like basketball or football in the U.S., you join an elite tier of athletes who are watched and obsessively followed by millions of Americans every year. But if you’re in a smaller sport like lacrosse, you have to do a lot more work to get noticed.

Pro lacrosse player Paul Rabil figured this out early, when he first launched his Facebook fan page and saw that he could be a one-man SportsCenter, single-handedly encouraging people to play and talk about lacrosse. Since then, he has been an early adopter of new tech products and, more recently, an investor.

“Tech times sports is critical right now,” Rabil said on the latest episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask. “We’re seeing over the last decade this convergence of modern media and technology that’s created this ecosystem, where it’s never been a more advantageous time to be a niche sport.”

Speaking with Recode’s Kara Swisher and her son, Louie (a Rabil superfan and high school lacrosse player), Rabil talked about how he has used YouTube, Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram to drum up interest in lacrosse, noting that the size of Instagram’s Stories feature has made him prioritize it over Snapchat, which originated Stories.

“The story we tell is the humanizing thing,” Rabil said. “I always think about Michael Jordan — he was the Nike, he was the Gatorade, he was the McDonald’s athlete, and every [commercial] was highlight-based. And then when Gatorade launched their ‘Be Like Mike’ commercial, it made him feel real. We think we do that every day.”

You can listen to Too Embarrassed to Ask on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

On the new podcast, Rabil also talked about the broader impact technology has had on all sports, not just the smaller ones like lacrosse. When Louie Swisher pointed out that he never sits down to watch a two-hour sports game on live TV, Rabil said it’s a generational divide: Millennials and Generation Z are consuming content in short bursts online, but there’s still a lot of value in being a big sports broadcaster.

The danger, however, is that tech companies like Netflix, Amazon and Google also see that value, and they want in.

“We’re seeing this massive content race right now,” Rabil said. “The major five sports, their licensing deals with television and cable networks are up in 2021 or 2022. You have these tech platforms coming in that are already starting to bid on rights. They have so much in cash reserves and they’re spending a ton on content, so these networks, they’re all coalescing: ABC-FOX, NBC-Sky, Time Warner-AT&T, CBS-Viacom. They’re trying to combat and position themselves.”

“You can put as many metrics in front of a brand manager,” he said, alluding to the growth of YouTube TV. “They’d still rather be attached to ESPN, CBS, NBC, Fox. So they have that affinity going for them.”

Rabil also talked about emerging technologies like AI, VR and wearables, the latter of which could theoretically give athletes and coaches on the field a competitive advantage if they’re providing the right data about a player’s stamina.

“What they’ll never be able to tell is how Michael Jordan, how he had the flu in that Game 7 of the playoffs two dozen years ago and scored 40-some points,” he said. “All of the data would have showed that you shouldn’t be playing Michael at this moment. So, athletes have this level of compete where they take it beyond expectations and what we could ever measure, data-based. It’s called being human.”

If you like this podcast, make sure to check out our others:

  • Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with the movers and shakers in tech and media. You can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
  • Recode Media with Peter Kafka features no-nonsense conversations with the smartest and most interesting people in the media world, with new episodes every Thursday. Use these links to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

If you like what we’re doing, please write a review on Apple Podcasts — and if you don’t, just tweet-strafe Kara. Tune in next Friday for another episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask!

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