On this episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask, professional lacrosse player, entrepreneur and investor Paul Rabil talks with Recode’s Kara Swisher and her son Louie Swisher about the intersection of sports and technology.
You can read a write-up of the interview here or listen to the whole thing in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode, and you’re listening to Too Embarrassed to Ask, coming to you from the Vox Media podcast network. This is a show where we answer all of your embarrassing questions about consumer tech and the week’s news. You can send us your questions on Twitter with the hashtag #tooembarrassed. We also have an email address, email@example.com. Reminder, there are two Rs and two Ss in embarrassed.
Today on Too Embarrassed to Ask, I’m in Washington, D.C., with Paul Rabil. He’s a professional lacrosse player, but probably the professional lacrosse player. He’s an entrepreneur and he’s the host of the podcast Suiting Up. I heard about him because both of my sons — actually, one of them is here, going to be on the show, Louie Swisher — told me all about him, and when I mentioned that you tweeted back at me, Paul, they went crazy.
And this is how much I don’t know of what things are happening online. We’re going to talk about sports and tech and business. Paul, welcome to Too Embarrassed to Ask.
Paul Rabil: Thanks for having me. I think I’ve tweeted at you probably 100 times.
A lot. And here you are on your show.
PR: I’m a big fan of the show. I’m excited. It’s terrific to be here.
In any case, I would say I’m a big fan of your lacrosse work but I’m not. But my kids are.
PR: Well, thank you Louie, I appreciate you hosting me.
Louie Swisher is also here. He’s been a guest host with a lot of things, especially talking about technology and how teens look at it. Welcome, Louis.
Louie Swisher: Thank you for having me again, Mom.
It’s okay. It’s all ... Now, it’s not nepotism because you actually get a lot of ... the audience seems to like you. Paul, I want to talk about a whole bunch of things. Why don’t you get into the idea of you as an entrepreneur. Give me your background a little bit.
PR: Sure. So I grew up in Montgomery County, Maryland, in a middle class home.
PR: Right near here. My mom is an art teacher. My dad was in printing sales for a while, now he’s working with us on the upside of Rabil Ventures in our event business. They always encouraged us to play a lot of sports. It was pre-technology, social media, so we didn’t have mobile devices and we’d do outside play with friends. And my dad would always say like, “If there was a sport that you wanted to play that we could afford it, we’ll get you in it.”
Lacrosse came to me at this convergence of AU basketball and club soccer wanting to have me commit to either of them exclusively. I wanted to keep playing both, so I was given a spring sport to play. My neighbor gave me his backup equipment, same with my older brother, who is now my business partner, and we started playing lacrosse.
There’s this stylistic component to the game. Shortly after dealing with a lot of the challenges of the technicality of it and the rules and being on the couch and thrown in all the challenges, got better, fell in love with it, decided to go along there. Went to Johns Hopkins, played lacrosse there.
They’re one of the best at lacrosse.
PR: It’s one of the best lacrosse schools, 44 national championships, seven post-NCAA era in the early 1970s. Hopkins and Maryland hosted their 180th rivalry game. Sports Illustrated calls it a top 10 college sports rivalry. They’ve only missed two games, during World War Two.
The history behind lacrosse is huge. Native Americans started it as early as the 17th century as the accounts go back, and then European immigrants as they colonized, they took over the game and commercialized it to what it is today. And it’s Canada’s national team sport. I was drafted to play professional lacrosse in 2008.
But it’s not here, it’s not here. We’ll talk about the popularity of sports and how they jump online. I want to talk about the tech around it. But it’s not been a sport that has been big here until recently, and it’s certainly not big on the West Coast now.
PR: Sure. And many would argue that it still hasn’t capitalized on its potential commercially. The game has been the only team sport in North America to grow year over year at the participatory level for the past 15 years. So there’s a lot of eyeballs on it, and that proliferation has gone east to west, and we’ve seen high schools now sanction the game. We’ve seen not endemic brands come in and spend, but there’s some professional overlap, there’s some discrepancy on brand recognition and affinity for the sport at the highest level.
And right now, the younger kids that are playing look at the peak of lacrosse in college. What you need as any sport, when you look at the Big Five, is what they’re called, but it’s usually the big three — the NFL, NBA and MLB — is they have to be top-down. If there’s no commercial approach or no commercial strategy where non endemic who come in, broadcast and networks and cable companies can spend to really bring in revenue, then it’s just a bottom-up sport.
Right now it’s important to have that base layer of participants, all the way through high school and college, but we’ve got to open up more and figure out how to commercialize at a national level.
It kind of reminds you of skateboarding or all kinds of things that have sort of ... or extreme sports.
PR: Yeah. And why I was excited to come on this podcast is, tech time sports is critical right now because 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 to be able to capture an audience and monetize. Previously, when you asked me about entrepreneurship, when I graduated in 2008, there was professional lacrosse from Johns Hopkins, but everyone was considered a weekend warrior, they’d have a job on Wall Street. I took a job in real estate for eight months.
So you were selling houses?
PR: No, I was in commercial real estate with a group here in D.C., Cassidy and Pinkard, before they were acquired by Turley Martin Tucker and then spun off again. So I was an analyst on their investment sales team. I jumped out eight months later because this is in 2008, so it was the pit of the real estate economy and all that was going on. So I was on Argus creating models for buildings that weren’t trading.
Anyway, I decided to try and build a career beyond a part-time professional league where wages are lower. So I started running my own camps and clinics, and then I looked at Facebook where they launched their first fan page at that time. Previously, they would tap a Facebook friend group of 5,000 people or fewer. So our games in college on ESPN inbounded a bunch of friend requests and I would accept all of them and then I was capped.
So they launched the fan page and for the first time in the modern era of sports, an athlete didn’t have to require SportsCenter to give their sport or themselves coverage.
Because you could do it on Facebook.
PR: Bingo. So for me, I was like, “Wow, this is something that’s pretty seminal, I think, and I’m going to commit to being an early adopter to new technology as this space proliferates.” I had no idea where it was going to go.
Well, it’s the only way you can go with a niche sport, or niche anything, except like that ... It’s interesting. How did you, Louie, how did you get into lacrosse? Moving here or?
LS: Yeah, when I moved here, on the first day of school, I showed up and they said, “You’re going to play lacrosse,” and I just said okay. And I went with it.
Because it was just there.
LS: Oh yeah, because it was available. It was a new sport. I was interested in it, and I wanted to play it.
And I wouldn’t let you play football.
LS: Yeah, so it was the closest thing to it, I guess.
PR: Which is like the story that we tell, which is amazing. So, you’re introduced to lacrosse, it seems like a fun sport, it’s got the endurance level, there’s contact, there’s a style component to it, but then we’re seeing all these macro trends in football. And not to disparage that sport, but the concussion studies ...
You can just disparage it, it’s fine.
PR: The concussion studies that are coming out, the broader cannibalization of what the NFL is doing, hosting games on every night of the week, and then we’re seeing participation dip and then actually be nonexistent in major markets. So new players are looking at joining other sports, and lacrosse is this emerging vehicle that’s exciting. I think soccer has seen growth from it as well, or basketball.
They’re different, though. Yeah, they’re different. They’re all different, meaning that ... I think lacrosse is football, is the next football, seems to me. It’s got the same, it has elements of it that’s a little different than soccer and it’s an interesting thing.
PR: I’d be curious to hear your thoughts, because I do think there are certain product alterations that we can make to it. Adam Silver was just in an interview a week ago ...
He’s the head of the NBA.
PR: Yeah, commissioner of the NBA, and he had said the two things that they have going for them that they feel like no other sport has is they have no helmets on their players, so you get to see these people, and then their players stay on the court the entire game. In football, in lacrosse, in hockey, there’s mass substitutions that happen. It’s tough as a nascent viewer to understand what’s going on. I think the ball’s tough to pick up on television right now.
So anyway, NBA has that going for them, and I think there are certain things that lacrosse ... and we’re seeing other sports address the length of the games, these two-hour broadcasts and such.
Now, I want to use you as the vehicle to talk about this idea of where sports are going and the niche sports. And I know, Louie, you watch a lot of unusual sports online, right? That’s where you find them. You don’t watch football?
LS: No, I don’t really follow any sport.
Where do you follow things? Like for your lacrosse stuff?
LS: What do you mean?
Where do you follow things online? You have a fan page.
LS: We don’t have.
Your team does, doesn’t it?
LS: We have a group chat.
You have a group chat. How do you think about watching sports right now?
LS: Well, I was never really a big fan of watching sports, I preferred playing them. I like going to live games because I think it’s exciting when you’re in the moment, but I can never really sit down and watch a sport like that the two-hour broadcast on television. I can watch lacrosse games more, because it’s a fast game, but there’s grace to it. I guess I sometimes prefer playing the game, but lacrosse has more appeal than like football.
But the fact of the matter is, younger people don’t watch sports in the same way.
LS: Not necessarily. A lot of people are very dedicated to watching sports.
To watching sport live or?
PR: Here’s the thing about sports, and we’re seeing this massive content race right now. The major five sports, their licensing deals with television and cable networks are up in 2021 and 2022. You have these tech platforms that are coming in that are already starting to bid on rights.
Right. Google and Amazon.
PR: Facebook, Twitter, Hulu even, and then Netflix, Reed Hastings is going to get in at some point, he’s down to it.
Yeah, he is. News and sports, I think.
PR: They have so much cash reserves and they’re spending a ton on content. So these networks right now, they’re all coalescing. So ABC, Fox, NBC, Viacom, Time Warner, AT&T or CBS, Viacom, NBC, Sky. So you’re seeing this because they’re trying to combat and position themselves.
They have to. I’ve never felt sorry for AT&T until now. Everybody’s like, “Oh, this merger.” I’m like, “Oh, they’re in big trouble.” Google and Amazon and ...
PR: Right. But what they do have to their advantage is that they’re like the affinity brand and their business is built on advertising. And so advertisers can look at number of eyeballs, and YouTube announced 1.8 billion monthly actives, and they launched YouTube TV that’s probably around 400,000 subscribers right now, so it’s low but they’re growing it.
But you can put as many metrics in front of a brand manager, they’d still rather be attached to ESPN, CBS, NBC, Fox, so they have that affinity going for them. But to Louie’s point, video on demand or VOD and highlights are where Gen Zs and millennials are consuming content. Bleachers along their bar stools, along in their House of Hoops, House of Highlights, they all got acquired by these groups.
He’s like Instagram channels that have built these mass followings that cut small licensing deals with leagues and show highlights, and then add memes to them and animations. That’s how people are consuming right now.
Exactly. Let’s use it for the lens of lacrosse. So you finish college, there’s nowhere else to go to play it on the weekends, so there’s no higher levels. So what happens? There’s now a league, right?
PR: Yes. So there’s two professional lacrosse leagues; there’s Major League Lacrosse and then there’s the National Lacrosse League. The NLL, going back to that Canadian origin connection to the sport, is the indoor game, so box lacrosse. MLL is outdoor. There’s an overlap in season schedules, so if you look at the interest of these private investors is to be attached to the spring because spring has identity with lacrosse. Spring also for the arena owners and the NLL represents probably most vacancy outside of the NHL and NBA teams that make the playoffs, which are very few of them. So it’s in the interest of owners of the arenas ...
To have something fit in.
PR: So there’s like a bit of a conflict there, which is hurting the game because most people don’t know, A) who the pro leagues are or if there is a pro league, and then wait, there’s a conflict, there’s two different ones and they’re different properties in and of themselves. Nevertheless, like, I played in both for seven years, I only play in MLL right now because of that overlap. I play with Team USA, we have our World Games which comes once every four years this July in Israel.
There are 58 participatory countries. In 2001, there were nine. Jim Sher, who is the CEO of the Federation of International Lacrosse, who is formerly a CEO of the USOC, he has completed an application with the IOC to get Olympic recognition again.
Oh really? I didn’t know that.
PR: Which would be huge, because if we get that recognition, it’s less about when we’re going to be on TV and playing and more about the governing bodies per state then unlock resources and give it out on a pro rata basis.
When you have like ... I have written about the bowling league, all these different leagues, the extreme sports thing. Extreme sports is really the only one that sort of broke through. So if you’re a sport ... There’s never been more chance to break through now with all these different platforms, but it’s difficult. So talk about the chance ... So, you’re just a player, and what?
PR: What we know is that, at least trends show that people are more geographically agnostic, they care less about the name on the front of the jersey and more about the name on the back. And the oddity in that is in sports who preach the opposite. And you have to commit it to be successful as a team.
It’s the team. They always say there’s no “me” in team, but there actually is, but go ahead. There’s an M and an E.
PR: Exactly. So what we look at is, the players are the assets. Going back to Adam Silver, who I think is probably the best ...
PR: They invest in their players, they don’t restrict their players’ voice and they allow them to be activists. So you’ve got to get your players to build and access these platforms, create social celebrity around them, you’ve got to tell their stories. You can do that through original programming. UFC is an example. When Dana White was $40 million in the hole they paid, they did a time buy on Spike television at the time to launch Ultimate Fighter.
So they educated the market on what UFC was, and they told stories about their fighters like Chuck Liddell. We looked at WSL, the World Surf League, they’re in Santa Monica. They’re kicking ass. They’re all about new media, they have a Facebook partnership, they have a great mobile app experience, they tell a story of their surfers. Professional Bull Riders Association, same thing. Street League Skateboarding, similar to action sports, as you mentioned.
I didn’t know bull riders have a whole thing going on.
PR: Bull riders have a huge thing going on. They just sold to WME a few years ago, and that was a break off of players from the status quo. They chipped in $2,000 each to start their own league based on where they thought this was going.
Because these leagues are sort of in the ancient times, essentially.
PR: And these are all sports that we consider have product market fit, to use a tech term. Then you look at Drone Race League and what they’ve done. They’re basically a media business. They’re not like a fan experience, but Drone, they’ve built business out of these tech-savvy athletes who are flying drones, and in an arena as more than races.
They’re athletes who are flying drones?
PR: You’d have to consider them athletes, because it’s technically a sport similar to eSports, but they’re selling $10 million sponsors a year now because they’re getting eyeballs in the new media. So it comes down to how are you showcasing your athletes and how sophisticated are you around media and how are you presenting the media. Even how Louie had talked about, how does he want to consume it? Let’s present it to him that way.
Do you follow players or do you follow teams, when you think about it? When you are thinking about lacrosse?
LS: I think usually, there seems to be there’s a bigger presence of college lacrosse than professional lacrosse, and definitely some people, like a lot of my friends’ followers are on the team, they follow college lacrosse heavily. They go to the games that are nearby, they watch the games every weekend. But personally, I really don’t follow any sports. I just like playing them. But I do end up following players somewhat.
You knew him?
LS: Definitely. Everybody. Everybody who plays lacrosse knows Paul Rabil.
PR: Well, do you watch my YouTube channel?
LS: Sometimes. I do.
PR: So, you’re on it right now. So Brett Roberts is here and he’s recording. So that’s an example of how we invest in content. We’re lean because I self-fund everything.
Talk about the YouTube channel. Explain what you’re doing.
PR: Sure. So, Brett’s here and he’s recording, and what we look at around being thoughtful with social media is how do we store retail. What’s the cadence of which we’re delivering content to our audience? And then how are we engaging with them after the content’s delivered. There always has to be a methodology around it. And then to get really deep into the way that we’re thinking about every piece of content is similar to what you would learn in film school, so what’s your act one, act two and act three.
So you’re not just like pushing out content that no one understands with bad copywriting. It’s a part of a longer story. For me, I tell the story of what it’s like to be a professional lacrosse player. There’s a lifestyle component of what I do daily, and then there’s the entrepreneur component; so how do I think about it? And this is really interesting because on my Twitter exclusively, I talk more about business and my podcast and hard skills, soft skills, stuff that I’ve learned and people that I’ve met, so this fits really well.
So, where does the sports get into it? Because that used to be the show, was the game itself.
PR: Exactly. So what we’ll do — and we have to have conversations with MLL on a case-by-case basis — but we enter a licensing deal with them so we can take 30 seconds of my game at a time and then trickle that into ... Leagues will have certain carve-outs, but in the end, MLL knows, just like NBA knows, none of them are true open source to athletes for content, but they know that because platform access is ubiquitous that it’s going to be that rising tide lifts all ships style.
I don’t put out a lot of highlights because of certain restrictions, but I think, again, the story that we tell is like the humanizing thing. I always think about Michael Jordan back during linear television, and he was the Nike, he was the Gatorade, he was the McDonald’s athlete, and everything was highlight based. And then when Gatorade launched their Be Like Mike commercial, it made him feel real, you connect with him and he was playing with young basketball players. And we think we do that every day.
It’s interesting because when I think about all athletes taking control of their social media presence, they take control of their Twitter, all kinds of areas; they should be individual entrepreneurs rather than I see them as servants of these rich owners. That’s how I look at it. It’s like Hollywood actors, the same thing.
PR: Well, it’s a great question and it’s like an intellectual exercise to try and think about it objectively. The folks on the sports teams that I know at Instagram and Facebook and Twitter, I try to work with them regularly to learn how their platforms are iterating, but they’ve asked me to speak to athletes from time to time around ways that we use their platforms.
What they always fall back on is the No. 1 most important thing is that you’re performing at a high level for any athlete. So you need a game to do that. It’s like you’re validating the mechanism. That doesn’t mean that you can, when you’re retired, everything shuts down. You just take on a different life and tell that story differently, for the most part. If you’re smart around content creation and you’re trading attention and you’re offering free content, that when you build your businesses or you make investments that people will follow because of that loyalty and connection that you’ve made.
But what I’ll tie back in to the broadcast standpoint and what we’re seeing now with rights fees is that 75 percent of live programming right now that’s being consumed on television is sports. The other 25 percent is he Oscars, the Academy Awards, it’s “NCIS” and it’s “Big Bang Theory.” So everyone is looking to spend, when the NFL deal is up, they’re getting $6.6 billion a year across all the networks for rights. Emmy is getting $2.2.
All the soccer platforms overseas are getting at least a B. MLS is getting 100, NHL 200, WWE just signed a deal with Fox yesterday that took their annual revenue for licensing fees from 150 to now 400 a year. So you can just tell that these networks know how valuable live programming is to supplement their VOD, which if you look at Netflix, is all VOD. Amazon’s all VOD, and that’s a good space to be but if you need to have advertisers, you need to have live programming.
What are the problems that are helpful to you? I know we were just asking Louie if he uses Snapchat. What do you use? Snapchat, YouTube ...
LS: I use Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube.
And talk about the differences.
PR: What do you like about Snapchat?
LS: I use it as a mode of talking to people. I use it way more than texting and that’s what I mostly liked before. You can take pictures and send them easily with little use of data and that’s pretty ... I like that a lot.
PR: So it’s like a peer to peer. Are you following celebrities on Snapchat?
LS: I used to. I still do, but ...
He doesn’t like the redesign.
LS: Yeah. I haven’t really been able to see the stuff.
LS: You love Evan.
LS: He’s a creative genius.
I think he is a creative genius, even though he can be other things, but he definitely is. But this new redesign is problematic, because you didn’t like ...
LS: Nobody likes it.
Because it combined or ...
LS: It was just, they took something that everybody liked and it was perfectly fine, and then they just, with a curve ball, just changed it without asking anybody.
PR: It’s an interesting dilemma for him to be in and I certainly don’t envy it, nor do I have the skill set to make these types of decisions, but it reminds me when I was a little bit older than you when Facebook was ... I adopted Facebook my sophomore year in college, so they were first just for universities. And then when they opened up to the public, they launched a News Feed and people were protesting and they were closing down accounts.
So like this News Feed idea of like, “I only want people to know what I’m doing who are thinking about me and click on my profile and read.” So, the UI or UX of these platforms, I know that there are data scientists and psychologists that they hired that are in-house to figure out how our brains work. And so I suspect that with Snapchat, which I don’t use as actively as I used to ...
But you don’t use it as a sport person? It doesn’t give you any ...
PR: I used to get a great pop on it and then I have to be really mindful of my bandwidth. And when Facebook decided to go after them directly, I have a bigger audience on Instagram, so I Instagram stories, just take pride in where ...
And you’re in the Stories, not the feed, right?
PR: That’s right. I model my feed, I curate my feed more carefully, and then I allow more conversation in connection with my audience across Instagram Stories.
PR: It’s videos that goes away after 24 hours. The expectation aesthetically isn’t where it is across your feed. People will literally ... When social media first opened, the novelty of getting access to an athlete or an entertainer or thought innovator or leader was such that like, “Wow, I’m going to follow this person because that’s awesome.” As social media has proliferated, it’s become our online identification. So people are super mindful of who they’re following, their ratio of followers, what they’re posting.
It’s not enough just to be like, “Oh, LeBron James is there. I like LeBron.” You’ll click on LeBron’s profile and say like, “Is this something that I want to be associated with? Does he align with my views?” Because all that stuff is really critical now. When we look at how we’re presenting our profiles, you have to try to be objective and pass out the personal attachment, especially if you’re going to go along your point on entrepreneurialism and media. It’s like, “How are we presenting it? What’s the likelihood of a conversion to a new fan or a new follower?”
Which is your goal.
When we get back, we’ll talk more about the platforms and where niche sports especially are going online. We’re here with Paul Rabil. Paul, we’re going to break for our sponsors because I have to make money too. Can you give me your best reading of the line, “hashtag money”?
PR: Yes. I need hashtag money.
Oh, that’s ... you need more. Come on, Paul, you’re a famous lacrosse player.
PR: Yeah. I need hashtag money.
Nice. Well done.
And we’re back with Paul Rabil, he’s a lacrosse star. I wanted to talk about entrepreneurship in sports, because I think it’s changing really drastically. We’re here also with my lovely son, Louie Swisher, who’s an enormous rabid fan of Paul Rabil, but also he’s been on the podcast many times to talk about trends that teens are into. Louie just turned 16.
PR: Happy birthday.
LS: Thank you.
And he’s not liking Snapchat these days but he uses it excessively. And you were talking about YouTube and stuff like that. We’re going to get to that in a minute. Let’s add some questions from our readers and listeners. Cara Luhring has a question about the Paul Rabil Foundation, which helps children with learning differences. She says, “I’d love to know what inspired your nonprofit and what implementing your core directions look like, the ‘how,’ as it were. I’m a mom of a daughter who’s struggling in school, who is resilient enough to push through to succeed, in part due to a new school and more modern curriculum offered. I’m interested in his perspective on the state of educational institutions, being as his nonprofit could help fill some gaps.”
PR: Yeah. That’s a great question and I appreciate you bringing that up. It’s more of an emotional piece for me as an athlete or anyone who has built a connection with an audience that cares about doing good by the community. It was always instilled to us by our dad and our mom, but I grew up with learning differences, I have auditory processing disorder, I have ADHD. My sister has dyslexia. I always had access through the school system to extra time on tests, note taking. My sister went to the lab school here in Washington, D.C.
And from my perspective, struggling in school growing up, having most of my interest in sports, had I not had the opportunity to play sports to gain confidence on the field, that I could then match with lower self-esteem in the classroom, I’m not sure where I’d be. That’s part one, it’s like, wow, lacrosse not only has created an opportunity for me professionally, but it really helped me as a younger boy in school.
The flip side was, I remember my parents living in the county in Maryland having to figure out a way to fund my sister’s education at the lab school because scholarships were only coming through residents of D.C., so they went to court to try to figure it out. Didn’t win it, but we would drive her back and forth an hour and a half from the school so she could get bespoke education.
Because, right now in many of the states, the reason why in the public school system kids are placed in the LD department, it’s not carved out based on their specific learning difference, is that the state actually doesn’t recognize one learning difference versus another. Some states do, so that forces the hand of parents and kids then to go to a school specializing in education. What we did was, I used to contribute to charities, then I said, “Okay, I have the attention of lacrosse, well, let’s do something small.”
Now, we understand that it’s a competitive space just like business, frankly, nonprofits are, and raising money is really hard, but we work with Bill Belichick, who has a similar foundation working with younger kids through sports, and he’s a former lacrosse guy and a friend of mine. So that helps with raising money. When you combine with coach Bill Belichick, but we have a scholarship program that we give out to families on an annual basis and we start lacrosse programs at those schools.
Oh, that’s fantastic. All right. Next question. Louie, please read it.
LS: Gabriel @Diablorobotico says, “It can’t be all roses and sunshine. What has tech taken away from sports?”
What has tech taken away from sport?
PR: Great question. And I mentioned the humanization piece during the old MJ ad with Gatorade. One big piece that we’ve seen over the past five years and a lot of venture money going into it is wearable tech. You have Apple and Fitbit, they kind of own the market share of that category. But then you have a company called VERT, you have had Catapult and you have STATS.
I have seen them all. I call them unwearables, but go ahead.
PR: Well, it’s the problem. It’s that they try to test out high performance, but their wearable tech falls off for the most part. That’s the real challenge. I think the places they’ll get to is more of like bandaid tech, but then you run into the challenges from an economic standpoint of building a business around something you have to pull off and put something new on every time.
But wearable tech, we’re getting to a place, and sports are experimenting with it, how much can you showcase to the consumer? How much can you tell the story to the coach and GM, where they’re making decisions based on heart rate, nerves, blood temperature, all these type of stuff that can lead us to make a hypothesis on performance in the fourth quarter.
But what they’ll never be able to tell, and this is the answer to your question is, how Michael Jordan — and obviously, I’m an MJ fan, for his performance at least — how he had the flu in that Game Seven in the playoffs two dozen years ago and scored 40-some points, they came from behind. All of the data would have showed that, “Actually, you shouldn’t even be playing Michael at this moment.” Athletes have this level of compete, where they take it beyond expectations and what we could ever measure database.
So it’s the coach, humans being human.
PR: For being human? For having the ... Yeah. It’s called having the actual heart.
Do you think it takes away ... Lots of kids are doing other things. They’re on Instagram, they’re on Snapchat, they’re watching videos. I don’t know what you do with your ... What do you do all day on that phone? The other night, he was up all night. I don’t know what he was watching. What were you watching?
LS: I just talk to people.
You’re just talking to people?
But it takes away from the way we used to consume media. Sports being one of them.
PR: Yeah. I think that for the most part, there’s this notion that, like, “Oh, when I was younger, we would go outside and play all day, and now younger kids are on their tablets and stuff.” The flip side is that, I also think they’re far more informed than we were. I didn’t know the first thing about how the world functions, much less like investigating my religious point of view with my politics and understanding business.
The plus of having access to the content is ubiquitous, now, you have to cut through the fake news and all that other stuff, but activity is critical. You can use technology to try to gamify and encourage activity. You can use it to gamify and encourage mindfulness, which Headspace has done. There’s the plus side to it, but I think ultimately, we’ve got to figure out ways how to create time away from devices. And I’m not a parent but I’ve heard plenty of parents — and I’ve heard you and Scott talk about on the show too — how do we get our devices out of our kids hands?
Except the devices will be more helpful to you, as a lacrosse player in a weird way because you don’t have the mass media, kind of thing. Next question, Vignesh R. Iyer asks, “Can we use AI to enhance the ticketing system? Use social media profiles and suggest co-located seats for friends buying tickets to the same event?”
PR: I think the answer is yes. Artificial intelligence and a lot of the ticketing software, whether it’s food delivery immediately from the vendor to your seat, can make the experience more romanticized and like, “Hey, this is going to be great.” But frankly, if you’re looking for that during a game, watch it from your sofa, because the technology that we’re seeing like Intel and their True View system, and they’re installing this in all the NFL venues; 38 cameras, all 5K, and they create that 360 technology. It’s like VR, it’s just like an incredible experience from a screen.
If you’re going to a ballpark or going to a stadium, I think that yes, they’ll be able to create some systems through AI that allow you to connect with peers, but I’m not sure that that’s what the operators are really looking to underscore and enhance. They’re looking for the eyes to be more engaged on the field.
On the field itself? But would you bring a 3-D helmet into the stadium? Maybe Oculus kind of thing.
LS: Well, I’m watching ... No.
What if you could be right up next to Michael, right next to him?
LS: I don’t know. I’m not a big fan of VR and AI, personally. I guess I like living in the moment and I’d go to watch the game from where I got my tickets.
Generation Zs are different.
PR: A real Gen Z.
Gen Z. Deep Gen Z.
PR: You mentioned the problem with wearable tech. I think the problem with VR right now is it’s so immersive. Like you put on this headset and it’s almost worse than being in a movie theater. The one reason I like to go to movie theaters now is to completely get away from everything. But part of the viewing experience of sports at home is you’re on a couch with your peers or your family, and like you’re talking, you’re on a second screen. There’s data which is the second screen now, but you’re doing other things, you’re cooking. If you put that headset on, it’s like you’re kind of in an alternate reality. I think they need to figure that out.
LS: They actually did that recently with AI.
Yeah. We did. And we did this thing called Carne y Arena, and it’s an immigrant experience coming across the border in Mexico, and it was ... What did you think of it?
LS: It was incredible. Like they put you in a room where there’s like, you could take off your shoes and socks and there’s a dirt floor and there’s a lot of space to walk around. And it’s like a process of getting stopped as an immigrant. It was really incredible.
And the wind, you felt ...
LS: You could feel the wind.
PR: I love that.
LS: It was incredible.
I was saying in sport, why not be you? Like see it through your eyes. Wouldn’t that be interesting?
PR: Yeah. I think AI, VR’s best positioning here in sports is educational, so that could be like skill development. STRIVR is a group based out of Stanford — that’s where they started at least, out West — that uses VR specifically for athletes to take reps, where there’s no contact. So they create the plays live and then athletes will throw the headsets on their B2B business and they go rep after rep after rep, and they’re improving their talent. And the other piece like educational will be learning about a sport, learning about immigration through Ellis Island.
I think that that’s like a really immersive and exceptional experience and that’s probably the best position, but if you’re going to watch a game, I think, again, it’s just too close off from the real stuff.
What about, say, you’re watching Paul play, and all of a sudden, as you’re watching play, maybe you’re in more of an Ar experience, augmented reality, where you’d see the last things he did, all kinds of history.
LS: Like I play lacrosse as a defender, like if you could see it through the eyes of like a professional defender who knows what to do and knows what to slide, knows when to rotate and like, a man down, that would just be really helpful for a lot of people who don’t ...
I didn’t understand any of those expressions.
PR: But I think it’s great. We’re speaking the same language, but I don’t think that that’s ... There’s technology that’s curating. One company’s called ActionStreamer, and I know you’re close with Ted Leonsis, I’m not sure if they invest, but they’re using them through Monumental Sports Network, but they’re really small head cams that have solved with their IP the latency of challenges of taking the feed immediately to the broadcast.
They’re integrated into the helmet so you can take the POV of that defender that you’re talking about, and then you times up by Twitch, which offers multiple viewing experiences. Another startup is called Kiswe, that basically took the production viewpoint, so if you go to a truck ...
PR: Yeah. Kiswe, K-I-S-W-E. If you look at a production truck, and they are always calling, “Go to camera one, go to camera seven,” you get that experience as a viewer and you can touch which camera you want to go to, so it took the production truck to live. I think that, to your point, is exciting,
That’s what I mean.
PR: And that’s where these niche sports can go to networks and say, “Let us be your Petri dish and test this stuff out and then if it works,” because we’re all trying to increase watch time and engagement, then you plug it into the Big Five.
And then it’s just, you can get your own, the smaller audience ...
PR: That’s where our chances are as our sport ... Like, “Let us be a testing product for you.”
The last piece is how you make money and all this. Last question here.
LS: This is from Stanford Crane. “Other than you, who are the three greatest offensive lacrosse players of the last 20 years?”
PR: Three greatest of the last 20?
PR: Well, Brodie Merrill’s definitely one, Tucker Durkin who’s playing now. So Canadian and American. And then I would say, my college coach, Dave Pietramala, he was the only person in our sport to be the national player of the year and national coach of the year, won a championship as a player and a coach.
But you’re the No. 1, right?
PR: I can’t say that officially. You have no official rankings system, but ...
LS: He’s known as the No. 1, I think.
PR: Thanks. I appreciate that.
You think he is. We’re going to take a little break for a word from my sponsors, then we’ll get back with Paul Rabil. Louie, actually I want you to say hashtag money. I want you to say the script.
LS: Hashtag money.
Nice. Well done. Very light.
PR: That was really good.
Now, we’re back with Paul Rabil, he’s a lacrosse player, but he’s got a lot to say about the tech. I never heard of any of these companies you mentioned just previously. I’d love to know, just a few more questions we have in this episode. We’re also here with Louie Swisher, my son who’s an enormous Paul Rabil fan and a lacrosse player, but he also knows a thing or two about tech.
All these companies that are coming up, does that make you one of the entrepre ... Let’s talk about your entrepreneurial on this, in sports. Where do you see the opportunities for entrepreneurship in sports?
PR: I think it’s everywhere right now. It’s about the investors that want to get access to the best deal flow, but who can figure out where the technology is headed, where it can be implemented. If the founders are attractive, if they have domain expertise, if they’re solving a real problem and what their strategy is? Whether it’s customer acquisition, B2B, B2C, strategic partnership. There’s a lot of noise, I’ll say, and I think we’re in this like proliferating entrepreneurial age.
But what we’ve learned over time with Rabil Ventures, I mentioned my older brother Mike ...
Yeah, you have a venture. What are your investments in?
PR: Yes. We have a small investment advisory company that we started about five or six years ago. Our story as entrepreneurs is, when we got out of school, he was in real estate, I was in real estate. We both left, we started a gym, because we knew a couple of things about fitness. We built a fitness portfolio, and then during that time, we had no access to capital, we couldn’t get any debt. So we self-funded it, and then we started a small business lending network. This was before fintech really took off, it was called the Endurance lending network.
We were lucky enough to sell it during our series A raise, to Funding Circle in the U.K., that’s spun into Funding Circle USA. We learned a lot through that process. We started a venture investing business from there and we really focused on ... you hear this all the time, but the founders, what are their soft skill sets. We look at our domain expertise, so that’s across sports media.
And media is, from my experience and relationships that we built, fitness together and fintech through Mike, as he then went and ran revenue for Funding Circle in the U.S. until about eight months ago. We look at domain expertise, and then, is this company solving a problem and can we help with that problem? We’re early-stage investors. We don’t have time to manage LP funds, so it’s all self-funded, we write small checks.
We realize the inherent risk of going into an early stage, that’s where we focus our investment thesis. And then we hope that if we get some wins through some of our portfolio companies, which we have 12 now, that we’ll then be able to potentially raise money against it.
When do you play the lacrosse?
PR: I play lacrosse on a weekends.
Okay. I’m curious because there’s like all these other things going on. One thing you should be talking a little bit about, where sports are going. I think that someday robots will play sports, that people won’t. For example, throw that out there.
LS: There was actually, I think it was either Nike or Adidas, they had an ad like that, where they replaced all the players on the soccer team in Brazil, around the world, with robots and eventually, like, the sports got boring because it was just programmed robots who did the same thing every time. Nobody won the game, it was all ties. There was no action to it or unpredictability.
PR: It’s a really good point. Trying to pull myself out, which I tried especially, on the investment side, trying to pull myself out subjectively, is that sports betting is just so big ...
They announced that it’s just been approved.
PR: It’s a $60 billion industry. Fantasy sports are a $7 billion industry. There are 60 million people playing fantasy sports. There’s traditional seasonal fantasy, which is ESPN, Yahoo. There’s daily fantasy, FanDuel and DraftKings, and then there’s Play-By-Play, which is boom, which is a portfolio company of ours. But with the past change that we just saw, all of a sudden, we think that $700 million in revenue that Nevada pools is going to turn into 10 billion over the next seven to 10 years. There’s 32 states who’ve projected to implement legislation around it.
With all of that background, I wanted to mention it is like, I don’t think robotics specifically will take over sports or the athlete that’s playing a sport. But sports betting is that powerful that maybe it will take over at least half of it. Because people tune into the NFL to watch their bet either win or lose. Statistics show that 40 percent increase of engagement comes if you have money on the line. So that’s what excites NFL, NBA, MLB, MLL commissioners around figuring out sports betting and fantasy. But at the same time too, yeah, maybe it encourages a world where there’s more robots playing and all that.
Sorry, go ahead. You were saying?
LS: I was just wondering, what do you think about sports betting? Do you think it’s going to corrupt the game, or is going to bring like a new front to it and a lot of money?
PR: My take on it is that, it’s always corrupted the game. And in some cases, it’s been nipped in the bud, in other cases, it’s gone unrecognized, that’ll continue to exist. I think part of the legislation around the Professional and Amateur Sports Prohibition Act was that the marketplace is $65 billion now, it’s not necessarily going to increase the state revenues — well, on the fantasy side — it’s potentially sports betting ...
Illegal gambling has always happened and in a way athletes and GMs and refs more recently have been pinched for it. I think that with proper legislation, you have good checks and balances, and then you just have to figure it out ... Much like drug testing for athletes now, there’s got to be certain standards and there’s going to be checkpoints, but I think overall, when we look at the economy of sports it’s a good thing.
We actually, we’re going to put chips in us to make us better. Humanoid, human robots, essentially.
PR: Honestly, I would put ... That’s maybe a problem for wearable tech. I’d put a chip in my body if it would decrease the likelihood of injury and tell me more about my sleep performance and tell me when I should stop working out.
It’s very cross-intuitive. Somebody was talking about making ... There was the argument of a robotic person and I’m like, “We have to make robots more humanized, why don’t we make humans more robotic?” That will be easier because we don’t have to worry about ... Remember like when I was opening a door? And I was like ...
PR: Yeah. The recent one?
PR: That was crazy.
I know, but it took forever to get the thing open, the door, and it did it badly. And I was like, “I can do it. Why don’t you give me a special arm or special eye or some insight ...”
PR: That reminded me of like a Borg. It’s like you’ve gotten in the way of that thing. It couldn’t open a door, but it can rip your quadriceps in half.
Why would I want that?
PR: Why would you want that?
If I could have an eye that could see or get all kinds of information, why ...
PR: Well, that’s interesting, but then there is also the point like, if you’ll look at all like the movies with a dystopian future or something. I grew up watching these movies so you just ...
LS: He subscribes to Elon Musk.
Elon has a lot of things. I think ...
PR: I really don’t ...
What if you could pick up a car? What if you could use ...
PR: You got to think about if there’s a point where like ,naturally, like if we weren’t meant to pick up .... like we’re not already able to pick up cars.
We weren’t meant to fly airplanes, but here we are.
PR: And I agree with both sides, and this is where we think from an investor perspective and this is a different space to go in, but I think the equalizer here is therapy. I’m a big advocate of therapy. I do it personally. I started through sports psychology. But yeah, we’re going to continue to see more tech, more AI, robotics get involved in 21st, 22nd century culture, and we have to figure out a way to stay grounded and have this equilibrium around relationships. The phone takes away from our real connection.
It’s very healthy, Paul. Thank you for that healthy moment.
PR: I need it. I have got a camera in my face ...
I know you do. It’s fascinating. But let’s finish up getting back to lacrosse. Louie, do you have any lacrosse questions, because I’ve got a few more?
LS: No. I can’t think of any on the spot.
Okay. Try to think of one, I’ll do one of the ... When you think about bringing lacrosse to the future and using lacrosse/any of this niche sport, what has to happen? If you could wave your wand, what would you want ... How do you see that developing? Because I do see you can create bigger businesses with smaller audiences if you can target those audiences. You don’t need to be a mass ... sports don’t need to be mass anymore.
PR: 100 percent. John Steinberg says, “If you can get 50,000 people tuning into a livestream daily, it’s a $20 million business.”
PR: It’s amazing. If I were to be able to wave my wand, I would think less about business ops in lacrosse and think more about the challenges that we have. The elephant in the room is, we have a diversity challenge and there are stereotypes associated with our sport.
Yeah. Lax bros?
LS: I was actually having a question on that.
PR: I hate lax bros, I hate that.
What do you hate about it?
PR: It’s a negative connotation that is linked to a Mid-Atlantic preparatory school kids who are privileged and vote for Trump. That is not our support or, frankly, anyone’s identity to just be pinged. I think there’s like some education and inquiries that need to go around, like anyone’s political views, I know I jumped there ...
You can jump there.
PR: Or they’re like family wealth and such, those are in some cases uncontrollable, but lax bros has a negative connotation with it. When I look at our sport, we need to be more inclusive. The women’s game has grown faster than the men’s game. We need to talk about figuring out how to get women equally on the broadcast feeds of ESPN and so on and so forth. But the professional game works on that and maybe that’s they’ll coalescing with the men’s professional game.
When we look at urban market growth, the challenges that our equipment kit costs roughly around $250. I know some of the top manufacturers are working on lowering that price point. We need to work with our national governing bodies to get sticks in hands. And whether that’s a sponsor that underwrites it or working with private donors like David Neeleman, who helped fund the Utah program, that’s really important. But addressing the stereotypes, being really intentional around inclusion at the highest level across gender, across race, is really important from an operations standpoint and also just like welcoming into the sport.
And then let’s talk equipment. It’s the same stick. We didn’t have a wooden stick when I was playing, it was wooden stick essentially. But do you see any pushes in through helmets, equipment? Because it’s a very simple sport in terms of what it requires.
PR: You need a helmet, shoulder pads, elbow pads, gloves, rib pads, stick ...
LS: You don’t need rib pads.
PR: We don’t need them technically, but ...
LS: Do you wear rib pads?
PR: I don’t. I actually don’t even wear shoulder pads.
LS: Like the ones right here, I don’t wear them either.
That was a lax bro moment there.
LS: That was not a lax bro moment.
PR: That was not a lax bro moment. That was a technical moment.
LS: She calls me a lax bro all the time. I have to remind her I’m not one. You can go up a little bit north and find a couple, but you are not going to ...
You look like one.
LS: What? Hi, mum.
PR: An idea would be, “Okay, let’s figure out ...” I think about when I used to go to a park with friends or with my family, or we’d go to the beach every summer and we’d pop into a local Target or Walgreens or Walmart and grab a cheap football or cheap badminton set, that’s some $20, and there’s none of that available in lacrosse.
LS: Well, there’s fiddle sticks.
PR: But not available at Target or Walmart.
LS: It’s like a tiny ...
PR: It’s a fiddle stick. I think what’s really important to acknowledge is twofold, like optics on lacrosse. So you’re right. There are fiddle sticks that are low price-point products, but they’re difficult to find and purchase. The alignment with a mega brand like Walmart and having lacrosse in the sports aisle is really important if people start accepting lacrosse as a mainstay in the overall competitive environment. The other thing is, we are often talking about sticks and hands and equipment.
I think where the sport would really benefit is to get goals, lacrosse goals, into parks across the country. It’s an alternate viewpoint, but I think about soccer and basketball. Every street in rural America that I drive by has either a basketball court, they have tennis court or they have old soccer posts, maybe there’s not even a net attached to it.
From an optics standpoint, if you see a 6x6 net — which are the dimensions and that’s in feet — everywhere, you start figuring out either what’s that goal or you start inviting kids to go play on it. You very rarely see pickup lacrosse. There’s not access to fields, not access to equipment to do that. That may be an alternate path that we could explore to grow our game.
Perfect. That was a perfect ending, non techie. That’s not techie, is if you build it, they will come. Anyway, this has been great. This has been a great episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask. Thanks again. And I’m sorry for calling you lax bros, the two of you.
PR: That’s okay.
Which you kind of are. Thank again, Paul Rabil, for joining on the show.
PR: For the record, I have Jean shorts and a T-shirt on.
I know. You’re cool.
PR: I’m not wearing a polo shirt and khakis.
LS: I’m wearing Sperry’s.
All right. Thanks for Paul Rabil for joining the show and my son Louie, who’s also plays lacrosse quite a bit.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.