All About the Vibe: Authenticity, Brand-Building Keys for PLL Athletes

Longtime ESPN analyst Quint Kessenich was conducting an interview with rookie Chris Gray in Week 1 of the PLL season. Earlier in the spring, Gray broke the NCAA record for career points, and during training camp, he turned a lot of heads with his laser-like shot. 

Kessenich asked Gray, “How much [of the goal] do you need to see to let it go?”

Gray responded quickly: “Just the corner, really.”

The tweets started rolling in, begging for that to become a new t-shirt, and the PLL responded promptly, promoting a new item in the shop — a shirt with an image of Gray above the now-viral quote.

That moment wasn’t the only piece of player-specific merchandise launched by the league. There’s a shirt with Matt Rambo and the quote, “Hit singles,” and league partner Barstool Sports has two different shirts featuring Waterdogs players Michael Sowers and Mikie Schlosser. There’s also a shirt showcasing the face of Chrome faceoff athlete Connor Farrell underneath his nickname, “The Milkman.”

“I’m sure a lot of people I know already bought a lot of them,” he said. “I think it’s cool. My fiancée might think it’s a little weird, but I love it.”

Merchandise is a nice way to generate some additional revenue, but it also is just one example of how the PLL promotes the league’s unique personalities.

In the past, lacrosse seemed to solely rely on the on-field product to bring fans to the stadium or their TVs at home. The promotional strategy was akin to, “Here are the best players, and once you watch them, you’ll be a fan.”

The recently retired Kyle Harrison said lacrosse was in a tough place being a niche sport whose athletes’ faces were covered by helmets. He said players’ stories weren’t being told back then, and because of that, brands weren’t willing to spend money on the sport.

He wondered how the sport could have jumped off sooner if some of the big personalities from the past were presented with the same platform as those currently in the PLL.

“These guys’ stories are incredible,” he said. “Think about a Nicky Polanco now. Think about the personality he had, or even Brian Spallina, or like Mikey Powell. He was polarizing as a player — he’s the best all-time, in my eyes — but think about the dudes off the field, and think about how interesting it would be to tell his story and get eyeballs on him. When you look at all the other sports, the storytelling and branding around these dudes, that’s what makes people buy in and fall in love with these athletes and sports.”

“The storytelling and branding around these dudes, that’s what makes people buy in and fall in love with these athletes.”

— Kyle Harrison

Promoting the stories of its players was an integral strategy of the PLL from its beginning. On USA Lacrosse Magazine’s “Overtime” podcast with Paul Carcaterra, league co-founder Paul Rabil talked about how the players are still getting used to the intimacy of being on camera. He mentioned how NFL and NBA players seem comfortable in front of a camera because the generations that played before did it, and “it’s what they expect.”

“It’s why it’s important for me in this next stage of my career to literally sit behind the cameras and help direct and let guys feel comfortable going where we need them to go,” he told Carcaterra, “which is actually telling the world how they feel.”

That change in philosophy is echoed by the league’s front office.

“Putting out lacrosse highlights on a weekly basis isn’t going to push the sport forward and put it in a light that is going to net new fans to the sport. That’s what was being done over and over and over again,” said RJ Kaminski, the PLL’s Director of Brand. “Attracting new eyeballs to the sport is by showcasing our athletes off the field, telling their story and also getting new fans to the games to actually watch them in person.”

Kaminski pointed to Farrell as an example of how putting one’s story out into the world can help the fans get closer and feel invested.

Farrell played college lacrosse for LIU, which was Division II at the time. Despite setting multiple records as a senior, he was relatively unknown going into the 2019 college draft. The Chrome selected him in the fourth round.

He was not the first, or even second, faceoff athlete selected, and Farrell said he didn’t know if he was talented enough to play in the league, but he is grateful that then-head coach Dom Starsia gave him an opportunity. He earned the starting job out of training camp. He finished third in the league in faceoff winning percentage (55 percent) and tied for third in ground balls (70).

Kaminski remembers him leading in another way.

“Connor Farrell was the last player to leave the building every single PLL stop in 2019,” Kaminski said. “Connor Farrell, out in the stadium, the employees there were cleaning up trash. Ushers were yelling at the last final kids sticking around to get them out of the stadium because it had been two hours since the game time had passed, but Connor stood out there signing autographs to the last one every single weekend.

“Connor’s interaction in person is incredibly positive, and Connor is a player who has also embraced social since he came into the league. He has really set a unique blueprint for other guys to see, especially rookies coming into the league to be able to see there is a huge opportunity to grow your brand in this league, even if you’re not the No. 1 player.”

Farrell’s willingness to interact with every fan in person and online comes from a childhood memory. He, his brother and his dad went to New York Giants training camp. He remembered asking a player for an autograph, but the response he received was that the player “didn’t have enough time” because he was tired. He promised himself he would do it differently if he ever got the chance.

While he said putting himself front and center on social media and in front of the camera was awkward at first, it was something he felt strongly about making part of his legacy.

“When I graduated college, I only had like a thousand followers on Instagram, and through the PLL in training camp, they were really saying how if you really want to grow your brand, make sure you’re posting a lot, so that’s what I did,” he said. “I started positing a lot. I started engaging with all the fans. After the game, I’m always there. I make sure I sign every kid’s autograph because the little 10 to 15 seconds you give to each kid makes their day, and they’ll remember that for the rest of their lives.”

Another player who has embraced the PLL’s focus on individual personalities is Trevor Baptiste. He’s one of the go-to-guys for getting mic’d up during games, has a “Vibe with Trevor” music playlist on his PLL bio page and was the star of the league’s Cheeseball Toss Championship Tournament it conducted in partnership with Utz.

Unlike Farrell, Baptiste experienced a lot of fanfare in college, setting records for national champion Denver. He was the first pick in the MLL draft in 2018. He said he got used to having a camera in his face early on.

His key to success when engaging with fans is simple: be yourself.

“People feel authenticity,” he said. “I think people can tell when people are being fake, whether it’s a positive or negative. Humans have that sense this person isn’t being real. I always say social media these days, there’s clout chasing and people trying to be something they’re not. Your message and who you are, people vibe with you if you’re yourself.”

While Baptiste has a large fanbase, being himself meant there were also times when people didn’t like what he had to say.

In the wake of George Floyd’s death in 2020, Baptiste recounted a story both on Rob Pannell’s YouTube page and in an article for USA Lacrosse Magazine about a time he was assaulted by a police officer when he was 17 years old.

Being authentic to himself meant he was going to talk about something he was passionate about: equality and inclusion. It wasn’t a story everyone wanted to hear, unfortunately.

“It was hard in the beginning to break that barrier to really put myself and this message out there,” he said. “I got some negative backlash. I think because it was so different from things I generally talk about or generally speak on, I think some people were like, ‘You’re just doing this because it’s a hot topic,’ which hurt because stuff I’ve been through on the day-to-day, just because I didn’t talk about, it doesn’t mean it didn’t affect me.”

While Baptiste acknowledged he also got a lot of positive and reaffirming messages about his story, the negativity he experienced online pushed him to take a break from social media and reflect both on the way he pushed his messages across as well as sticking to what he said.

Baptiste said the beauty of the process in the PLL is players can choose whether they want to put themselves out there or not, and if it isn’t something others are comfortable with, then that’s OK, too. He acknowledged, however, that he didn’t want his peers to hold back because they didn’t feel like their accomplishments on the field merited any focus on them off the field.

“I think players sometimes feel skittish of, ‘I don’t want to put myself out there because I don’t feel like I’m the best, so I don’t deserve to put myself out there,’ which is not true,” he said. “You being a person, it’s really separate from you as a player. You putting yourself out there for who you are, there’s a lot of value to that as a person. It goes back to that idea you’re not just players. We’re people, too. People want to hear about people.”

It isn’t just the players whose profiles are being raised, either.

Chaos head coach Andy Towers has become one of the most recognizable people in the league, known for his fiery, candid speeches to his team. He credited the work of the PLL’s social media team and how they seem to be everywhere, editing and putting together the must-see clips.

He was surprised at how many people recognize him these days.

“The amount of people that ask me, ‘Are you the Chaos coach?’’ Towers said. “Believe me, I’ve got a long way to go before I’m Michael Jordan, but I went from zero people recognizing me from anything. I’ve become recognizable on a small level only due to my association to the PLL. That’s not lost on me.”

In addition to the players he features in his vlogs, Kaminski has also become a recognizable face in the PLL, sometimes even more popular with kids than some of the players on the field.

“That’s all a product of putting myself out there on social, whether that’s YouTube videos, whether that’s Instagram, whether that’s Twitter,” he said. “Since my days at TLN, I really think that’s the best example for some of our players to be able to see that just consistently putting out content that’s authentic and true to you on your socials leads to just a greater interest from fans to want to, one, follow your journey, whether that’s someone like myself who’s just a host or follow along your playing career.”


Kaminski was eager to talk about how sharing the voices and stories of the players off the field can draw in more fans to the action on it, however he also was adamant to point out the PLL wasn’t pushing its players to participate. He said what the league was doing was finding strong stories and figuring out the most appropriate way to share them.

He gave Whipsnakes attackman Zed Williams as an example. He said Williams is not on social media, so having him do a vlog may not be the best way to tell his story; his story is more likely to be shared via a longform article on the website.

“When we’re doing our jobs correctly, I don’t think we’re pulling out their personalities. We’re identifying who has a unique interest or unique voice or brand, and then, how can we bring that to the masses?” he said. “There’s a number of guys that aren’t loud characters when it comes to media, like your Jeff Teats or Logan Wisnauskas. We don’t have a goal to portray them in a light they’re not. So, what we do is strategize around what nuggets we can find or pieces of backstory that we think are interesting and can potentially attract a new non-lacrosse fan.”

Farrell, Baptiste and Towers all said their focus is to perform on the field and help their teams win championships. Part of what draws people to them, however, is that they aren’t trying to look good for the cameras; they do that naturally.

Towers gets it, though. He said that sports and entertainment go together, exemplified by the league’s new broadcast partner, ESPN, which stands for Entertainment and Sports Programming Network.

He’s optimistic that with this strategy, lacrosse will reach new levels of popularity rivaling that of soccer and UFC, and eventually, the “Big Four” team sports leagues of the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL.

“I think it speaks to the fact that Paul and Mike [Rabil] and RJ, and the whole social media team,” he said, “have cracked the code on how to mobilize and weaponize social media to benefit the growth of the sport we love.”