It is the weekend that college lacrosse has owned for over a decade. Memorial Day Weekend takes the grassroots success and smaller venues and rallies the sport for three days of large crowds, activation and celebration of another spring well done. This year saw Hampton University show that the sport can be more engaged with people of color (nice piece on The Undefeated highlights the story this week) , as their program with all African American players continued to make bigger strides. The sports’s biggest ambassador, Paul Rabil, continues to be a marketing machine, with a growing presence on platforms like Players Tribune and Whistle Sports that draws attention well beyond the traditional lax audience. More kids are playing, especially girls, and the game is healthy.
However against that backdrop is a sport that will be down or flat on attendance this weekend at Lincoln Financial Field, even with some the schools with the biggest followings, Maryland and North Carolina, meeting Brown and Loyola (Maryland) for the title. There are not a lot of new engaged brands coming into the sport overall, eventhough the ones who have looked to engage have found a healthy and vibrant audience. So, in an Olympic year and with even more challenges for a younger demo like eSports, growing and taking the attention of a millennial consumer, what’s next for lacrosse?
In many ways it’s not a time for panic for a sport which, along with rugby, is on the rise in terms of grassroots participation and national expansion. Four years ago the University of Michigan announced that its men’s lacrosse team would move from club to Division I status, a landmark move for the sport and for a BCS-competing University. The club, which raised millions on its own, became self-funded and set a business-like approach to club lacrosse that has been followed by other schools that are looking to increase sports but not the bottom line. Programs like Air Force and Denver have thrived and a western and southern expansion of top-level college lacrosse has followed, all creating more exposure and more opportunities for young people who have enjoyed the game and would like to continue playing into their collegiate years. Lacrosse has also been a growth sport for girls, as schools have used the game to increase their Title IX opportunities at all levels of intercollegiate play.
Every year around this time lacrosse enthusiasts start the drum beat that this is the year lacrosse crosses into the mainstream of acceptance, branding and dollars. Rabil has done amazing work building his own brand and continues to be a one man band ambassador for the professional game while now playing for the New York Lizards. Groups like CityLax, a not for profit organization which has put lacrosse into over 40 New York City Public Schools look to raise funds and grow awareness by telling their success stories to a wider audience as well.
Yet by June, a successful NCAA tournament is complete, thousands of young people have enjoyed playing the game, and the sport beats a hasty retreat, save for the outdoor professional league that continues to struggle to find exposure on a consistent basis with the media. With a game that is still run by different groups for its indoor and outdoor seasons (the indoor National Lacrosse League has done a good job at fan and brand engagement in many regions), TV has shown more interest in professional lacrosse, but the jury still remains out on its overall effectiveness as a property on the professional level.
What lacrosse does have is access to affluent millennials in a growing geographic region. It has a charismatic superstar who has crossed over with exposure on the business and brand side in Rabil, and it seems to now understand more about how to start engaging those millennials and their parents who grow up with the game and now may aspire to stay involved with the elite players they have seen for years playing ahead of them on the collegiate, and in some cases the professional or the international level. As those young people mature and now get discretionary dollars to spend, they may just spend it on lacrosse product, programming and brands that can engage. Officials look to the slow and steady growth of soccer as a property to see how lacrosse can make another jump, continuing to use the Memorial Day weekend as their version of March Madness.
The problem is not in the grassroots growth, it is in rallying a massive amount of people to one place on a holiday weekend. The growth of lacrosse across the country means hotbeds in other areas who may not necessarily get up and travel to a massive NFL stadium for one weekend when they can engage and watch or follow on a mobile device, or they can get their fill with lacrosse on TV or at a regional. Moving the finals to another place with a smaller venue can make great sense, or going the route of the College World Series and finding one geographic home for the finals can also be a plus. Also using the entire month of May, or at least several weeks, to put marketing dollars together to celebrate lacrosse on all levels and in every community with a consistent message would also be very appealing. The sport is also hamstrung by cost, lack of impact in cities which are now population hubs (and with that comes a lack of fields) and a perception that the game does not cater as well to minorities. However all those issues can be addressed in time with dollars and awareness to a better extent. The answer for now is probably patience, exploitation of assets, and a few more Paul Rabils of a different gender, color and social structure to move the sport along. One uber successful appealing athlete cannot move the needle by himself, no matter how hard he tries.
So while this weekend some lacrosse officials may worry about a lack of seats filled in Lincoln Financial Field, the look to the future should be more about how to better engage those who show up, how to better engage the growing and strong demo that the sport has, and how to better use all those assets to make lacrosse appealing to brands of all kinds, especially those non-traditional ones from outside the U.S. looking to make a push into engagement, rather than seeing or judging 50k as a standalone success for one weekend.
Lacrosse has some amazing element on which to build; now the question is how to correctly harness them for the future.