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. The continued discuss of “growth” team sports still revolves around LAX, and rugby, with both seeing more and more girls and young women entering the mix. 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 holds its own but still has not gotten the exposure that all had hoped. Will this be the year lacrosse breaks through even further?
There are several developments playing in the games favor. The younger, more mobile savvy audience has helped forge a relationship with the National Lacrosse League and Twitter for the first time, giving the sport some buzz. Then you have a more concerned push into inner cities with the sport looking to grab hold of young people who may be passing on football, and following the stories of Hampton University’s continued success in the sport, and a new inclusive demo is rising. The expanded effort of club sports to add lacrosse for a growing audience without encumbering the Athletic Department budget is also breeding a new graduate of the sport into the business world, which makes for more advocates of the game in the alumni space.
The club to varsity move is still one to watch, and has precedent. A few 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 had raised millions on its own, would be essentially self-funded and go to play not with a scholarship-laden team, but with its elite club players, at least for now. Michigan’s business-like approach to club lacrosse has been followed by other schools that are looking to increase sports but not the bottom line and may signal a way for lacrosse to grow exponentially at the Division I level, especially in the Midwest and the west, where the sport currently has only two elite Division I programs, at Air Force and Denver. The addition of Michigan helped the Falcons and the Pioneers in scheduling and also set a tone for further potential expansion of the sport in major markets in the region (Marquette remains the only other D 1 school west of the Great Lakes with a program). The more schools can use a self-sustaining model, the easier a move to D-1 it will be, which leads to easier scheduling.
The second shift in the lacrosse landscape came when Syracuse shifted all its sports from the Big East, not a lacrosse powerhouse, to the ACC, the standard-bearer for the sport across the southern Atlantic states. The Orange presence strengthened the ACC position and give more of a consistent presence of quality play in upstate New York.
With those moves brought more eyeballs, larger crowds and a more effective geographic footprint to continue to grow the game, without sacrificing the core of the sport in the States from the Carolinas through New England, where it flourishes at all levels. That larger footprint, now expanding west into larger collegiate settings more on the Division II and III levels, will naturally expose more casual fans to the sport, helping to build the fan base. With that growth comes more media opportunities and more chances for new brands to engage with both the core and the casual followers. That translates into more dollars and more media and more potential.
Now the growth of lacrosse will probably continue to be steady, not meteoric. The spring landscape in collegiate athletics is not as cluttered as the spring, so a window of opportunity exists, especially as baseball struggles to keep its hold at the collegiate level. It also does not mean that the sport will take off at the professional level, with game that is still run by different groups for its indoor and outdoor seasons. Streaming and broadcast has shown more interest in professional lacrosse, but the jury still remains out on its overall effectiveness as a property. However the shift and expansion with effective and efficient cost programs seems to have given those who love LAX continued hope, if not for a Super Bowl than for a super spring every year. Whether brands and crowds follow is still TBD. Whether a stronger college game can buoy its professional counterpart is still a mystery. But the window of opportunity appears to be wide, and that is good news for those who play and follow lacrosse at all levels.