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. 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. However this spring, the cause for hope may be more justified because of the ever-changing political tide of college athletics.
Two 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 (whose move to hire legendary coach Bill Tierney was a strong play in building their program) in scheduling and also set a tone for further potential expansion of the sport in major markets in the region. 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 standardbearer for the sport across the southern Atlantic states. The Orange presence strengthens the ACC position and give more of a consistent presence of quality play in upstate New York.
With those moves brings 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, will naturally expose more casual fans to the sport, helping to build the fanbase. 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. TV 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 more hope than before, if not for a Super Bowl than for a super spring every year. Whether brands, crowds and TV follow is TBD. Whether a stronger college game and buoy its professional counterpart is still a mystery. But the window of opportunity appears to be wider than before, and that is good news for those who play and follow lacrosse at all levels