Why Isn't There More Growth in Division I Lacrosse?

I agree completely with those who point out the many roadblocks to D1 growth, including Title IX, limited and over-extended athletic department budgets, the recession, facility arms-races, and a relative lack of interest in lacrosse. To me, the most important factor is the last one. I don't live in Baltimore County or Syracuse or on Long Island. I come from a region of the country where people are just starting to hear about lacrosse and most still do not follow or appreciate it. My region of the country, when defined this way, is enormous. ...Like pretty much all of it. As lacrosse enthusiasts who are immersed in the game it is easy to lose sight of how small our sport is. We get excited by the signs we see of exponential growth. 50,000 at the NCAA championships? Check. Lacrosse on TV? Check. Nobody asking me anymore if I'm carrying a Jai Alai stick? Check. Pro teams, including teams in Denver that draw respectable crowds? Check. Ohio State tricks 40,000 people into attending a lacrosse game (and I envy the hell out of them for that)? Check.

On Monday I will be the opening guest speaker at a weekly luncheon for Michigan fans and alumni. It gets a big crowd every week because the main speaker is either the football coach or the basketball coach, fresh off of whatever game they played the previous weekend. I speak there once or twice a year, and while the crowd shows appreciation for what we do, the overwhelming vibe is "isn't that cute that the (lacrosse/soccer/baseball/swimming/insert other sport) coach is here today." Unless my mom comes, we aren't the reason anyone paid 20 bucks to eat the rubbery banquet chicken. This is what holds back the growth of D1 men's lacrosse.

Title IX, while it is an important factor, is not the overriding reason men's D1 lacrosse is not exploding. Funding, or lack thereof, is not the major reason. Lack of interest is. You could get rid of all of those issues tomorrow, and it would still be some time before you would see a line of athletic directors forming at the BCS-school varsity lacrosse outlet. They are simply not interested.

Basically, every other hurdle to D1 growth can be overcome if the desire is there to do so. The money can be raised. The currently sponsored sports at the school of your choice can be reassessed for participation rates, benefits, and growth potential as compared to lacrosse. Adjustments to spending and current sports that are sponsored can be made. But there are only four ways that will happen:

1) If there is enough of a build-up in public demand to make lacrosse a truly "major" sport. (We are a long, long way from that.)

2) If the school hires a politically savvy and brave athletic director who is a lacrosse fanatic. (Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of these out there who are in line for BCS AD jobs.)

3) If the grandson of T. Boone Pickens or Jerry Jones comes to your school and joins the club team. (Oklahoma State, Arkansas)

4) If enough people of influence push for it. (This is the most likely route in the near future.)

Keep in mind that I'm not talking about new D2 or D3 programs or even new D1 programs at non-BCS/football factory schools. Everyone is always talking about adding varsity lacrosse at big-name schools, and that's where my area of expertise happens to be, so that's what I'm addressing. The culture and scope and business model at these schools is a completely different world, as are the potential motivations and benefits to adding a team.

This is actually where the MCLA comes in. Regular club teams do not recruit student-athletes who are so invested in the team (along with their families), build fan-bases, appear on television, secure major sponsorships, build facilities, start endowments, etc. A handful of MCLA teams do these things, and more are headed in that direction. I am finding that our program here at Michigan is generating interest at the highest levels of the university, and it's not just because of our recent success (although that doesn't hurt a bit). Adding varsity lacrosse is openly discussed and even endorsed at the most senior administrative levels here now. Major donors and development prospects (when I say "major" I mean like have your own jet major) bring it up to the administration all the time. This would not be happening without a program as viable as the one we have now. There are those who argue that the MCLA could hinder the growth of the game because universities are getting the benefits of a varsity program without the cost. I don't know as much about the dynamics at smaller schools, but at big schools that could not be farther from the truth. For now, until #1 happens in 50 years and unless lightning strikes and #2 or #3 happens, the road to D1 growth is #4. And the MCLA is the key to getting the political and financial investment of the right people to make it happen.

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2009-10-29



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