The May 30th edition of the NYTimes (free registration required) has a major story about the growth of lacrosse in North America.
When Johns Hopkins plays Duke in the final of the N.C.A.A. men’s Division I tournament at Lincoln Financial Field here Monday, about 40,000 fans are expected to attend. The crowd will be the second largest to attend an N.C.A.A. championship game this year; 47,262 attended the men’s Division I college basketball title game at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis.
… According to the sport’s governing body, US Lacrosse, 354,361 people played the game in 2004, compared to 253,931 in 2001.
… Since 1995, the number of varsity high school lacrosse programs increased to 2,332 from 808.
The article mentions Major League Lacrosse, and its expansion plans. It continues,
There is also a 10-team indoor league, the National Lacrosse League, with teams in cities from Anaheim to Toronto, and it plans to expand to Portland, Ore., and Edmonton, Alberta, in 2006.
Industry insiders tell me that this past year, NBC was pleasantly surprised by the ratings spike they received when they broadcast championship lacrosse. An several years ago, in head-to-head competition in Toronto, lacrosse outdrew arena football, despite major ownership of the Toronto arena football Phantoms by Rogers, a dominant media firm in Canada, especially in the sports area. The arena football team no longer exists.
What is inhibiting the growth of Lacrosse?
The NYTimes article mentions two factors:
“The biggest obstacle to growth is the lack of coaches,” Alexis Longinotti, the Northern California chapter president of US Lacrosse, wrote in an e-mail interview. “There have been several teams that wanted to start, but weren’t able to find a coach, so they didn’t happen.”
But others blame Title IX [sex equality in funding at the college level].
… Division I men’s lacrosse is one of the few places where the sport’s growth has been inhibited. According to N.C.A.A. participation studies, there were 54 Division I teams in 2004, only three more than in 1994.
Some coaches and administrators say gender-equity initiatives of Title IX have handcuffed universities from adding men’s lacrosse, especially at institutions where Division I football is played because football, with its 85 scholarship athletes, creates an imbalance.
“I don’t think there is any other solution that is within our ability to influence,” said Steve Stenersen, the executive director of US Lacrosse. “The issues that are limiting Division I men’s lacrosse growth are far bigger than lacrosse and far bigger than any sport.”
Some college coaches are concerned, saying the sport is hindered at its most prominent level and cannot expand.
“There’s going to be a crisis of opportunity, and I have no idea what the answer is,” Virginia Coach Dom Starsia said. “I really don’t see a resolution of this issue.”
This position is surely correct, so far as it goes. If lacrosse were the only game in town, so to speak, then serious restrictions on the ability to pay the athletes (or even offer them substantial scholarships) might not have so large an impact on the supply of talent. But if very good athletes have better opportunities to receive scholarships in other sports that earn more revenue for their schools, then lacrosse might have more difficulty attracting them, given the limitation on the total number of scholarships that can be offered to male athletes.
At the same time, the expected earnings from playing professional lacrosse are considerably less than the expected earnings from playing major league football or basketball or baseball, and that differential likely also has an sizable impact on the supply of skill to the sport.