NCAA MEN'S LACROSSE CHAMPIONSHIPS
As Good as It Gets?
Saturday, May 26, 2007
BALTIMORE, May 25 -- The Baltimore Orioles played Friday night at their ballpark at Camden Yards. But the parking lots at nearby M&T Bank Stadium were filled with the sounds of a much different sport. Groups of adults wearing Duke, Cornell, Johns Hopkins and Delaware lacrosse caps were tailgating as young boys tossed lacrosse balls back and forth.
While lacrosse has yet to surpass baseball in popularity around the country, it might not be so easily apparent in Baltimore this weekend, where a record crowd is expected for the men's NCAA lacrosse semifinals and championship at M&T Bank.
As of Friday morning, more than 47,000 tickets had been sold for Saturday's games and Monday's final. Event organizers say as many as 56,000 fans may attend, a scale rivaled only by football and men's basketball in collegiate athletics.
Once a niche sport confined largely to the Baltimore area and pockets on Long Island and Upstate New York, lacrosse is in the midst of an unprecedented boom in popularity. Yet, as the game prepares to move its popular championship weekend for the first time to suburban Boston next year, it is facing questions about just how far and fast it can grow, and whether it is remaining true to its origins as it tries to grow its appeal.
Lacrosse is experiencing its success at a time when expansion on the Division I level has stagnated. There are 56 teams in Division I men's lacrosse after Butler dropped its program in January, and there are no plans for more schools to add teams, according to coaches and administrators. College lacrosse rosters usually exceed 40 players, and schools that historically have not fielded varsity teams have determined that it is simply too expensive to add the sport now.
At the same time, participation at the youth and high school level has exploded, including in states such as Texas, California and Florida where a decade ago few people knew anything about the game.
"There's been no growth at the Division I level. We have been talking about this bottleneck for years, and it's just about here," said Virginia Coach Dom Starsia, whose team won the national title last year but was upset in the first round earlier this month. "There are so many good players out there now.
"You can see the Maryland and Syracuse coaches at a tournament in Florida and the Virginia and Maryland coaches at a tournament in Detroit. You never would have seen that before. . . . But we have the same number of programs as we did 20 years ago. And I'm not optimistic for growth."
For the first time this year, ESPN broadcast every game in the 16-team men's tournament live on one of its networks. ESPNU, which is available in 9 million homes nationwide, broadcast every first-round game. Saturday's semifinals will be on ESPN2; the championship on Monday will be shown on ESPN. It is giving the sport unprecedented exposure.
Yet that, too, is proving problematic. Maryland originally scheduled its first-round home game against UMBC three weeks ago on a Saturday at 1 p.m. ESPN moved the game to Sunday night at 7:30, even though Maryland had exams the next day.
Georgetown played its first-round game at noon that Sunday -- specifically the time it asked not to play because it was moving-out day on campus for non-seniors. Johns Hopkins Coach Dave Pietramala said he had hoped to play his team's first-round game against Notre Dame on a Saturday afternoon; yet the game was moved to Saturday night, ostensibly because of the prime-time appeal of a game that matched two of the most recognized schools in the sport.
Men's football and basketball programs have grown accustomed to playing games in prime time any night of the week to accommodate the demands of television. Until now, this was unheard of in lacrosse.