This weekend not just the college lacrosse world, but all of the sport of lacrosse has its version of the Super Bowl. Over 50,000 fans, will descend on Lincoln Financial field to see the all three levels of college lacrosse,…Divisions I, II and III…crown their champions. Countless thousands of others will come to town for the Memorial Day fan fests, as what is described as the fastest growing sport in America, even without a thriving professional league, takes center stage for what has become an annual ritual for lacrosse.
“I come from such a hotbed of the sport (Long Island), I have always seen the passion for it, and the NCAA’s have grown exponentially over the last few years into what is now a weekend where lacrosse is front and center as a spectacle,” said Dan Mannix, CEO of Lead Dog Marketing, one of the industry’s leading event and brand marketing firms. “The passion of those around the game is as strong as anyone’s and it is expanding, even without a unified professional league. This weekend is their Daytona 500, their Super Bowl and it gives brands who have engaged in the sport already a chance to take advantage of all that passion in a very controlled and fun filled environment.”
The participation in the sport of lacrosse at the grassroots level has grown 37 percent since 2008, with 1.5 million participants now. It represents the largest jump in team sports, according to a Sports & Fitness Industry Association survey. Youth lacrosse, 15 and under, had 361,275 players in 2011, up 11.3 percent from the previous year, according to USA Lacrosse, the sport’s national federation.
The sport also has its first million dollar athlete in Paul Rabil, who plays indoor for Philadelphia (National Lacrosse League) and outdoor for Boston (Major League Lacrosse), but will draw thousands to clinics and has endorsement deals like one with the industry elading brand, Warrior Lacrosse, among others. This weekend will unveil another rising star in Cornell’s Rob Pannell, who enters the Final Four just six points shy of the NCAA All-time scoring record.
The game is also growing outside its traditional base from the Carolinas to New England, and will welcome the University of Denver to the Final Four in Philly. Denver, along with Cornell, Duke and Syracuse, will play on Saturday for a chance to move on to the title game Monday. The NCAA Division II and III games will be played in Philly Sunday.
The sport’s biggest hindrance has been its rationality over the years, but that appears to be changing with the rise of schools like Denver, Air Force, and now Big 10 schools like Michigan and Ohio State among others. On the professional side, the indoor game has seen growth in Canada and some Midwest and western cities as well, with its fast pace and strong contact. However the indoor circuit operates under one governing body, the outdoor professional league under another, and that lack of cohesiveness has stunted interest in sponsors, broadcast and casual fans. “We need to be more together as a sport, indoor and outdoor,” Rabil said recently. “That is the biggest issue in growing our business. The grassroots is strong, college participation is up, we have boys and girls playing more and more, but advancing beyond without being unified us the toughest part.”
Even without a full viable professional option, lacrosse is following soccer for young person engagement. The sport also has ties deep ties to Wall Street, as Bloomberg’s Scott Soshnick pointed out in a story this week. The pipeline from college success to business success in the financial world is mirrored only by wrestling, another sport which has bridged the gap from participation at the college level to a network that supports each other in business. “You look at some of the elite business schools…Duke, Virginia, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, Cornell…and they mirror some of the best lacrosse programs,” Mannix added. “That pipeline is invaluable in growing the sport and finding funding for youth programs as well. It is that type of loyalty that if put together with a strong media package and a unified professional play, could really ratchet lacrosse up even more.”
Until that point, the Memorial Day title weekend on the college level will remain as the pinnacle for America’s fastest growing sport on the grassroots level, one which continues to have loads of potential and whose biggest days still appear to be in the future.