If we don’t think about the future of our Sport, who will? Stop to think about that for a second.
This post assumes certain hypotheses to be true and those are threefold:
1) Lacrosse is growing both in terms of participation and 2) general popularity. To many in the know, these are not arguable statements; they are facts. Now, I also happen to believe lacrosse has seen growth in the quality of play department as well (meaning players are better skilled and more athletic). Some people would debate this last point and since arguments can be made on either side, I won’t force you to accept it for my hypotheses to be true.
Regardless, the question surrounding whether or not the game is improving in quality is somewhat immaterial if we can agree that 3) the way the game is being played is evolving and changing. At the very least, I think that is something we can all agree on.
Lacrosse has changed greatly over the past 25 years, but the changes that took place during the 1990′s were possibly the most dramatic. A short list can emphasize this point quickly. The invention, evolution and eventual wide-spread use of Cascade helmets (lighter, better vision), pinched offset sticks, mesh/synthetic palms, titanium/alloy shafts, longer shorts, mesh pockets, advancements in football cleats and video technology, and even the emergence of Warrior, are all direct evidence of this decade’s incredible mark on the modern game.
Personally, I think all of the above are, for the most part, evolutionary improvements for the sport, which have lead to companies like Reebok, Nike, Easton and Adidas getting more involved. When Warrior started making serious money and was purchased by New Balance, the sports world took notice. When Maverik was bought by Bauer in the middle of a historic economic collapse, you just knew lacrosse was on the right track. And since Nike and STX already have some sort of partnership to produce Nike’s gear, I could see Nike lacrosse completely enveloping STX within the next 10 years.
That’s just usually the way it goes, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. As the sport grows, are people in new areas going to want to buy a Nike head (a brand they know and trust) or an STX head (a brand they’ve never heard of)? I don’t mean this as a slight to STX either, but name recognition certainly counts for something. It’s just reality.
Of course there is also the ever-present potential for corporate involvement to be a bad thing. And I’m not talking about Nike, or Warrior, or anyone else in particular. It’s much more general than that. When the big boys of corporate sport get into something, they always have a plan. They never just think, “oh, wow this sport is perfect! Let’s leave it alone!” They want to take it somewhere bigger and make money hand over fist doing so, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing either. But it can be. This is where things get challenging. Alright, enough redodging, let’s go to goal and get to the point.
With big time sports companies come an all-out marketing blitz and exposure overload. This is simply how you achieve the vaunted economies of scale that the large companies require to make it worth their while to be fully invested. Lacrosse has often tried to make itself an event, with the hope that people who otherwise might not be interested will swing by, check it out and fall in love. This definitely happens, but I believe that it has to be pretty rare. I applaud events like the LXM Pro Tour because it is a homegrown, grassroots effort led by a bunch of Maryland alums who genuinely love the game and want to see it spread. But at the same time, I see why purists doubt it sometimes. It’s a fine line between lacrosse and reality television.
Of course, if an event like the LXM Pro were run by a large corporate entity, the risk of subverting or corrupting the actual sport of lacrosse would be greater because corporate America does not seem capable of pulling off an honest grassroots campaign. LXM’s “event” approach is certainly on point when it comes to their goal of increasing exposure, but eventually, the sport would be better served if it were allowed to stand on its own two feet.
But heck, I would still love to see an LXM team (or two) play in the MLL as a traveling lacrosse experience. They could play half their games on the road at other MLL venues and then Grow The Game at other locations, like the Machine did last Summer. It could be really cool! After all, as televisions get larger and larger on average (this has to be true, right?), lacrosse becomes more and more viewable from home and this is where an opportunity for quality exposure lies… so Pro leagues can play wherever, as long as the games are then broadcast.
Big sports companies can get their sports on TV and this is where much of the investment needs to be made. Sports fans who have never watched lacrosse before will watch it if we can find the right season for the sport to be played professionally. Sundays during the Spring may actually be the best option, and this arrangement certainly works for football, because there isn’t that much to compete with other than baseball, and that’s not really a competition head-to-head, now is it?
You’d obviously lose some current assistant coaches as pro players, but there are more than enough guys out there to fill at least 6-10 teams with tons of talent – and I’m only talking about the ones that aren’t coaching. This brings me to my next point; when lacrosse takes off, it won’t be with part-time pros. It’s still a matter of time until guys can survive on just a player’s salary, but when that day comes it will be time to choose between playing and coaching. Play at the highest level and be a Pro, or coach at a really high level. Can’t do both unless you’re Gary Gait.
The actual level of individual play in the professional ranks right now is still extremely high. These guys are unbelievable lacrosse players. No question about it. Some of the most skilled guys the sport has ever seen. The offensive players are so skilled and athletic that the MLL and NLL have both been forced to let the defenders get away with a lot in the goon department. Stick protection and technology has improved to the point where certain players are basically un-strippable.
The NCAA made a brilliant decision to widen the throats of the sticks and ideally, this trend will actually continue. Wider heads still allow great dodgers to dodge, but they force everyone else to pass more and that will make the game much enjoyable to watch on TV. Since television is the sport’s breadbasket, we need to ensure that it stays exciting and watchable. One guy holding the ball and re-dodging is not the answer. Even Shamel Bratton, who is exciting on a highlight reel, can be boring to watch live because sometimes it’s just dodge, re-dodge, pull it out, twirl the stick, dodge, dodge, dodge. Make the sticks a little wider and we’ll see more passing and less of that. But players like Shamel will still be able to tear it up… they just won’t be able to hold onto the ball as easily. Easy fix for the MLL.
Hopefully the MLL, and possibly NLL -although I’m not sold on that yet (Boxla is what it is and it’s pretty great) – will widen their heads and perhaps consider going even wider than we’d expect. The refs can then clamp down on the defenders chopping down their man every time he dodges. This will result in more clean dodges AND more takeaways. All we’ll lose is crosschecks to the neck and slashes to the sternum. Skill must be valued over thuggery, otherwise, as the game reaches more and more fans who are new to it, lacrosse will be quickly corrupted and turned into a mere spectacle.
The last point I want to make also has to do with avoiding spectacle, and it comes on the heels of my having watched a lot of basketball and soccer lately. These two sports suffer from an epidemic known as flopping and it is absolutely laughable. In soccer, guys just flat out dive, cry and act like their leg is broken, only to get up and score moments later. And then they do a choreographed dance together. Cute. Basketball isn’t quite as bad, but there is a penchant for driving to the hoop with the intention of drawing a foul and not really scoring. Lots of yelling, screaming and arm flopping. It’s called acting, fellas. And I’m sorry, but that is just about the softest thing I’ve ever seen.
Defenders in basketball can barely play real defense due to ticky-tack fouls, and driving at them to intentionally draw a foul is the most chicken-shit move ever. We need to avoid this kind of sissyfication at all costs and keep the game tough. This may not seem to jive with what I wrote above, but when the ball is in the air more than it is being carried, the game remains physical and actually allows for more exciting SportsCenter-style hits. With the wider heads and physical play (minus the straight up thuggery), speed, skill and athleticism will stay at a premium above all else. This will all result in a quality product anyone can sell.
There are other more unrealistic things that I’d like to see happen, like having lacrosse equipment manufactured stateside, employing American workers, instead of in Taiwan or China. This would require a big investment by the new corporate entities involved and they are so bottom line oriented, I don’t ever see it happening. I’d also like to see longsticks shrunk by 6 inches to a foot. A shorter pole can throw faster checks but it doesn’t allow you to wail on a guy like a 6 footer does. Again, this probably won’t happen, but a crazy lacrosse guy can dream, right?
In the end, it comes down to quality exposure and maintaining the integrity of the sport by keeping it fast, athletic and skill-oriented. Let the Defense and the Offense be exciting and force each side to be dynamic. By doing this, the game is sure to be incredibly popular, even amongst people who have never played it. And most importantly, it will be fun, and it will remain the fastest game on two feet.