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2016 Lacrosse – Looking Forward To A New Year

What does the 2016 Lacrosse calendar hold in store for us? Where will the sport go, what will happen, and how will our current situation have changed in another 365 days? It’s impossible to predict precisely, but one can often look at our sport’s current trajectory and make some pretty solid predictions.

As we sit back and reflect briefly on the last 12 months, it’s as good a time as any to turn our eyes forward, into the looking glass.

2016 Lacrosse – The College Game

While pro lacrosse does seem to be growing slowly, college is still the main focal point for most fans of the game here in the US. It gets the most exposure on TV, and will likely remain the top dog in our sport in terms of consumption for at least the next couple of years. This gives the college game, especially at the D1 level, a special place in our sport. It’s only fair that we look at this first.

Early D1 Men’s Favorites – Denver, Notre Dame, and Syracuse all seem like rock-solid title contenders today. Denver has a relatively unique system and great pipeline of talent. Notre Dame is an athletic, disciplined program that continues to knock on the door, and their knock is only getting louder. Syracuse is Syracuse, and they seem to be fully back to form in the modern men’s lacrosse world. All three programs have top level Head Coaches, and brilliant assistants. All three see plenty of support from their University, and you could make a strong argument for any of the three to be the odds-on favorite.

Syracuse lacrosse vs UAlbany 2015 credit Jeff Melnik

But who else is there? Both Duke and Maryland find ways to get it done, and advance deep into the playoffs each year. Neither program would truly be a shocker if they were to emerge as the 2016 champs. I also like Yale. I know, that may seem weird, but this program is nothing if not consistent, and with a couple of lucky bounces, the Bulldogs could have taken a title themselves over the last couple of years. This year’s Yale team looks equally impressive. Could the ball bounce their way this year?

I also don’t think you can overlook Albany or UNC. Albany will be different, but I don’t think the wheels are going to fall off there now that Lyle is gone. The Danes are still for real! And UNC? They have talent (always do) but something seems to hold them back. Maybe this is the year they open up a bit more and make it happen. Hopkins is the last team on my list of true early contenders but only if their offense is truly explosive this year and they average 20 goals a game. I want to see run’n’gun at Hop. They seem to have the horses and Shack Stanwick really could be this year’s Molloy (Brown) except he has a LOT more options around him. This would NOT be typical Hopkins ball, but a guy can hope, can’t he? They could literally run teams off the field. Will it happen? Unlikely…  but I’m still hopeful!

Stanwick Lacrosse Sticks

Recruiting – It seems as if we are seeing a major push for change in the recruiting landscape, but little will change in 2016. You will still see young high school players committing to schools, and you will still see many people treat these commitments as meaningful pieces of news. You might also hear about the kids who commit and then don’t actually get in to their committed school, but I doubt it. That’s simply not good for the industry. Mark my words, this story is far from over, and change is far from a done deal.

D2, D3, NJCAA & MCLA – My college coach loves to tell me that if I went to Wesleyan now I would not start for all four years, and that I might not see the field at all. While this is personally disheartening, it is also quite likely true. D3 lacrosse is simply much better now than it was when I was playing. On average, the level of play is better, but at the top levels, it is also better. And this is true at almost every single level. D2 lacrosse is better than it’s ever been. The MCLA is also deep and the talent there continues to rapidly climb. NJCAA might not see the same parity as other college conferences, but the talent level up top overall is very strong, and seems to be improving year over year. The list of contenders grows, the number of schools playing grows, and college lacrosse on all levels continues to look up.

Stevenson vs Salisbury

2016 NCAA Championship Weekend – There has been a lot of talk about changing the format of Championship Weekend, and I’m all for changing it! The current format is clearly driving fans away in droves, and coming from someone who has attended Final Fours in the late 90s, early 2000s, and recently, I can see why. You used to park at a college stadium, and people would be tailgating like crazy. College kids, families, grandparents, toddlers… everyone was in on the act. Games were packed, tickets were cheap, and the atmosphere was a raucous celebration of lacrosse. Once ticket prices were jacked up, NFL stadiums were used, and the event took on an air of complete “professionalism”, the magic was unfortunately lost. Currently, championship weekend is really not that different from events like the Big City Classic, and it has lost its luster as THE big lacrosse event of the year.

To get the magic back, a number of options are laid out. Moving back to college campuses seems like a no-brainer. If it lowers ticket, parking, and concession costs for fans, that’s a huge win right there. If it rewards schools that support their lacrosse programs, EVEN BETTER! Why it was ever moved away from college campuses was always a total head scratcher. People have also talked about changing the date of the event and moving it away from Memorial Day. Honestly, I’m fine with that, but that alone will NOT solve the problem. Put the finals on June 4th in an NFL stadium and they will do just as poorly. The RENT IS TOO DAMN HIGH! Bonus points if you can name the recently retired NYC politician who used to utter that phrase non-stop…

2016 Lacrosse – The Professional Game

National Lacrosse League – The NLL is the best known indoor product for American lacrosse consumers. (I tend to focus on US lacrosse communities because they are the largest, by far, in the world) With franchises in CT, GA, CO, and two in NY, the NLL needs American audiences to become more engaged overall with the sport if they want the league to grow. Exposure is key, as there is a larger thirst for box lacrosse now in the US than ever before. Will this be the year that the NLL draws numerous American field fans into the fold in a meaningful way? The Georgia franchise with the Thompsons on the roster could certainly help!

Miles and Jerome Hiana Thompson Minnesota Swarm vs Buffalo Bandits NLL Photo Credit Bill Whippert
Photo Credit Bill Whippert

Major League Lacrosse – Not only did MLL expand to Atlanta this year, but the league is also trying a new approach in terms of content delivery, in the Lax Sports Network. LSN is an online provider of video news, games, and other content. LSN is not owned by MLL, but there is a lot of overlap in interests and involvement. This is a big, and risky, move by the league, even if they don’t own the network. While LSN failing wouldn’t kill MLL, it would certainly hurt the league in a serious way. On the other hand, if LSN does work out, Major League Lacrosse could take a big step in recognition and overall interest.

Paul-Rabil-NY-Lizards-MLL 2016 lacrosse

The quality of play on the field will be high again in 2016, that much is known, but will enough people pay attention to help the league reach the next level? Can LSN be the vehicle for that expansion? A key here will be LSN getting rights to broadcast GREAT high school and college games for the Spring, to draw people in. Talk shows will help, but not be enough on their own.

The Mann Cup – In Canada, the Mann Cup is known and respected. The winner of the OLA plays the winner of the WLA (more or less) so what’s not to love? It’s high level lacrosse, and at the top levels it’s as professional as MLL or NLL, and it’s been going on a LOT longer. In recent years, webcasts have picked up for the 7-game series and so has overall coverage. This event has the potential to be so much bigger in the lacrosse world. Hopefully the Mann Cup organizers realize this, and use it to push the growth of the game forward in Canada.

2016 Lacrosse – Youth Lacrosse

Youth sports have been changing over the last few decades, and they are rapidly moving away from “town” style programs that run for one season to “club” style programs where the kids play year round. It happens in soccer, baseball, hockey, basketball, and yes, it happens in lacrosse. Honestly, I’m not so sure it’s a good thing. My hope is that ALL of these youth sports agree to scale back out-of-season events, so that kids can continue to play multiple sports, at least through high school.

I have seen and known plenty of kids who went the year-round club route, many early on. Some of them did end up playing D1 sports, but those kids were usually phenomenal athletes. I firmly believe they would have seen the same collegiate success being a three sport athlete in high school. What do I see a lot more of? Kids who played a single sport year round who ended up playing D3, or club in college… and some didn’t play at all. Kids can burn out on a single sport. It can hurt their overall development as athletes and people. And it can’t make up for someone else simply being a foot taller than you, or a second faster. Club sports have their place, but if your club asks you to drop other sports to focus on ONE sport, I would question the validity of their request and reasoning, even if “everybody else” is doing it.

Another change that youth lacrosse is seeing comes in the form of box lacrosse and small-sided play. While the sticklers exist, the days of 10v10 field lacrosse for ALL ages is ending. U9, U11 and even U13 and U15 players are benefiting from small-sided play. It gives kids more touches, and is easier to learn. It’s a great way to keep our game growing and for more kids to play the game. It also opens up the possibilities for lacrosse to be a more widely taught game in schools, which would be huge. If a gym teacher can learn a simplified, cost effective, and “safer” version of lacrosse, think of how many new kids could be exposed to the game across the country in a single year… this is a big point of positive potential for our sport.

2016 Lacrosse – The Women’s Game

I don’t talk about women’s lacrosse all that much, but instead of just adding in a sentence here and there, I wanted to give the women’s game its own section. There are rumblings of movement for a women’s pro league now, and while it may not happen right away, what if MLL franchises all had sister franchises, and women’s games were played before (or after) the MLL men’s games? Franchise, stadium, and even advertising costs could all be kept down. Ticket sales could be increased by offering the same ticket to two fan bases. And NO OTHER PRO LEAGUE does anything even remotely close to this.

Lacrosse is pushing for change in recruiting, from both the men and women. No other sport is doing that. Lacrosse was also the first team sport to have an openly gay athlete competing at the professional level in Andrew Goldstein, back in 2005. Lacrosse is also the only sport where Native peoples are recognized as a nation and celebrated as brothers. While the moral history of lacrosse is far from perfect (natives were banned from playing at times, etc), our sport has shown a willingness to try new things and support a progressive approach to change. I hope to see this continue with the emerging women’s pro game.

Womens Lacrosse

When it comes to the women’s college game, I hope we see a lot more high quality video. The men’s game gets great highlight packages, but the women’s game rarely gets the same treatment. The skill and speed of the women’s game should show well on video, so hopefully we see some schools or fans apply their skills to some HD game tape. This can do a lot to raise awareness, and get future generations of players excited and engaged.

A big question on the women’s side of things is now helmets. They are certainly creeping into the game now, but it’s not the first time this has been considered. In fact, this has actually already happened! From 1986 to 1996, female players wore hockey helmets in Massachusetts high school lacrosse. I saw it with my own eyes. The MIAA eventually decided against it, but the issue has come up again and again, and it seems to have a renewed life. Helmets will not become universal, but I can see the movement gaining steam in certain places. It is a trend to keep an eye on, but more importantly, it must be researched fully and impartially. At the end of the day, the goal has to be a safe game, however it turns out.

2016 Lacrosse – Things I Look Forward To!

The upcoming year is obviously going to contain plenty of surprises, as any year does, but there are a couple of things that we KNOW are coming up. Here are some of my personal favorite highlights…

The Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation – I can’t wait to see this documentary. The production value should be superb, and the story has the potential to reach a much broader audience.

U19 FIL Men’s World Championships – From July 7th to 16th, Coquitlam BC will play host to the U19 world games, and they should be awesome. Ten teams are confirmed so far, with the US (2015 champs after losing to CAN and IRO during the round robin), Canada, Australia, Finland, England, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Hong Kong, and now Colombia all signed up. More teams will be added in the coming months and you can add the Iroquois to the list as they have been holding tryouts for their team this winter.

The FIRST EVER Jamaican High School League – Jamaica has taken a slower approach to forming a men’s national team, but when they do hit the FIL scene, watch out, because many of their players will have grown up playing the sport in high school and even before. Most countries start with a men’s national program and try to build their way down. As we have seen, this is not always easy to do. Jamaica has started with kids only, and they are working their way up. This provides an amazing development approach model for other countries, and showcases the fact that this game can be played anywhere.

2016 European Championships – The 2016 ELF games are going to be huge, and they are going to be played in Hungary. European lacrosse has never been better, and this is going to be a great opportunity for the rest of the world, especially here in the US, to see just how good it is!

You can bet that we will see plenty of other amazing events take place in 2016, but the four above are going to be three of the best. I’d almost guarantee it. Almost!

2016 is shaping up to be a great year, but all of that is only potential right now. It’s on us all to make it reality.