Myles Jones Duke NCAA Div 1 Lacrosse Championship play college lacrosse mainstream
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Can Lacrosse Become Mainstream?

You may want lacrosse to become mainstream, you may not. Both sides have some compelling reasoning behind their stances, and I’ve bounced around between the two myself. Part of me likes it small and close-knit. Another part of me wants the world to enjoy it like I do BECAUSE IT’S AWESOME. Regardless of how one feels about the evolution and popularization of the sport, it is important to ask IF lacrosse can in fact become popular at all… I mean, why even worry about something that can’t happen?

So CAN lacrosse become a mainstream American (and world) sport?

The game certainly has plenty of positives, and as a biased lacrosse-ophile, I can see many of them clearly. It’s fast and tough, it requires athleticism and years of hard work and immense skill to be great. The game offers a multitude of styles of play, and each contest is a story on its own. As HD TV has improved, the on-air product has taken a larger hold… Yadda-yadda, you know it’s good, so do I.

Jack Near Rochester Rattlers New York Lizards MLL Championship 2015

Year after year, lacrosse participation has also grown, so it’s not just you and I that find the game enjoyable. On top of that, it has been one of the fastest growing sports over the last few decades in the US. More colleges are adding teams, and states across the US are adding lacrosse as an officially sanctioned sport. Newspapers even print scores sometimes. Yup, newspapers still exist!

Around the world, we are seeing more countries playing than ever before. The game is now played on all six inhabited continents. We will get you someday, Antarctica. Many nations start men’s or women’s national programs first, so growth is focused on the top of the pyramid, and has historically been small in numbers. At the same time, there are youth development programs in many countries, and the Czech Republic stands out (as do a couple more) as a good beginning model. Jamaica is also following this model, and growing the game from the ground up. With more youth development, the game will see an exponential improvement in interest around the world from both die-hards and casual fans.

These are all good things.

Like soccer in the US before it, lacrosse seems well positioned to make a jump into the next echelon of popularity. The sport is diversifying, improving, and growing around the world at some level, and has been doing so for a sustained period of time.

Are TV deals doable? Yes.

Could it be a money maker? Yes.

Do Americans love sports? Yes.

If only that were enough.

Our sport has some big barriers to overcome before we can join the next level of sport.

DISCLAIMER: I am going to propose some straight up OUTLANDISH things in the next few sections. Some will never happen, but should. Some will never happen, and probably shouldn’t, but I’m saying it anyway. Others could happen, and who knows if they will! Keep an open mind and reply to me in the comments. I’ll holler.

Goliath The Giants In The Face

San Francisco. New York. Tokyo. Those are just some of major cities with Giants teams in them, and none of them are lacrosse franchises. Basketball, Soccer, Baseball, Hockey, Football in the US, Rugby, Cricket, and other team sports take up a huge portion of the world’s sporting consumption. These are all established sports, and when you add in Golf, Tennis, MMA, and other individual sports, the available bandwidth available for lacrosse only gets thinner.

Did you know there are as many people playing American Football in Perth, Australia as there are playing lacrosse? Well, there are. Other games have serious reach too.

Iroquois Nationals vs Australia Sharks 2014 World Lacrosse Championships

Now people always bring up soccer in the US…

Soccer did well to climb the charts of major team sports in the US, no doubt about it, but I hesitate to use it as a model simply because it is the single most popular game in the world. The US has a lot of people living in it from around the very same world, ergo soccer’s rise was to be expected. The fact that it didn’t happen sooner in the US is actually kind of shocking, but perhaps it demonstrates just how hard it really is for “new” team sports to make it.

So for me, in order to break in to the world of US sport (or anywhere really), Lacrosse needs to find a break in the action, and slip on in somehow. Obviously that will be in the Spring or Summer seasons. The fall is football/soccer time, so that’s really a non-starter, and the winter is dominated by basketball and hockey. Spring and Summer are good, and while people do love baseball, it is a very different game, and the best sport field lacrosse can compete with for undecided viewers, especially when you look at baseball’s declining numbers.

This is kind of what we do now, but some changes will need to be made in order to improve the situation and appeal.

My ideal set up for pro field lacrosse is to run alongside the college season almost exactly, starting in March, and ending in late June. College games would be played primarily on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Pro games would be played Sundays, with one “Game of the Week” on TV every Friday night. Imagine if youth, high school, and college guys could kick back and watch the pros on Friday, play their weekend games, and then watch with family or friends on Sundays as they did some homework or had some sodas. It’s all relevant, and everyone feels like they are part of the same thing: Spring Lacrosse. It’s simple and unifying. If D1 college football and the NFL can do it, so can we, right? Right.

Duke vs Johns Hopkins mens lacrosse 2014 NCAA quarter final mainstream

It would mimic the current college football model and create a more cohesive product for both dedicated and casual fans alike. Current college players wouldn’t jump from the NCAA into MLL mid-season, and our sport would more closely resemble the drafting patterns of all the major sports. You know, where you evaluate people after their senior year.

Now, take a deep breath, because when it comes to the pro box game, I have some thoughts there as well, and this is where my outlandish proposals really begin… STOP THIS WINTER LACROSSE THING.

The NLL should NOT fold up shop, I’m not saying that at all! But playing box in the winter doesn’t seem like a great long-term solution for the indoor game. I know it’s cold outside (is that a good reason?), but competing with hockey and basketball AND CONCERTS in the US is going to be TOUGH, and the NLL needs the US for growth. Also, overcoming Hockey and Drake in Canada? Good luck. And basketball is a HUGE sport in the US. No one has time for three Winter sports and Canadian pop music. It’s simply too much.

So what can the NLL do? Move to the Summer! BUT THE MANN CUP IS IN THE SUMMER! I know, I know… I’m getting to that.

Six Nations Chiefs vs Victoria Shamrocks 2014 Mann Cup box lacrosse Credit: Vintage Lax

The Mann Cup has been around forever, it’s worth a bajillion dollars, and it’s awarded to Canada’s top Sr A box team each Summer. It is the single best trophy in the entire sport of lacrosse (sorry other trophies), and if you want Americans to care about this sport, and for the sport to grow in Canada as well, you need to spice things up a bit and promote how awesome the Mann Cup already is. So every NLL franchise should now be a Sr A franchise, and Sr A lacrosse in Canada should become a truly professional sport, running from June through early September, with the winner taking the Mann to their respective hot tubs.

I know, this is heresy. But the fact is, a lot of the top Sr A team operate like pro franchises right now. The ownership can be related, the players are often the exact same, and guys get paid. Um, yeah, that is pro lacrosse. So why not wrap these two AMAZING box leagues into ONE truly successful and profitable pro league that runs over the Summer with teams all over the place in the US and Canada? No hockey… no basketball… just baseball. If the MLL played in the Spring all of those guys could ALSO play! All the top guys could be a two season pro again and double their pay. YAY!!!!!!

Teams in the US would now be eligible to win a Mann Cup. Yes, that’s outlandish. So what? There is this sailing trophy called the America’s Cup, and if we always won it, it would be boring as hell. Also, we want a shot at that glorious trophy. It’s simply awe-inspiring! And if you want to help casual Canadian fans become more passionate, tell them an American team might win the Mann… that would get them involved on national pride alone. Remember Toronto and the whole Canadian World Series thing? The details escape me, but I know about it! And I hate baseball. See? National disputes over trophy ownership is a viable plan.

New England Black Wolves vs Calgary Roughnecks NLL 2016

The potential here to take ALL of the dedicated box groups and put them into one super league could redefine the sport of box lacrosse, and by playing it in the Summer months, you would only be competing with baseball. Arenas would be more available, ice wouldn’t be down below the turf, and long-time MSL and WLA franchises (like Six Nations, Peterborough, Victoria, New West, etc) could all exist, and truly be professional teams.

This would also have the potential to help sustain the many junior programs in Canada with increased interest, a farm team system, and could even improve Sr B lacrosse as well, if done correctly. Teams that want to be truly amateur can play Sr B, so no one would have to fold at all. Could this be messy? Oh, yes, it WOULD be messy. Over the long-term however, box lacrosse could truly re-emerge as Canada’s Summer sport, all while making a big splash in the US as well. That’s like some sort of crazy double bonus on top of a bonus.

I am sure people will disagree with me heartily here. “The pain would be too much! TRADITION! When I was a kid…” but many of the consistent top clubs are basically pro teams now. Why not make them truly pro, as opposed to now when they are basically pro, and take the Mann Cup to its highest possible level? Sr A lacrosse is really not an amateur affair anymore in many ways, so offer the Mann Cup out to the best box team that can be assembled anywhere, and put the FULL force of box lacrosse behind this deserving trophy.

I’m not 100% set on the above opinion, so help me out here if I need it, but the potential for one monster of a summer box league has me salivating. The fact that pro players could then play field and box is a great bonus as well, for them, in their pockets.

The Olympics – 2024? 2026?

People love the Olympics. Any sport in the Olympics is in a better place worldwide because of it. Everyone knows what an Olympic GOLD medal means. It means you’re the best in the world. Or something. It means something big, that’s the point here.

Could we see lacrosse in the Olympics any time soon? Possibly, but not before 2024 or 2028… or 2026? It takes time, and lobbying, and more time, but here’s the main rub for me: should lacrosse enter the Olympics as a Summer sport? OR… how about as a Winter sport?

Yes, the field game is more popular now, and both men and women play it. But it also has its problems. There are already a lot of Summer team sports, and Rugby is a major favorite worldwide already. Another big issue is that the men and women play very different versions of lacrosse. That right there is a major issue. Fields have already been changed so that both games can be played on one surface (as is required by the Olympics) but I’m not sure that we will be able to get past the other differences between the two… so unless men’s and women’s field lacrosse find ways to become a more similar game, box lacrosse actually might be a better answer.

WILC Game Recap: Canada 19, Czech Republic 2
Photo Credit: Coyote Magic Action Shots

But no women play box lacrosse! Well, tell that to the 4,000 women who played in Canada last year. Tell it to their U19 women’s gold medal team (many of them play box). It might not be happening much in the US (although there is some out on Long Island and in other places already!), but women’s box lacrosse is a thing, and it’s happening. And the easy thing about it is that it’s just like the men’s game. The Olympics would love that. Plus it’s like hockey, and Europeans get that immediately.

The other positive for box lacrosse in the Olympics is that it could, hypothetically, be played as a Winter Team Sport, and the Winter Olympics needs better team sports viewership if they want to stay popular. The Summer Games crush the Winter Games. Can another team sport, like box lacrosse, help? I would think so! But does anyone else? Bueller? Bueller?

Men + Women = PROBLEM?

I bet you thought I was going to skip over this completely when I mentioned it above, but then didn’t go any deeper. Well, now prepare to be outraged you old curmudgeon.

Men’s lacrosse is a great sport.

Women’s lacrosse is a great sport.

I would play either of them if given the chance, and actually have.

Why can’t both sides of our community come together and find a way for us to play the same game? Yes, I know that the men’s game and the women’s game each offer many good points. I said so above when I called them each great. And, yes, I am all for celebrating differences. Yes, I also acknowledge the long history and tradition of these two versions of the game.

But also, No. I just can’t get behind this. Never really have.

Allow me to put this to you all another way. We divide up how we play the game based on one thing, and one thing alone: GENDER.

I know we split boys and girls up for soccer and basketball, and everything else. I’m not arguing with that. Maybe some other time. But it is interesting that no other sport sees the same level of RULE differentiation as men’s and women’s lacrosse. The fact that boys play one game, and girls another, just strikes me as completely weird. I’ve seen that before, and I didn’t like it then. Why do we still stand for this now, and brush it off as a non-issue?

Drexel - PSU Women's Fall Ball Lacrosse

In fact, no other sport even comes close. Basketball is the same. Soccer is the same. Hockey is the same. The only major sports that are at all different are baseball and softball, which are actually quite similar, and football, which has no female counterpart. Even Field Hockey (an Olympic sport for men and women) is basically the same. Rugby (an Olympic hopeful) is the same. Handball (another Olympic sport) is the same. So is Volleyball.

Maybe we’re special, or something, but I doubt it. The fact that our men and women play different games has always rubbed me the wrong way. Maybe I’m going too far here, but honestly, maybe I’m not going too far enough.

Could the games be combined? (NOTE: I don’t actually think any of this will EVER happen. Sad face)

Maybe we follow the trends in men’s field lacrosse, and call the game just a little tighter. Sometimes I see a “check” in the MLL and think to myself, “That’s not lacrosse. That’s assault”. Maybe we also follow the women’s tradition of tighter pockets, to offset the slight drop in violent checks. But DON’T take hitting out the game either! Let the girls bump hips more, as the game was originally intended! They like to get after it, so let’s allow them to. When I saw women’s lacrosse in Australia, it was super physical, and a ton of fun to watch, and play! I do not want to take the physicality out of the game, by any means.

Put everyone in helmets, and small arm pads. Put gloves on everyone. Take shoulder pads off everyone. Don’t allow people to shoot the ball at other people. DO allow people to bump and run into one another without all the excessive stick slashing. Take some of the women’s draw aspects into the men’s game, meaning players must get the ball out immediately. Remove many of the whistles from the women’s game. Promote take aways. Give the girls longsticks. Keep the free shot portion of the women’s game for clear penalties on scoring chances, I love that!

Now, the women’s game proponents are probably saying the exact opposite. Take away all the pads, give everyone a shallow pocket, focus on more skill and team play… and bring the game further back to its native roots, where pads didn’t even exist!

You know? I’m all for it! As I said above, they’re both beautiful amazing games, and finding some common ground is achievable. Paul Rabil with no pads and a women’s stick would still be amazing to watch, and now I want to see a women’s game played by MLL pros. Many of you are probably shaking your heads. Totally fair. But I imagine Casey Powell with a women’s stick, and I don’t see him being any worse at lacrosse. Our pros are really just that good. I would be worse though. Way worse. But not if I practiced. And neither would you.

Aussie women vs New Zealand

The road would obviously not be exactly what I laid out above in either scenario, but by taking aspects that work well for either game, field lacrosse could really get back to being the fastest game on two feet for BOTH genders. Not only that, but our sport would be practicing the equality we preach, really for the first time ever.

I certainly expect the above section to the single LEAST popular thing I’ve ever written, but, and this is important, when I escape my bias of loving lacrosse blindly, I can not help but see a very basic problem with our reliance on gender to define our games. It’s not my favorite throwback Thursday. I may not have the answers, but they are out there, somewhere.

The Costs, The Ungodly Costs

The Creator’s Game is way too expensive. That is, and almost always has been, a fact. Just to start a team with 20 kids, you’re looking at $6,000 if you got everything on the absolute lowest end. To start a soccer team it would cost you $1,000. Basketball is just as low. This creates a need for two things: 1) more affordable equipment that isn’t garbage, and 2) a game that can be played with only sticks and minimal padding, or none at all.

Kids who never played competitive ice hockey but like pro hockey were likely exposed to the game somehow. Maybe it was pond hockey, or street hockey, or gym class soft stick hockey, but they saw it somewhere. Basketball and soccer pick up games are everywhere, and football can be played without pads whether it’s tackle or two-hand touch. Every major sport has a basic, watered down version of itself for fun and kids, but lacrosse really doesn’t. This is where a ground swell of fans and interested people can come from – authentically knowing the sport on some level.

To be fair, there is a push right now, for this type of stuff, and 3X, Speed Lacrosse, and others are all promoting games like this. That these games exist is great, but the community needs to embrace them and spread them for it to be effective. If it does spread, the impact could be huge. Games like that create relatable atmosphere for fans, and an appreciation for just how good the pro guys are.

The cheap stick and gear element is really just a choice. Manufacturers CAN produce an affordable, high quality stick. The question is, WILL they? There are some decent options out there now, but when I see a good stick for a beginner (good pocket is KEY!) for under $30, I’ll let you know. Want the game to grow? Make. It. Accessible. The company that does it will have good name in our sport for generations to come.

The Tendency Towards Turmoil

My biggest concern for the future of lacrosse has to do with a near-forgotten time in our past. You see, this is not the first time lacrosse has brushed up against greatness in the sporting world. Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, lacrosse was booming. NYU had a lacrosse team in 1877, and the sport was played in the Olympics. Tens of thousands of fans would attend games in British Columbia, and the sport was played in England and Australia, and was extremely popular in Brooklyn, NY.

Minnesota Lacrosse: A History by J. Alan Childs

As the early 19oos rolled around, lacrosse looked poised to make the leap and emerge as a top flight sport in North America, and possibly other parts of the world, but it all fell apart, and for a number of reasons. In Canada, groups shattered and parties could not work together, so the sport suffered. In the US, the game became more exclusionary and elitist, and shriveled away from the main spotlight. In other places, brawling at games hurt the sport’s reputation, and hid the beauty of the game.

In the past, when lacrosse was close to getting big, to making it on the scene, the sport tore itself apart from the inside out. Divisive practices, an inability to work together, petty grudges all conspired to push the game backwards, and to keep it small. People who thought of new ideas, or wanted to change the game were shouted down, the status quo was kept, and lacrosse languished as baseball and football both ascended to the top.

There is a very good chance that you won’t agree with a single thing I’ve written above, and I’m okay with that. But if you’ll stop to think about what the game really needs to flourish, what you come up with might surprise you just as much as you think my proposals are those of a fool.