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For Lacrosse To Grow, Football Needs To Go

Editor’s Note: Please welcome Jason Myers to LAS! Jason was interested in our Mainstream Lacrosse discussion, and took his response on a different path. He examines how football holds other sports back from growing at the collegiate level by sucking up all the money at mid-major schools. It’s an interesting take, and well worth your time!

For Lacrosse To Grow, Does Football Need To Go?

The question of whether lacrosse will make its big break through as a sport has been an on-going debate on the cusp of actually happening for years now. At least that’s what it feels like. One of the barometers for the sports progress is the number of Men’s Division 1 schools that field teams. It’s the highest level of the college game, so that makes sense on one hand. Yet, on the other, it unfairly mitigates the importance of D2, D3, JUCO, MCLA, club ball, etc.

loyola beats virginia
Photo Credit: Craig Chase

Even with that caveat in mind, I want to consider a few hair-brained ideas for what it would take to get more D1 teams going. Well, hair-brained for a slightly balding father of two, at least. In the spirit of this series, I’m going to suggest something that is completely off the wall, and unlikely to happen, but for the sake of conversation it’s a hypothetical worth considering!

Unfortunately, at the core of my argument is an all out attack on one of this country’s most revered institutions: the game of football.

It’s no secret that football functions like a secular religion in this country. In recent years the appeal of watching able-bodied men slowly acquire CTE has become less and less attractive to me.

Despite (or because of?) this religious fervor, universities that field football teams don’t seem to mind that they are quite often a money pit. It’s well known that only a handful of schools’ athletic departments actually turn a profit, and all of those schools are in Power Five conferences. Yet, this fact hasn’t deterred those institutions running in the red from increasing spending and trying to keep up with the Joneses, as futile as that endeavor may be.

Wesleyan CT Football NESCAC

Another roadblock that has become a banal echo chamber of the myopic is Title IX. Look folks, Title IX isn’t going anywhere. And it shouldn’t. There’s not much that is more annoying than hearing someone say “University X would add lacrosse if it weren’t for Title IX.”

While Title IX may be a factor, 9 times out of 10 the real issue is lack of funds. If you think your precious alma mater should field a lacrosse team then feel free to donate $15-20 million dollars to endow a team. Of course, if they don’t already have a women’s team you might as well double that donation to cover Title IX. If you’re not prepared to donate money to get a program going then there are few grounds for complaining. That’s how college athletics work. It’s racket, but it is what it is.

How would dropping football help the sport of lacrosse grow, you justifiably ask at this point?

Because football is a financial sinkhole for non-Power Five conference schools I would argue that focusing on mid-majors provides the best route for lacrosse expansion. I suggest that these schools drop varsity football, and add lacrosse instead.

Has the collective gasp subsided yet? Hear me out.

Football teams have 85 scholarship athletes and carry rosters of over 100 players, typically. If you want to know what sport throws off Title IX number more than anything else, it’s football. Eliminate football and there’s a huge operating cost reduction as well as an imbalance at most schools with men’s sports on the low end now.

Drexel - PSU Women's Fall Ball Lacrosse

While eliminating varsity football would have a corresponding reduction in revenue, men’s lacrosse is not nearly as expensive to operate, and do so at a high level, than a football team. Let’s say it costs $1-2M per year for a high-level lacrosse team with all (or most) of the bells and whistles for coaches and players. That’s a far cry from $10-30M a year for a football program. Even if the athletic department brings in considerably less revenue, their operating costs for lacrosse are a fraction of what football costs. Now mid-majors and FCS schools likely don’t spend $30M on football every year, but the fact remains that lacrosse would be MUCH cheaper, even for those schools.

From a facilities standpoint there wouldn’t be any additional requirements. These schools will already have training and playing facilities for football that can easily be used for lacrosse. In business terms, there would not be large capital investment needed to make this change.

If this scenario were to play out, one of the most expensive line items in a team’s budget would be travel. Because most of the current teams are clustered along the east coast, teams farther west would incur greater travel expenses.

Photo Credit: Molly Tavoletti

This is where the mid-majors really have the potential to come into play. Looking at this map below, you can get see the geographic footprint of each FBS and FCS conference. Try this exercise:

1. Turn on the Division and Conference Filters.

2. Select both FBS and FCS in the Division Box

3. In the Conference box select: Big Sky and Mountain West. Looks like there would be pretty reasonable travel within the western US, right?

4. Now select the Pac-12. The Power Five Pac-12 would have quite a few local and regional options now, right?

Repeat this process for your favorite region of the country. For example, there are a ton of different variations in the southeast.

The point here is that the schools that are trying to keep up with the Joneses are the ones who fare the worst in college football and have the least to gain. Aside from a sparsely attended bowl game once a year, what real advantages are there (assuming you find that an advantage)?

In other words, mid majors need to lead the way with adopting men’s lacrosse. If enough schools can establish a lacrosse footprint in a given region, like the US West, then the cost of travel declines (and so do overall program costs) and the Power Five conferences would have a greater incentive to add the sport, in addition to keeping their football teams in many cases.

Although it may be ridiculous to suggest that non-Power Five schools give up football, it’s even more unrealistic to think that they would. And even if those were the only schools with varsity college football, that’s still 60 or so teams, about what D1 men’s lacrosse is today. These schools have the money and resources to make football worthwhile and add lacrosse if the price is right.

Do I think this will ever happen? No. But it’s certainly an interesting concept to think about!

Imagine if an entire conference decided all at once to eliminate football and add lacrosse. If the Big Sky conference did that, for example, it would completely change the shape of western expansion of the sport overnight.

CU vs GCU MCLA Tournament 2015 Photo Credit Robert White

So to rehash: the problem with lacrosse expansion at the D1 level is financial first, and Title IX a distant second, in overly simplified terms. Most football programs are fighting Sisyphusian battle for relevance and venue. Eliminating football at non-Power Five conference Division 1 schools would solve the Title IX issue, and exchange an extremely expensive sport for a much more cost effective alternative.

The effect this shift would have on the geographic footprint of the sport would be to reduce the cost of travel associated with lacrosse, thus further reducing the cost of adding the sport, and making it a more realistic option for Power Five schools.