After the pandemic, you need to go to lacrosse games.
When the calendar year changes from December to January, many people like to enjoy the centuries old practice of creating New Year’s Resolutions. Anyone who goes to a public gym knows this is still a popular idea as the masses focus on self improvement initiatives like losing weight, gaining weight, or improving overall fitness. All those machines that were free in December are all of a sudden packed once the doors open in January.
Of course, there are many non-fitness based resolutions people pursue, but the gym one is a great example to use. As packed as gyms are in January, they always empty out by the time March rolls around.
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Coming out of a year like 2020 where everyone had their life impacted in some way by the global pandemic, the change from December 31, 2020 to January 1, 2021 brings a little bit more hope with it. So with the sense of optimism, I have a request for the lacrosse community at large. Even though it likely isn’t possible now, but for when it is, for your 2021 resolution I ask that you do one thing: go to lacrosse games.
Attendance at lacrosse games has always been a little bit of a thorn for many. There is of course the debate about NCAA championship weekend, where you have the camp that wants a smaller sold-out stadium, while others love the nearly-unlimited space of an NFL stadium where anyone who wants to go can. But you also have how lots of attention on declining MLL attendance over the years, the lack of fans at most NCAA regular season games, and how much exposure is generated by the Denver Outlaws’ July 4th games of years past or when Ohio State lacrosse is a matinee for the football team’s spring game. In all the of these cases, two things are true: the number of people in the seats matter and people are paying attention.
But what this pandemic has taught the sports world, not just lacrosse, is how much having fans at games really matters. This is amplified at the pro level, as you would expect, where nearly every pro league has had some version of a season during the pandemic where either no fans were allowed or limited fans based on local regulations. This created situations where teams were playing in empty stadiums or severely limited crowds. The NFL was rather creative with the “piped in” fan noise that actually relied on recording from those exact stadiums during older games. But leagues like the NBA also had fan noise in their bubble environment even, without rows upon rows of empty seats around them. In colleges, sports are still happening for many, but not all. Colleges are also in a weird spot where money is not the primary financial driver for sports like it is in pro, but it’s still pretty close for big DI programs.
When it comes to this financial part of having fans at games, the leaders at the pro levels are a little more transparent about their feelings of it. To paraphrase, it’s essentially, “OK, this bubble thing was interesting, now let’s never do it again”. Adam Silver of the NBA has even gone on record saying that the league expects to see 40 percent of its revenue cut by not having fans at games. It’s of course not just ticket sales that drive revenue for teams. In-game promotions drive sponsorships, fans buying gear, souvenir cups with food, parking, and the extra benefits like nearby restaurants and bars getting pregame and postgame visits.
In terms of lacrosse, those revenue streams are always a mix at the pro level, but the NLL has a better track history of showing how important it is to have fans to support a franchise long term. Some great franchises have been lost because they only had good attendance but not what they needed to justify their arena leases. Places like New England with the Black Wolves sell the casino experience at the Mohegan Sun, which I have personally seen many times first hand. The game gets you in the doors, but the hope is that you stay at the hotel, go to the restaurants, and maybe do some gambling or shopping while there. Other franchises, like Colorado and Buffalo, rely on larger parents organizations where the NLL team is filling empty dates on the arena calendar, and the solid turnouts they have year in and year out are enough to keep them going.
For the PLL, it still only has a single year of the fan-based tour under its belt, and while some locations were lightly attended, the league’s inaugural championship in Philadelphia had a great crowd. It’s no secret that merchandise is a big part of the PLL’s revenue model, and having more fans go to lacrosse games in person to buy new gear and show off the old is important. It also has its fan fest outside of the stadium to mingle with some players, and it allows sponsors to have their gear out there for fans to check out and/or buy. The league’s lease agreements with each stadium aren’t publicly known, but its sponsorship with Ticketmaster, which was announced before the pandemic, adds some emphasis to how important selling tickets is to its bottom line.
For college, attendance for many programs is anemic at best. Across all three NCAA divisions, both men’s and women’s teams, the vast majority of programs see little more than parents and friends at games. The average for men’s DI in all of the 2018-2019 season was just fewer than 1,000 fans. For women’s programs, it was fewer than 350. Those numbers drop to 170 and 100 for Division-III, respectively. Those numbers also need to be considered with how attendance numbers are calculated for events, which is an entirely different conversation altogether. The leaders in attendance are always teams that you would expect in the ACC and B1G but also a handful of teams with more established fanbases following decades of success. The point of bringing this up is that for the schools that have lacrosse or add lacrosse to their athletics lineup, it’s rarely ticket sales that are factoring into the cost/benefit analysis to a large degree.
This now brings me back to the resolution of going to lacrosse games. When people talk about growing the game of lacrosse, it is often a phrase used to mean many different things. For me, which I know is a viewed shared by others close to me, growing the game means creating more players, as well as people who are just involved in the game. Players are only one component to lacrosse happening. You need coaches, referees, organizers, vendors, broadcasters, operations, and plenty of other roles to make lacrosse work at various levels. For many places where lacrosse is played, these roles wind up being entirely volunteer or being done as cheaply as possible simply because people love this game of lacrosse. And for all these people who love lacrosse, they take on the additional role of being a fan whenever possible.
When we get back to “normal” post-pandemic, the lacrosse world will be coming out of a difficult time, and will not be alone in doing so by any means. Some NCAA programs won’t come back, the PLL and NLL are still trying to climb their way into the top tier of North American pro sports, and there will be new women’s professional league beginning. And then there are all the other games played across club, pickup, CLA, international lacrosse, youth, and tournaments that are struggling in their own right. What is a major thing all these teams will want at their games? Fans.
So, that is what I ask of everyone once you are able to. Find lacrosse games nearby and just go. You don’t have to have a favorite player on the team or even know who either team is, just go. Every game is going to be different and every level of lacrosse has something to offer. Not every game can or should be a like a Canada-U.S. gold medal game in men’s field lacrosse. But every game can be fun to watch if you let it.
Some games will have more mistakes, slower players, missed shots, and bad defense, but that’s OK. Lacrosse doesn’t have be played perfectly – what is important is that someone is there to see it. After the year we all had in 2020, and the way 2021 is starting, the collective time spent in front of screens has been almost incalculable. That is why we should all take advantage of any live lacrosse we can at the next opportunity.
Go to a lacrosse game, and if you can, bring a friend.