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Hot Pot: Rethinking The NCAA Finals

I have truly enjoyed reading every word of Gordon Corsetti’s three part series on The Original Game. Each post has been a learning experience, and I’ve been surprised at just how much the original game has helped shape (and still shapes!) the modern version of field lacrosse.

While there are a number of great old rules, one overarching concept I’d love to see brought back to field lacrosse is the Best-of-Five Series being required to win a championship:

Rule IX, Section 2: A match shall be decided by the winning of three games out of five, unless otherwise agreed upon.

Obviously, the latter portion of the Best-of-Five (Bof5) series rule (the one that says it can be changed) has been used widely by the youth, high school, college, FIL, and pro ranks, as no one in the field lacrosse world plays a Best-of-Anything style series anymore. Instead, all titles are decided by a single championship game. I think it’s high time we changed things up in a major way, and the Best-of-Five Championship Series could be the best way to do it, especially for college lacrosse! Bear with me here, we’re about to get a little whacky!

Woo! Game 1 was great. Pumped for Game 2!
Woo! Game 1 was great. Pumped for Game 2! Photo Credit: Tommy Gilligan

First off, I simply love the idea of two teams playing each other five times over the course of a week to determine a champion. A good series would be exciting, and determine a truly deserving champ. Of course I also love a good upset, and while we might hypothetically see less of those, how often do Cinderella teams make it all the way to the Finals in college lacrosse? Look back to the list of final contenders in ALL THREE NCAA divisions and you’ll come to the same conclusion I did: it’s VERY rare. So while a Bof5 series potentially makes upsets less likely, we don’t see a ton of those anyway, so we’re not missing much. What we would get is (at least) three very good lacrosse games, PER DIVISION!

Don't forget about these guys!
Don’t forget about these guys!

If you’re worried that more games means less excitement, or slow down lacrosse, then you must have missed the Mann Cup this year. The series is a best-of-seven affair, and the teams went back and forth nicely, making for a wonderful event. Fans were engaged for the full week, and if box lacrosse players can play their brutal version of the game seven times in nine or ten days, field teams (with their larger rosters) should be able to handle five games in seven or eight days.

Box does best of Seven. Photo Credit: Gary Woodburn
Box does best of Seven. Photo Credit: Gary Woodburn

A longer series, as opposed to a single title game, also brings coaching into the equation in a big way, but not the way we’re used to. Many of today’s college coaches are control freaks, and schemes and plays are often what dictate the pace of play. However, in a longer series, teams can’t put in new systems as easily, and practice is severely limited. The longer series forces players to play, and coaches to find new ways to allow their players to shine. The new rules push some control away from coaches, and this end of season series move could reward those who let their players play even more. Rule changes can make a difference, but an incentive, like winning a title, can do even more.

Now, when it comes to attendance and venues, we’d have to make some major changes. The NCAA is not going to sell out NFL stadiums for Bof5 lacrosse series. It’s just not going to happen, especially when you consider the fact that attendance has been going down lately anyway, and adding more games, with more expensive tickets, is not going to fix that.

So what could fix the attendance issue? Give the Championship Series to different schools WITHIN the NCAA, and stop using these NFL stadiums! Imagine a Bof5 series out in Denver where games sell out regularly, or at historic Harvard Stadium where the Cannons draw big numbers… imagine a Championship Series at Homewood, or at Byrd… Imagine a series of games in the Carrier Dome, or at SUNY Cortland’s Stadium. Imagine a championship series at Middlebury’s grass field, where the large stands settled into a hillside. I’d take five games with 6,000 person sell out crowds over one game with 28,000 in attendance (in a 68,000 seat stadium) any day of the week.

Imagine any and ALL of those places packed to the gills, teeming with lacrosse fans. Games would be sold out, the smaller stadiums would be PACKED, and fans would line the field, making it the most intimate experience in all of the collegiate championship events. Imagine NCAA lacrosse schools being rewarded for offering lacrosse, instead of lining the pockets of NFL stadium owners. Imagine keeping the event costs down. Imagine people loving the Finals again. Imagine the NCAA Lacrosse Finals being a special lacrosse event again, and not some half-hearted attempt at being the Super Bowl.

It’s true that some people might not be able to get a ticket to games if the venues are small. But honestly, isn’t that a good thing? 40,000 unsold tickets for the Championship Game last Memorial Day is a problem. Supply has outstripped demand by a 3 to 1 pace. So let’s scale the supply back, and lower the costs. That will increase demand, at least according to economics. Then the NCAA will have a viable championship once again, and lacrosse fans will clamber for seats. When other people, from outside the lacrosse community, see packed stands they might want in too… it’s definitely more attractive than a third full stadium.

And ESPN should LOVE the above proposal. They’ve been covering lacrosse more and more, and are investing heavily in the sport. What better way to promote the sport than by having a SERIES to end the season? WHO CARES about a smaller venue when you have a WEEK OF CONTENT! With a single game, sportscasters cans skip over lacrosse, or give it a couple minutes, but with a SERIES, you get intrigue, you have an ongoing story… it’s Sports News GOLD! The Mann Cup would have far less importance in Canada if it weren’t an ongoing series people could watch, critique, and talk about. The same holds true for college lacrosse. Make it a Bof5 series, and it will get a LOT more attention from mass media outlets. It’s a no-brainer.

There are some roadblocks to this approach, and the biggest one comes from the NCAA itself. The NCAA has been bidding out championships to different cities, and as far as I can tell, it has no plans on changing this. While it works for basketball and hockey, this approach has not helped lacrosse at all. In fact, it has driven ticket and parking prices up, and driven attendance down, while leaving cost-effective college stadiums empty, and the schools that the NCAA claims to support losing out on potential revenue.

The answer is for the NCAA to consider making basketball and hockey (and a couple other sports) a separate deal from the rest of the championships. The rest, which includes lacrosse, would be offered only to member institutions, and not cities, or professional stadiums. This roadblock alone would take years to unravel, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t still be worth it.

Another potential roadblock comes from the Coaches. In my opinion, college coaches don’t embrace change readily. They want control, and most want to the ability to plan and prepare for each opponent, at least on some level. The best of five series could remove some of this control. And that’s a potential issue to be sure.

The last major roadblock I see comes from the academic side of things, and I am not going to dismiss the idea that this type of series could be “too much” lacrosse. In the end, these are amateur athletes, who are (or at least should be) students first. Two weeks in Miami for a bowl game, or three weeks off from classes for a basketball tournament makes me wary, and I would have the same concern here. However, if the Best-of-Five series began on Memorial Day, these kids are already out of school, so it shouldn’t be an issue. College baseball goes on for weeks after that, so there is precedent for extending the championships by a week.

I think a Best-of-Five series is the way to go. The roadblocks are there, but not insurmountable. The potential impact is net positive, at the very least it gives us a couple more awesome games at the end of the season, and it honors the history of the game. What’s wrong with that?

I’ve tried to lay out why I think a Best-of-Five series would be great for men’s college lacrosse. I’ve also tried to address some of the issues that would stand in the way. Did I miss anything big, on the good or bad sides? What other “outside the box” ideas could we try?