Let me get this out of the way before you read any further – this is NOT actually a post about international lacrosse problems. It’s a post about international lacrosse issues (and solutions!), and I used an inflammatory headline to draw you in. But you’re here now, I’ve switched up to being honest again (I promise), and you clearly care about international lacrosse, so please forgive my tomfoolery, and read on! Hit me up with your thoughts on Twitter (@ConnorWilsonLAS) or in the comments, because this is far from settled science we’re talking about here.
AND THAT’S WHAT MAKES IT SO INTERESTING!
I’m only yelling because I love international lacrosse, want to see it grow and improve, and believe that open discussion will help us reach that goal. These may not be all the issues, and some others out there may offer some very different solutions. I don’t see, hear, or know all. Far from it. So if you feel strongly about anything below (or some other issues) hit me up in the comments. I’d love to hear your perspective.
I’ll go through my six biggest and most interesting potential issues for lacrosse that I see on the international level, starting with one I’ve brought up before…
International Lacrosse Problems (and Solutions!)
(For a big list of all the other national team rosters, click HERE.)
The Olympics & The Iroquois
I went into some depth on this issue 8 years ago (eight years ago, can you believe that?), and while my opinion has evolved over time, LAS has broached the Olympic issue again and again and again, and the Iroquois aspect of it still concerns me greatly.
Here’s the quick rub – If lacrosse goes to the Olympics, it will likely benefit a good number of international programs, and push the game out to a whole new potential base, BUT it is not clear how the Iroquois can participate.
The Iroquois are not an Olympic nation under the IOC, so they can’t play under their flag, or represent their nation. Maybe they could play under the Olympic flag, as “Olympic athletes from the Haudenosaunee Nation”, but if you look at what happened in 2010, that doesn’t seem to be an option the Iroquois would accept. It also doesn’t look like an option under the current IOC set up where only recognized nations can send athletes. Maybe things have changed, or maybe there is work being done behind closed doors that only a few people know about, but until we see a plan, or at least hear that this issue is being addressed, it will remain a big question mark for the sport, and could potentially lead down an extremely divisive path.
Personally, I simply can’t brush off the idea of the Olympics sponsoring lacrosse, and then not inviting the people who gave us the game to participate. It’s a moral question more than anything else, and it doesn’t sit right with me if the Iroquois can’t play. The Olympics would admittedly be a HUGE step for our sport, and it could do wonders for the international game in many places, but if the Iroquois can not play, is it really worth it?
This is not a question about dollars or the greater benefit, because it is pretty clear from a bottom line sense that the Olympics is a smart move. To me, this is simply a moral question – Can we receive the gift of lacrosse from the Haudenosaunee, and then not invite them to play their own game when it is played on the world’s biggest athletic stage?
I don’t see how the answer to that question can be anything other than an emphatic “NO”. Add in the fact that they won the Bronze at the last World Championships and we are talking about excluding a top 3 team in the world from playing. That’s not good either. Maybe you feel differently.
At the end of the day, people feel strongly about this issue however they view it, and if it is not addressed head-on and in a proactive way, it could divide the lacrosse community in a time when it should be coming together. It doesn’t have to be a “problem”, but it does require a solution.
This one won’t go away, no matter what your opinion may be, or where you fall on the argument’s spectrum.
As if the Iroquois issue weren’t enough, teams like Scotland, Wales, and England would also bite the dust, as those FIL nations compete as Great Britain in the Olympics under the IOC. Women’s lacrosse was invented in Scotland, and it would be truly bizarre to not have either nation that invented their version (Iroquois – men’s, Scotland – women’s) of the game playing in the Olympics.
International Lacrosse Rosters & Eligibility
At every world championships, regional championships, or national team event the same question comes up, and that is – who should be eligible to play for a national team? It’s an incredibly hard question to answer, and the responses you will hear range from “anyone, anyone at all” to “only people born in, living in, playing in, AND holding a passport from said country“. That’s a pretty big discrepancy and difference of opinion and it varies by country, but also person-to-person in any given country. There isn’t a lot of consistency here in the opinion market, but for those who do have opinions, they typically hold them strongly.
Currently, countries are allowed 4 non-passport holders on their roster, and there are a bunch of other exemptions which allow non-residents and outside players to earn roster spots. The driving wedge behind this issue comes down to an issue of idealistic vs realistic approaches and “fairness”, and it’s an extremely hard line to draw.
Why is it so hard?
In some countries, idealistic (homegrown only) and realistic (need to be decent) are pretty much the same thing, but in others they are not. Some countries grant passports or residency status with relative ease, whereas others do not. Some countries can get gear across their borders easily and affordably, many others pay extremely high import fees. Some nations are surrounded by other lacrosse playing countries while others are very isolated. And that’s only a small sampling of the differences that exist. It’s a real mixed bag.
FIL eligibility rules are also an older set of rules, developed when the international game was in a very different place, with far fewer countries playing and far fewer players in many of the now “top tier” countries. Development levels, skill, heritage players, coaches, access to gear, support networks, government support, etc, etc etc is all over the place. Many lack funding to make a leap to the next level.
So how do you make rules that really work, still promote development, AND a competitive world championships? How do you come up with a system where the national programs who do work at home see benefit from that but other new or emerging programs aren’t scared away? How do we deal with countries bringing in “ringers” (or ring-ins as the Aussies call them – thanks TK!)? How do North Americans help other countries’ national programs but not play for them? How important is that in the long run? How do we ensure that countries are developing talent at home, and focusing on younger kids starting earlier? How do we ensure that the game is truly GROWING?
My answer is kind of wacky, so bear with me – You can NOT accomplish the above with legislation. What will hurt one nation will benefit another. What will seem fair to one will crush another. The current system isn’t perfect, but it is what it is, teams are ALL over the spectrum of development, and further legislation isn’t going to fix it. But I’m not just giving up on this issue, nor will I take either hard line approach.
Thankfully, the next issue WILL fix it, and in a bi-partisan free market manner! Or at least I think the next issue will fix it OVER TIME (with some real world consequences). I just don’t believe a hardline or open roster policy will really work out right now with so much in flux. So read on…
Limiting Numbers – World Lacrosse Championships
Future World Lacrosse Championships will NOT be all inclusive, any team can play ordeals. 2018 is the last of those events. This is going to happen. Period. In July of 2017, the FIL General Assembly agreed to limit ALL future world events run by the FIL to a maximum of 30 teams. This goes into effect in 2021, and it will impact the 2022 games. Bids for the 2021 women’s and 2022 men’s events are both based on a maximum of 30-team events.
The reality is, now that the FIL is approaching 60 active and more or less functional national programs, the World Lacrosse Championships simply can not host any more nations. In the US, and maybe a couple other countries, you could still probably host a 60+ team event, but in most of the rest of the world, this is simply not happening. The US has huge field complexes, universities with housing and dining, athletic complexes that stretch as far as the eye can see, and an infrastructure built up around massive sporting events. Manchester, England is similar in a way, but it’s much tighter than it would be in places around Denver, Baltimore, or Boston.
Most of Europe, Asia, and Australia are simply not the same as the US when it comes to giant field complexes, or hosting huge sporting events centered in one location. For 2016, the Euro Championships were held in Hungary, and while the University outside Budapest had just enough dorms and facilities, they only had two usable fields. The rest of the games had to be played off site on 3 other fields. 20 teams would be the limit for a place like that.
Moving forward, if the FIL wants to consider any locations other than the US, Canada, Israel, Australia, and Manchester England, then the number of teams participating has to be be strictly limited, and there recent agreement makes a lot of sense. That number has been set at 30. Now, if the Olympics thing happens, it could very well be even fewer teams, in the 8-16 range, but this is just an educated guess.)
Personally, I love this move, and while there are some drawbacks, I think it will do a lot for local development projects around the world, which might not be an intended consequence, but I’ll take it.
I know, it means that less teams will be able to go to the World Championships every four years, and that’s kind of a bummer, but now going to the World Championships will mean even more for any nation because it’s not just about making the team and finding funding, it’s about QUALIFYING through a regional national team tournament, and EARNING your spot.
And what could better motivate a nation to start developing talent at home than a limited number of slots for the World Championships with a mandatory regional qualifier two years beforehand?
What could encourage a national team to train together more, and only use players who lived in the country, than the fact they have to play TWO important tourneys every four years, and not just one?
What could better spur on development of a strong national league than a need for a more consistent national program presence in country, if a league doesn’t exist already?
Wouldn’t the need for any team to play more and train more, and play in more important events, require a stronger local presence in country?
Let’s look at 2022 as an example. Not only would a national team need to have a great team in that year, they would also need to have a great team in 2020, just to QUALIFY for the next world championship event. Can any team risk a low regional finish? Nope. Does that mean they need to better in general? I think so!
The potential problem with my theory is that some teams will still load up with “outside” guys for big tourneys, but now they will do so every two years instead of every four.
That may happen, at least for a while, but financially this is not a sustainable practice, and sooner or later countries with very strong local development programs will pass by “ringer countries” in terms of depth, talent, team chemistry, and FIL success.
Another potential problem with my theory is that certain countries won’t be able to make this jump at all, and their national programs will die off, at least for the time being.
Ok, look past those issues (I can admit my theory has some holes of its own – they all do!) and now let us assume that the sport can also resolve any Olympic issues, and that the Olympics happens for lacrosse in 2028 or 2032. This would mean any national team would be operating in MAJOR events 3 out of 4 years, and countries that had been putting money and effort into local development work would truly start to see the benefits pay out, when it mattered most.
This is a long-term development solution to an existing eligibility issue, but until “local” players can produce better results than “ringers”, some countries will find ways to get outside players onto their rosters and issues of subjective “fairness” will come up time and time again. I believe the focus in each country moving forward should be even more local development, and that regional championships, which act as World and Olympic qualifiers, will force national teams to come together more often for games that really matter. The only way to do that sustainably and successfully will be with more high quality local players. Over time, the vast majority of the focus will simply have to shift to homegrown local players if it’s going to work for any national program. This is not impossible, and I can think of at least a couple European countries that have done a fantastic job in this regard.
The hardest thing about this approach is that it requires us to allow time, effort, and demand to change the status quo, instead of legislating immediate change. My reasoning for this approach is that a legislative approach will be divisive, as it will hurt some and help others. With the potentially divisive Iroquois/Olympics issue ahead, I think this one can left as is. Assuming regional qualifiers happen, this seems to be an issue that could almost solve itself, even if it is one people in the international community talk about often and passionately.
In the meantime, ANY country can choose to only use players who live there, or have passports, or whatever. If they also focus on developing a strong youth development and national league, they are putting themselves in a great spot.
UPDATE #1: Another great idea that got thrown my way by a couple different people was the idea of a “B Championship”, which could run the same year as the World Championships, and offer a place for teams that did not qualify for the “A” bracket a place to play. I’m a big fan of this idea, and I think it could work out a number of different ways and have a positive impact on the game.
A “B” championship gives the opportunity for newer or lower tier national programs to host an FIL event. If the US or someone else is hosting the “A”, then the “B” can go to a country that knows they won’t qualify for the “A” group. It also means that lower tier programs will be able to play meaningful games every 2 years, and not just in their regional qualifiers.
The “B” group would be smaller and less expensive to operate and attend, but just as focused on supplying a great game experience to all the teams in attendance.
Another slightly different option would be for these “regional” bodies to host tournaments for non-qualifying teams themselves. This would allow each region (however they are created) to host an event, host a festival tournament to run alongside it, and stream “A” games on a projector at night. Run them all at the same time and keep the lacrosse buzz huge during that 10 day period.
There are plenty of other ways this could work out, and benefit the entire lacrosse community.
North Americans Must Grow The Game Even More
I know a lot of American and Canadian guys who are eligible to play for another international team, and while I can’t make anyone’s decision for them, I’m not sure that simply playing for another country’s national team is the best way to Grow The Game. It’s not a bad thing either, and I think there is some potential benefit in it, especially if it carries on later in life.
Maybe I feel this way because the only team I could play for is the US, and I’m never making that team. My family has been in the US for a minimum of 4 generations on all sides, I only have one passport, and I’ve never lived in another country for more than six months. At the same time, I have been asked to play for a couple different international teams. I did so once (in 2010 I think) during a meaningless and unofficial scrimmage when a team was short on numbers, but I’ll never do it again. Why?
The first reason is that I am old and terrible and no one would ask me anymore, but more importantly the reason is that I have decided that ME playing more lacrosse is not the point. Not the point at all. If I am going to Grow The Game, I actually need to play less, and give of myself a whole lot more.
At the same time, if my situation were different, and I were a first generation American, or held another passport, or lived somewhere else, or grew up somewhere else, or were married to a citizen of another country, I might feel very differently. Every situation here is unique and complex. My sincere hope is that more and more North Americans will start to have the same realization that they can and should do even more to help these teams, especially as they get older.
For this game to really grow it will take visiting the country you play for (or coach!) numerous times every year. It takes bringing over sticks and gear each time, and hosting clinics, and teaching coaches to coach, and refs to ref, as well as players to play. It takes GIVING YOUR TIME, and as Jeremy Thompson says, that’s the most valuable thing you can give. To me, it’s really not about helping a country place higher in a big tournament, it’s about truly helping that country’s program and its future.
That’s just how I personally feel about it, and I don’t judge anyone who goes about it differently.
I haven’t walked in their shoes, and I haven’t seen what they have seen. They have experiences I can’t speak to. They know things I don’t, and have helped in ways I can not imagine. I can readily admit I don’t understand it all. It’s an easy thing to admit! I just know that it will take even more to get things to the next levels.
I hope that more and more players stay involved heavily, and do even more to develop the game locally, when they are done playing for that country. Here’s an idea – If a player raised $4,000 every four years to pay to play for country X in the world championships, my hope would be that they will continue to raise $4,000 every four years for the team when they are done playing, or spend $4,000 every four years on getting over to that country to coach and give out sticks or… something. For the rest of their lives. Maybe that’s extreme, but please don’t hang up the cleats, frame the jersey, and kick back. Do what you’re going to do, but also make sure to give a lot when you are done, and continue to Grow The Game.
Many do this already, so thanks to those that do, did, or will do! I’ve met a ton of great guys (and girls) going over to different countries to help out in different ways, but the more North Americans that do this latter part, of giving back and giving the game others, the better off our game will be world-wide, so keep it going! The world needs experienced Game Growers.
The Cost of Equipment
One of the reasons I believe North Americans need to do more is the sheer cost of equipment in other countries. Sticks, gloves, helmets, balls, and arm pads can all be extremely expensive. With import taxes, mark ups, and limited supplies, the prices can be downright unreasonable, but in many places, it’s the only option. This is slowly changing with online purchases and manufacturers showing more interest in the international market in some cases, but for the time being, sticks still need to find their way overseas as much as possible.
Gear prices will only really start to drop when manufacturers decide there is a valid demand for the product overseas, OR if overseas manufacturers start to show up in more places. We are seeing some movement on this latter approach, and in my opinion it is only a matter of time before we see a company in Europe, and another in Asia, that produces equipment in, and for, that specific region. Both are starting to reach economic tipping points where tens of thousands of units could potentially be sold per year. This will change everything.
We are not there yet, so for now we need to do our part here in North America, and give out sticks internationally like it’s our job. I’ll go to Prague this April for the Ales Hrebesky Memorial with 4-5 sticks, 2 pairs of gloves, pads, and come back with none of it. If everyone does that as often as they can, it makes a big difference. A million drops still fills the bucket! If you can bring a bag of sticks, or 10 pairs of gloves you scrounged together? Even better.
More Money, More Solutions?
The last issue I’ll bring up is an interesting one, because as lacrosse grows and more important tourneys and events continue to pop up, the need for funding increases dramatically. When teams were only playing every four years, the money situation was tight, but manageable in most cases. Now, with more countries playing and more international events, the costs have risen quite a bit.
If you play box and field for your national team in Europe, it is conceivable you will have 1-2 MAJOR events each year. Each event can run between $1000 and $5000 per player, and each event can be key to earning or keeping a national team spot. This is on top of club fees that most players pay around the world. That is a LOT of money to spend on lacrosse, especially for younger players, guys in school, or players with kids. Now imagine you’re a North American player paying even more for flights, hotels, etc. Or imagine you live in a country that is a relatively small island, where you have to fly to every tournament or game.
The money issue is real in our sport, but in the end, it could actually be the single biggest driver of local lacrosse development.
Try thinking about it this way – if a national team is constantly playing and training, they need funding. Unless they have government dollars coming in or are endowed with support from the wealthy, international lacrosse is going to be hard to afford. The best way to do this is to have a LARGE national membership base, local activity and sponsors, and use a portion of any annual fees or partnership deals to help any national teams along with your local development programs. Build a national membership base, build a local presence in-country, and a lot of this becomes much more feasible over the long-term. International teams usually won’t draw big dollars from inside the US-based lacrosse industry, so looking inside the country at national partners makes a lot more sense in many cases. It could also lead to local manufacturing of product.
This will likely not cut out ALL costs for players, but it makes a difference, and having a national program staff that can dedicate time to organization, fundraising, etc, is also key here. If you want to play lacrosse all the time, fundraising by players alone is not going to be enough. Membership fees via growth, partnerships, and local corporate engagement are all key.
Again, this approach takes time and dedication, but if there are 1,000 members in a country, each paying a small $10 annual fee, that’s $10,000 dollars they didn’t have before that can be spent on governing bodies, member benefits, and national teams. There is also have a dedicated group you can solicit for more donations. Grow a membership base, and the income starts to benefit the national program much more. Add in some sponsorships (Free lacrosse clinics brought to you by IKEA!), partnerships (cool Finnair logo on the Finland jerseys), or come up with something new, but go local. It’s the only way to make it work long-term.
The costs of a national team at a big event can run over $100,000. The above scenario doesn’t solve this issue immediately, but it creates a more sustainable path than asking players to pony up $4000 almost every single year just to play for their country, and that’s a positive move towards long-term success.
International Lacrosse – The Big Picture
There is a lot of positive movement in the world of international lacrosse. More countries are picking up the game, and many of them are focused on increasing local numbers, and improving the quality of play at home. As the lights on the international stage continue to brighten, issues like the ones I’ve laid out above will be seen by many for the first time, and while NONE of them spell disaster for the game on their own, each has the potential to hold the game back, albeit in different ways and to varying degrees.
I will not waste any time whining or complaining about the issues above. I am also not interested in playing any blame games. What interests me is talking about the potential road blocks to international growth and success, how these perceived issues can be addressed, and how the game can continue to grow.
Lacrosse has a long history of developing to the brink of popularity and then fading due to internal squabbles and exclusionary tactics. We are now faced with our greatest opportunity to Grow The Game while keeping it true to its values and nature. If we look at real issues early, work together, and focus on building it up (not tearing others down), then the sky is the limit. If not, lacrosse will fade once again, and we may have to wait another 50 to 100 years for our next big chance.
Partisan approaches will not work here. From what I’ve seen of the lacrosse community, this is something we can overcome, and I’m hopeful that it will all come together the right way. It’s just going to take a lot more hard work, honest dialogue, leadership, and community to get it done.
If you’ve read this far (bravo, by the way), I’d love to hear your thoughts on the international lacrosse scene. What did I miss? What did I get wrong? Where did I not go too far enough? Huh? Hit me up.