I love a good hypothetical debate, and all this talk about moving the college lacrosse season back to a later start/end in the spring fits the bill perfectly. Terry Foy over at IL did an amazing job of setting up one argument for change, and this article is largely in response to that post, and the Twitter conversation it has inspired.
While the season set up is unlikely to change this year or next year, it could change in 2019 (as Foy notes), but in the meantime it sure is fun to talk about! I was pretty firmly on board with moving the season back just a couple months ago, but the more I have thought about it, the less I actually believe moving the season back to be an important issue, or think that the move would inherently improve the college game.
I’m now of the view that much like Britney Spears 10 years ago, we need to leave College Lacrosse alone. It’s actually pretty awesome as-is, and it will continue to get better if we give it time. If we try to control it too much, it will cut off all its hair and rage.
Here’s why we don’t actually need to change anything with the current college format:
No one is forcing anyone to play any February games.
As Ralph Wiggum would say on Valentine’s Day, teams Choo-choo-CHOOSE to do this. Some teams have played 2-3 games while others are still content with scrimmaging. No one freaks out. Teams with indoor facilities or in warmer locations can sometimes do more early on than those without, but when people talk about this playing out over the last decade or so, there is just as strong a correlation between ACC teams making the finals as exists for “southern” teams making the finals, or even for non-ACC teams making the finals as much “northern” teams. If you want to balance the playing field with a later start, it might make as much sense to simply outlaw the ACC or Johns Hopkins from the playoffs.
I’m not in favor of either option personally.
The ACC is a super conference, Hopkins is legend, and a later start has not been proven to even the playing field in lacrosse. Look at Duke! Those guys are often pretty underwhelming early on, and build to greatness. They could start on April 1st and be fine it seems. It’s a different approach that works, but it shows a team can go from question mark to contender pretty quickly. When you pile on the fact that legislating parity rarely works as intended, this seems like a “picking winners and losers” via specific changes to the system kind of deal. I’m really not a fan of that. Ensuring northern teams have a “fair shot” via a later overall season start period seems like protectionism, and reactive thinking to something I’m not even sure is an issue, or really ever was. Plus, doesn’t it give the southern teams even more time to practice outside early on? Since teams already practice year round, what does it really solve?
Listen, I loved complaining about snow games as much as anyone, but when I was really honest with myself, I was more than happy to watch Navy play a couple great games last February. I’ll feel the same way in 2017. Won’t you? It’s better than spending my days trying to care about mid-season NBA or NHL games.
And in the only examples I can think of, an earlier outdoor start doesn’t seem to really matter. With D1 lacrosse dominated by the ACC, we need to look at other divisions, and see if northern teams are truly struggling due to snow and cold temps, or if D1 is just tilted a little bit towards a single conference.
In the D3 world, the NESCAC (in New England) doesn’t even allow team practices before February 15th, and Tufts has still managed to be pretty darn good. Cortland, and before them, Middlebury (another NESCAC), were the top northern dogs before Tufts. None of those three schools has a D1 level indoor lacrosse facility. One is in Boston, one is in upstate New York, the other Vermont. Two are private, one is a state school. The two NESCAC’s late start to practice doesn’t seem to matter. Neither does Cortland’s extremely snowy, northerly, and cold locale.
All three found a way to win titles multiple times, and often against southern schools which had been playing outdoors in warm weather for months.
Take a look at D2 for more examples. While there has been a surge in southern school numbers, only TWO have made the final four, and only ONE (Limestone, which is a great program) has has made the finals or won a title. FIVE different northern schools have won 8 of the last 10 D2 titles. Tampa is sniffing the finals (and has made two final fours), but Lake Erie is an upstart northern program which has also made a final four. So tell me, how is this early season hurting northern teams again? When you look outside of the D1 and the ACC, it’s really not hurting northern schools at all.
Teams CAN play early games, they CAN play midweek games, or they can play LESS games than the allowed maximum. D2 and D3 prove this to be true time and time again. No one is forcing anyone to play one game a week starting in February and ending in April. People and programs and leagues are CHOOSING TO DO THIS. There are other options out there, and they too can lead to success.
If you play in a conference in the northeast, or upper midwest, and you KNOW snow and inclement weather will impact your season, you have options. You can schedule more mid-March to April midweek games. You can lobby for or schedule a quicker conference tournament, potentially with midweek games as well. You could reduce the number of teams that make the conference tournament. You could play all your in-conference games early on, or later on, spread them out, or play two per weekend. You could schedule 3 games over a school break (and not just 1) or head to warmer climes for double sessions an then stack games later in the season. Each conference, and each program, has options… but many CHOOSE to play in February.
I get that many schools deciding to play in February creates problems for others who don’t want to play in February, but there are schools with a “we’ll play anyone, anywhere, anytime” attitude. Schedule them. Why would any school take a different approach to scheduling willingly? Well, if they went 8-8 or worse for the last couple years, what exactly do they have to lose? Remember when Loyola played a different style from everyone else and won a national title? Maybe that could happen with scheduling! Could a team like Albany do that, and could it help them make the jump to the next level? MAYBE! We’d never know if we mandated a single type of spring schedule that makes the one game per week approach more attractive.
While legislating a top-down single-format for season set ups is certainly feasible, it is not a long-term solution (to a problem that may not even exist) for parity.
Sure, the southern teams get to go outside earlier, and play in warmer weather… and that could be an advantage. But this isn’t baseball. We don’t do snow-outs or rain-outs. We play the game no matter what. The northern teams get to battle in the snow and have to deal with challenges that the southern teams don’t get to face. In lacrosse, this can also be a distinct advantage. I don’t subscribe to the idea that pristine conditions are always an edge. What happens if it’s 50 degrees, pouring, and muddy for the championship game and you’ve only been playing in sunny and 70s weather? Will you be prepared for adversity if you’ve never faced it? Will we then move the season back up to February so southern teams can play in worse weather? Where does it end?
If you want to play 14 games over seven weeks in March and April, you could do so, still have time for a conference tourney, and time for NCAA playoffs to start in mid-May, and still end on Memorial Day Weekend. I’ll point to the NESCAC again… these teams play 10 conference games each season, PLUS out of conference games, and have produced more different NCAA winners and Final Four teams than any other conference in D3. 8 teams make the conference playoffs. Sometimes big games are played on Wednesdays. It’s still awesome. D1 teams can also do this. I’ve never heard a good reason for why they can not. Remember, the NESCAC starts PRACTICE on February 15th, when some D1 teams have already played 2 games.
Oh, and since you need to win on Saturday and then again on Monday to take home the D1 title, maybe scheduling some more tough midweek games in April really wouldn’t be such a bad idea! Having different options out there allows teams to try new things, and find different ways to improve, which improves the college game overall. Improvement through competition is great. This also brings us to the institution that is Memorial Day Weekend.
Memorial Day Weekend is great, and having all three divisions together is unique.
Lacrosse shouldn’t strive to be NCAA basketball junior, or imitate any other sport. What made college basketball’s playoff so popular was that it was unique. It crammed a ton of games into one month, and grabbed the attention of the nation’s sporting community. Since then it’s only gotten bigger and bigger. While I think it would be great to have May Madness for lacrosse, I’m not sure the same set up can be created. People aren’t still trapped indoors by terrible weather, and lacrosse is nowhere near as popular as basketball. Just saying we should be more like basketball and run a month long playoff won’t accomplish anything.
Lacrosse already has a unique and amazing playoff, and the 5 amazing games (two D1 semis, D2 and D3 games, and D1 finals) over three days is like nothing else in college sports. Perhaps before we focus on creating a month-long celebration of the sport, we focus on making Memorial Day Weekend a truly fantastic event again. It used to be unreal. Now it’s really kind of a let down for a lot of people. Just saying “let’s turn it into a month long thing” will solve precisely zero of the current issues like dropping attendance and lower TV numbers.
Instead, we could actually add in the NJCAA games, the women’s games, the MCLA, and the NCLL. Play on college campuses with big stadiums. Make it bigger and better, more affordable, more attractive, and don’t give up on it. And when you host 10 games in NFL stadiums each year, don’t be shocked when less people go to Championship Weekend. Want to see the finals attendance go down even further? Put ALL the playoff games in big stadiums. Finals attendance would plummet. If we want to make the Final Four THE big event, it has to be THE big event, and not just another big event.
Moving the event off Memorial Day Weekend also seems unlikely to do anything positive attendance-wise. Ticket prices are not dictated by which weekend it falls on, so that’s a non-issue. Attendance is the issue. But do we really think LESS kids are playing in tourneys on the first or second weekend in June, or on Memorial Day Weekend? Way more kids are playing in that June option by far. MOST youth programs don’t run on Memorial Day Weekend. Most programs DO run every weekend in June. If anything, moving to June actually cuts a lot of potential attendees out due to their own lacrosse obligations.
Pushing the finals into June would also increase athletics costs, and create uncertainty for athletic departments and budgets. While this may be a small number, and tiny compared to August football costs, we must remember that our sport is NOT basketball or football, or even baseball, so the added costs are still a real issue. Maybe once we grow a lot more and kick off tons of money for schools we can talk about increased budgets, but for now it does not seem very realistic. There would also be less students on college campuses during the playoffs, and that doesn’t seem to make much sense either. Until general sporting fans are buying tickets in droves, we need college kids to attend games.
If we blow Memorial Day Weekend out, find great affordable college venues, and get the whole lacrosse community to rally around that weekend, it could provide a boost the likes of which we’ve never seen. The foundation is already in place. Spreading it out seems to go in the opposite direction, and takes everything special about our sport’s biggest weekend and reduces it to “also ran” status. Basketball made March Madness BIG, let’s do the same for Memorial Day Weekend, and the wonderful tradition it entails. 3 days of lacrosse saturation in the national sports media landscape would be AWESOME. Why we’re shooting for a month before we get 3 whole days seems unrealistic at best.
For me, it comes to down to three things: 1) Schools CHOOSE to play February games. They can also choose NOT to do so. 2) Top down solutions rarely result in true parity or the intended change. 3) Memorial Day Weekend should be a BIGGER weekend than it is now, and we should not give up on what has made the college game so inspiring – we should work to IMPROVE it!
We could realign all the schedules, hope for parity, believe a magic bullet exists, and possibly lose everything we have already built. Or we could look at the options in front of us, make the tough decision to do something differently, and push the boundaries of the game to new heights. I guess I’m just not ready to give up on college lacrosse ending in May… the starting in February thing is still just a choice.
Last year’s semis, D2 and D3 games, and Monday finals were all pretty amazing. If we all supported it and made it bigger, the potential for monster returns is definitely there. College lacrosse is fine as it stands now, and it will improve. It’s a long term issue, and I’ve seen no evidence that it’s something that can be “fixed” with a one week per game season that finishes in mid-June.