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Changing Men’s College Lacrosse’s Ball Color: Should It Happen?

Kyle Bernlohr, goalie for Premier Lacrosse League‘s Whipsnakes and former Maryland Terrapin, brought up an interesting proposition today on Twitter about men’s college lacrosse changing the lacrosse ball color to something other than the current color of white.

Should Men’s College Lacrosse Have A Colored Ball? An Examination Of The Case

The Motive: Why Change The Color?

The Reasons

It’s a fairly common complaint among goalies that white lacrosse balls can be incredibly hard to track. If you’ve ever played against an all-gray or all-white backdrop (i.e. bleachers) it can be relatively distracting to locate the ball as quickly. In reality, it may only impact things by a fraction of a second, but those fractions of seconds are vital in a goalie’s reaction to make the save. The whole position is basically built on movement efficiency and being able to quickly — and accurately — identify, then react to where the ball is going.

There are situations where the ball is almost impossible to locate, let alone react to it. I know I’ve played in snowy conditions — which is a very common occurrence early in the season, particularly in the Northeast — where there have been times I have been lucky to get hit with the ball directly, let alone actually being able to identify where the ball is and make a motion to save it.

If you’ve ever played goalie on a field facing east-west, then you’ll know you could go almost entire quarters without ever being fully aware of when a shot is coming or where it is coming from due to the sun setting. I don’t think there’s as much you could do about that even if you changed the color of the ball, but it’s the principle of the matter! I’m here to complain about how miserable being goalie is and want to make sure you all know about it too (of course, I’m kidding. I loved playing goalie — most of the time).

The solution that Bernlohr brought up, which is a fairly common discussion that has been had before over a number of years, is to replace the current white-colored lacrosse balls with ones that have more contrast. It seemed to be really well-received on social media, but I know there have been opinions expressed in the past of it not being necessary either.

The Evidence: What Has Been Done About It Before?

Exhibit A – Major League Lacrosse As An Example Of Using Different Lacrosse Ball Colors

The best comparable case study we have to this is Major League Lacrosse‘s use of colored balls over a number of years. The league had been using colored lacrosse balls for really as long as anyone can remember. It’s interesting, because I found this older article on the LaxAllStars site about basically this same discussion, talking about how white balls should be the standard, at least in the MLL.

TV Audience

I’ll give you the main idea: the argument this author gave was that orange lacrosse balls are almost impossible to see on television.

I don’t disagree with that, but the white balls are not very easy to see themselves. A lot of the experience of seeing the ball on a broadcast is sort of handcuffed as it is because the ball is so small and moves so fast. Add in the fact that it seems like many college lacrosse games are filmed from the nosebleeds and it doesn’t really set the viewer up for success. You have to know the sport already to be able to really follow the action because you know what to look for. That’s why the up-close, slow-mo highlights tend to be more impressive because you can see the detail and the intricacies of the play with the ball locked into the frame.

I know that some pro leagues have been experimenting with balls that appear almost reflective on television. That would be a bigger difference-maker from a TV-viewer perspective than changing a ball color.

(Fun fact: While the MLL made rule changes like the two-point line and shot-clock in men’s lacrosse popular, the Vail Lacrosse Shootout had been experimenting with those rules years before the league was even formed, thanks to Flip Naumberg and the Soren family. You can visit the Vail Lacrosse Shootout’s website here.)

Player’s Perspective

This one is harder for me to comment on because I have never actually played professional lacrosse or even NCAA Division I ball.  If this is something that those goalies want then I think it should really be considered. I know from my own experience that I got used to tracking a white ball and made the best of it. I almost was thrown off when I saw something orange or yellow coming at me at 90 miles per hour, because I wasn’t used to dealing with it. I’m sure that for those goalies that would need to make the adjustment to a new lacrosse ball color, it would be fairly easy with a little effort, and might pay off in the long run as it could help keepers locate the ball sooner. At the higher levels of play, the small adjustments make the biggest difference because everyone at that level is already fantastic.

I don’t know that an adjustment to the lacrosse ball color in men’s college lacrosse would really make a major statistical impact in terms of save percentage, but I don’t see why it would really hurt to try! The other thing to consider too is that with the example we gave of this being implemented at the pro level before, it may make even less of a difference for college lacrosse goalies because the shooters are (or at least should be) so much better at the pro level that those minor adjustments I talked about would be a bigger deal. While there are certainly the normal cream-of-the-crop goalies in the NCAA, the average quality of a goalie at that level shouldn’t be the same as in a professional league, and there may be larger issues to tackle rather than changing a ball color.

Exhibit B

There isn’t one, I just wanted to use the term Exhibit A.

The Verdict

Changing the lacrosse ball color would be a relatively easy fix I would think. The only real problem that I see is that it is just a matter of ordering a huge amount of new lacrosse balls for each program. It’s a minor, easy change to make that might make a much bigger difference than what has been the consensus in the past. As I said, Bernlohr’s tweet got a lot of response so it seems like there are plenty of people on board with the idea.

I haven’t looked at the data to back this up, but statistically, over the last few years, I know that there has been the complaint that goalkeepers aren’t performing at levels that previous athletes at their position have. I think that has a lot to do with stick technology and entirely new offensive skill sets (thanks, Lyle Thompson) if that is in fact true. A change in lacrosse ball color might help, but rule changes regarding equipment or gameplay might make a bigger difference if the goal is to give a goalkeeper a bigger advantage.

The bottom line is it could be a good move. And, I’m sure all of the lacrosse ball manufacturers out there wouldn’t mind helping the entirety of men’s college lacrosse replacing their ball supply with new colored lacrosse balls.