Grow the Game®

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Who Is in Charge of Growing the Game of Lacrosse?

Why does it seem like many athletes play lacrosse in high school and college and then turn their backs on the sport when they hang up their stick?

“My feeling is after they are done playing they get caught up in their own careers, marriage or relationships, and kids. If their kids or younger family members start playing that usually reengages them.”

– Paul Carcaterra, ESPN Analyst

This dilemma isn’t unique to lacrosse.

Why don’t former players attend games as fans and watch more games on television? How is it that they love playing lacrosse, but don’t love watching others play the game? Perhaps lacrosse is just a players sport.

“They really can’t talk about the sport with their coworkers around the water cooler or with their neighbors around their kid’s pool. Monday Night Football or the Ohio State vs Michigan game? Sure.  Yale vs Maryland lacrosse game the previous Saturday? Crickets. It’s not a part of the lexicon.”

– Anonymous Broadcasting Peer

How do we fix this problem?

Well first, understand that growth is slow. Lacrosse is small compared to football, basketball, and baseball. All of the stats show exponential growth during the past 40 years. The game is expanding even if sometimes we just wish it would blow up faster.

Can the PLL be a solution? Absolutely.

The pro game is an ideal entrance ramp for any sports fan whether they played lacrosse or not. The speed, contact, competitive excellence, and skill displayed at the pro level is eye-catching and welcoming to fans of hockey, basketball, football, or soccer. Add that to the television and social media equation and it’s undeniable, the PLL is a huge asset for the lacrosse growth.

“One of the best parts about this conversation is our collective eagerness, almost impatience, to be as big as the NBA, the NFL, the UFC.

They took decades of effort. The other is, with the launch of the PLL, a league that will further commercialize the game at the adult level, build cultural relevance into the discussion — will accelerate a path of growth that had slowed down over the last decade.

This and international growth and relevance. The PLL is working hard there, as are the leaders in the sport attempting to get us back into the Olympics. In the end, there is SO MUCH UPSIDE in this already incredible game. I like being a part of sports, business and trends with growth in front of them.”

– Paul Rabil, PLL Co-Founder

How can we better hold onto former players and their parents? Do high school and college programs do enough to engage their alumni? Some do. Some don’t.

“One way to fix this could be strong weekly communication with college programs and their alums. How and where they can watch games (TV or in person).”

– Paul Carcaterra, ESPN Analyst

Simple fix. Market and promote the lacrosse program to the most engaged audience; the former players and their families. When that’s maxed out, generate and create new fans by selling the virtues of the game. Partner with local youth leagues and schools to batch clinics with attending games. Make a few home games carnival-like fun.

Lacrosse has grown from its northeastern roots down the East Coast to Florida, it’s blowing up in Texas, on the West Coast, and in the Pacific Northwest. The middle of the country is lagging a bit. I don’t see many lacrosse goals in Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma. There’s work to do.

Attendance at college games is stagnant. Keep in mind, coaches aren’t paid to sell tickets, social media clicks, TV ads, and have no tangible stake in the sports growth. It’s just not their job. They are far more interested in their piece of the pie. It’s understandable. Lacrosse is, and always has been, a non-revenue sport.

If coaches were compensated based upon tickets sold and fans in their seats, my guess is you would see more aggressive marketing and ticket sales campaigns. You would click onto social media images to get fans to attend games. You would also see fewer games in January and February and more meaningful games in April and May. Perhaps even push the NCAA tournament to early June. Being an outdoor spectator in February is a tough sell. It’s hard to argue that those shifts wouldn’t be beneficial for the overall health of the sport.

Which brings us to the crux; the important question. Who is in control of the sports direction? Coaches have been given the car keys and too often chopped the game up to improve their value while lessening the appeal to general sports fan. They see evolution through their lens, and unlike revenue sports where well versed AD’s and knowledgeable administrators make improvements for the fans, lacrosse has coaches crafting rules that improve their value. For example, it took college coaches nearly 20 years to activate the shot clock. Think about that. The MLL had a shot clock in the summer of 2001. What took so long?

To be honest, the health of the sport is not a part of their job description. So while the intent of their decisions are generally well aligned with the sports success, sometimes it’s beneficial to step back and see the wider panorama. It’s hard to see the forest from the trees.

In the end, as long as the game is truly fun to play and even fun to practice, growth will continue. But rules changes, the continual ignoring of cross checking combined with stick evolution (narrow heads and deep pockets) makes ball retention easy. That has morphed the way defense is played. Now, cross checking is allowed and lacrosse can hurt to play. That isn’t fun. Extreme ball retention limits turnovers and takeaways and greatly reduces transitional play; the most exciting moments of the game. Meanwhile specialization has created roles for marginal athletes, further robbing the game of seamless transition.

So regardless of who’s steering the ship, we need to put the product first. When in doubt, put the game first. I believe that’s what we are seeing with the PLL.

More eyeballs is never a bad thing. Television is a growth mechanism but being on television is not the deal maker it once was. Pickleball, corn hole, and Frisbee golf are on TV. National audiences are small and fragmented because of the hundreds of options. The product needs to be compelling.

The push for mass appeal on television is a daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly crusade. We are working to convert sports fans into lacrosse fans. Get them to watch and when they do, it’s like wow, this is pretty cool. Get them to buy a stick, to have a catch, to join a team, and it’s a big win.

We’ll keep pushing. One fan at a time.