A look at what it takes for a sport to break through
Like many athletic children born in the 1980s, Casey O'Neill spent his free time playing basketball, football and baseball, three sports that have long been popular with young athletes in the United States. His favorite sport was basketball; he idolized Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics and dreamed about going pro. But when he was in the fourth grade O'Neill, who grew up in Montgomery, Md., had the opportunity to play lacrosse. Though he could not have predicted it at the time, lacrosse would end up shaping his future.
O'Neill's first lacrosse league was not well-organized. "There was maybe one practice a week, if that," he says. In spite of this, O'Neill was drawn to the speed of the game and the active participation it encouraged. Like basketball, every player on a lacrosse field plays some offense and defense, and players are constantly in motion unless the ball goes out of bounds. "It was fast and it was fun," he says. "You get on the field and there's a good chance that the ball's coming towards you at some point." This differentiated it from baseball, in which players at certain positions can go several innings without getting the chance to field a hit, and football, in which a player is assigned to either the offensive or defensive side of the ball.
In high school it became apparent to O'Neill that his best sport was lacrosse, so as a junior and senior at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C., he spent his summers attending lacrosse camps and working to become a better player. It paid off: He earned an invitation to play lacrosse at Lehigh University, which at that time did not give full athletic scholarships to lacrosse players, and played on the university's team for four years.
In college his love of the game continued to grow and after graduating with a degree in journalism, O'Neill decided to return to his roots. He now coaches varsity lacrosse at Gonzaga and is not surprised that this overlooked sport is increasingly becoming the favorite pastime of young athletes across the country. "Young boys like to be aggressive and physical, and they enjoy that aspect of the game," he says.
NORTH AMERICA'S FIRST GAME
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Invented by Native Americans, lacrosse is considered by many to be North America's first sport, but its rich history is unfamiliar to many sports fans today. Lacrosse was football hall-of-famer Jim Brown's favorite sport. It is the official summer game of Canada, and Wayne Gretzky is a noted lacrosse enthusiast. American lacrosse has historically been concentrated in New York, New England, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, where it has been played predominantly at prep schools and private universities, but after World War II its popularity began to grow and that growth accelerated during the 1970s.
Today, lacrosse is considered the fastest growing team sport in America. According to an annual survey produced by the organization US Lacrosse, the number of lacrosse players increased from 253,931 in 2001 to 624,593 in 2010. That figure includes 324,673 youth players. To put those figures in perspective, in 2010 The New York Times reported that one million boys and girls play basketball, making it America's most popular youth sport. But basketball and other team sports cannot rival lacrosse's explosive growth over the past several decades, which has occurred at every level of competition. The NCAA Division I Men's lacrosse championship now regularly draws crowds that are smaller only than those at the men's basketball championship and certain bowl games. There are two professional leagues in North America with 17 franchises between them, and franchises in Denver and Buffalo regularly have an attendance of more than 15,000 fans.
So why has the sport with the incredibly marketable nickname "the fastest game on two feet" exploded in popularity in recent years? And can lacrosse transform itself from a sport with niche appeal to a commodity that is well-known and popular with casual sports fans across the country?
Donald Fisher, author of Lacrosse: A History of the Game, says that unlike other American team sports, lacrosse was plagued by limited access to equipment during the 19th and 20th centuries and this inhibited its growth. "In the late nineteenth century, manufacturers such as Albert Spalding provided America with a large supply of baseball bats, balls, and gloves," he told me via email. "Conversely, virtually every American lacrosse player's wooden stick was produced by Mohawk Indian craftsmen from the St. Regis Reserve near Cornwall, Ontario." These craftsmen's limited production capacity effectively kept lacrosse's growth in check until the 1970s when mass-produced synthetic sticks hit the market, allowing more players easy access to the essential piece of equipment.
Another factor that inhibited the sport's popularity with mainstream sports fans in the 20th century is that it was pigeonholed as a sport for the affluent. "Throughout much of the twentieth century, the prototypical American lacrosse player was a college student who then went on to a career in a profession requiring a bachelor's degree," says Fisher. Lacrosse players attended good schools and then worked in esteemed professions such as law, medicine and finance. As a result, young athletes who saw other sports as potential pathways to fame and fortune avoided it.
Fisher also argues that the men who controlled lacrosse during the 20th century—the college coaches, referees, and former players who ran post-graduate lacrosse clubs and wrote rulebooks among other things—were steadfastly devoted to the amateur ideal of sport. They saw lacrosse as a game for gentlemen and valued the idea of sport for sport's sake. They wanted no part of the commercialization other American team sports embraced. "I suspect for many lacrosse players part of the appeal of the sport is that unlike baseball, football and basketball, their sport has long been a players' game—rather than a spectator's game or an owner's game or an advertiser's game," says Fisher. So while football, baseball, basketball, and ice hockey players were embracing the idea of professionalization and the increased popularity that came with pro leagues, lacrosse players were resisting it.
Today, the idea of a sport and its players resisting professionalization seems alien. Over the last 25 years mainstream sports culture has embraced professionalization and all but forgotten the ideal of amateur sport and the values once ascribed to it. The Olympic charter no longer makes the distinction between amateur and professional, elite college players increasingly treat Division I basketball and football as stepping stones to the pros, and talented baseball, tennis and golf prodigies join pro circuits as soon as possible. Rarely, if ever, does one hear an elite athlete espouse the values of sport for sport's sake, but it's not uncommon to hear an athlete express a contrasting opinion.
Considering that young lacrosse players have grown up in a sports culture where professional athletes command all the attention and carry the most cultural cachet, it's reasonable to surmise that these players will not harbor the dedication to amateurism held by previous generations. If there is a chance to get paid, athletes today will jump at that opportunity. As it stands, however, the two professional lacrosse leagues, the National Lacrosse League and Major League Lacrosse, are not as large and do not attract nearly as much revenue as the four major American team sports. Consequently, the players do not make as much money as other professional athletes. But as lacrosse continues to attract young players who have the potential to grow up to become paying fans willing to buy tickets, watch the sport on television and buy products from sponsor companies, the chance that professional lacrosse can grow more relevant will increase.