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.
FROM THE FRINGE TO THE MAINSTREAM
The success of a professional sports league depends upon more than grassroots support from fans. Often times it takes the help of an external event to put a particular sport on the path to mainstream relevance. Take professional soccer, for example, which has a long and complex history in the United States and according to Michael MacCambridge, author of America's Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured A Nation, is the best recent example of a fringe sport that has found what he calls "a foothold in a glutted American sports market."
America's current love affair with soccer can be traced back to the 1994 World Cup, a tournament hosted by the United States in sold-out stadiums throughout the country. "I think the 1994 World Cup was a milestone moment, because it allowed the U.S. soccer audience to get a sense of its own potential, and put the rest of the world on notice that this was a market that could no longer be ignored or blithely dismissed," says MacCambridge. Two years later Major League Soccer (MLS) started its inaugural season, and 17 seasons later the league continues to grow in popularity.
The MLS is, however, not America's first professional soccer league, and the league has maintained its success partly by learning from the mistakes of its somewhat infamous predecessor. One year after the 1966 World Cup received good television ratings in U.S. markets, two professional soccer leagues commenced play. They merged in 1968 to form North American Soccer League (NASL), which in its heyday featured soccer legends like Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer. Teams like the New York Cosmos played in front of sold out crowds, but the NASL failed to sustain its success and folded in 1984, casting doubt on whether professional soccer could ever succeed in America.
When discussing the differences between the MLS and the NASL and why the latter failed, MacCambridge says the number one advantage the MLS has is that it has more stadiums specifically designed for soccer. NASL teams often played in stadiums and arenas designed for football and baseball, and these venues did not provide fans with good vantage points or create an exciting atmosphere. MLS stadiums like Crew Stadium in Columbus, Ohio, and the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., are soccer specific-venues that create better viewing experiences for soccer fans. Such arenas consistently draw enthusiastic crowds and this level of fan dedication at the stadium level helps make MLS soccer more appealing from a television perspective as well, something that will be critical to sustaining the league's success. "Do you have a core group of committed fans who will turn up on a Saturday night to watch the home team play? That is really the ultimate test. Because then you have a scene at the stadium, and it's a scene at the stadium that will televise well," says MacCambridge.
When asked if lacrosse could follow in soccer's footsteps and move from the fringe to the mainstream, MacCambridge conceded that it was possible but said that the sport, like soccer, will have to find venues that are suitable for the game and can draw enthusiastic crowd. He also added that like all niche sports currently vying for popularity, lacrosse faces the unenviable task of trying to attract the attention of casual American sports fans. "I don't know that there's a lot of people who call themselves sports fans who are sitting around going, 'You know the problem is there's just not enough sports to watch.'"
SPEED OF THE GAME
What lacrosse has going for it is that it combines elements of several established sports. Lacrosse players don helmets and padding similar to the equipment football players wear; like ice hockey players they check each other and use long sticks to propel the ball forward. The sport appropriates certain terminologies and offensive sets that are common in basketball. Outdoor lacrosse, which is played on long open fields, has a similar aesthetic to soccer. In this sense, lacrosse has no single sport that it must compete with for attention. It is unique but can attract fans by being somewhat similar to other sports they are already familiar with. And its fast pace is a good fit in a world where every life moves quicker by the year.
George Kirsch, a professor of sports history at Manhattan College and author of Golf in America, says sometimes a sport can catch on if its characteristics mesh with larger societal trends. For example, the golf boom that took place in America in the 1890s was helped by increased suburbanization that was taking place in many parts of the country. Golf requires space, and new suburban developments allowed for the construction of private courses. At that same time cities began building municipal courses in public parks where the working class could play. And golf's popularity was also helped by the fact that it fit nicely with country's burgeoning business culture: Executives could easily discuss business affairs over a round of golf and thus the marriage between business and golf was born.
When asked why young athletes like lacrosse, O'Neill says it's the speed of the game. There's no doubt that culture today moves faster than ever via a constant stream of Tweets, status updates and text messages, so it may only be a matter of time before slower, more deliberate team sports such as baseball and football seem antiquated, and fans start gravitating towards sports like soccer, basketball and lacrosse where movement is constant. If that happens, lacrosse holds a slight advantage over the other two since it incorporates some of the physical contact prevalent in football and ice hockey.
FROM PARENT TO CHILD
Innovation in sports can be a slow process, and it often takes a significant amount of time for a sport to gain traction with the mainstream. One reason for this is that a love of a particular sport is often inherited from a parent or older sibling. Kids who grow up playing catch with their fathers in the backyard are likely to have an affinity for baseball, just as a daughter whose older sister played basketball may feel drawn to that sport from an early age.
According to O'Neill, many of his friends who grew up on the cusp of lacrosse's current surge in popularity are now passing their love of the sport to their children. They are signing their kids up for scooper programs that can start as early as kindergarten and taking them to games. Recently a close friend of his was looking for a way to spend a Saturday afternoon with his children when he realized there was a lacrosse game taking place at the University of Maryland. So they went to Byrd Stadium, bought three tickets for less than $10 each and were able to watch a quality lacrosse game between two college teams ranked in the top 10. "They had a blast," O'Neill says. Experiences like that are where a love of a particular sport begins, and if more players who were on the front end of the current lacrosse boom pass the love of the game down to their children, the sport could grow exponentially over the next decade.
To the untrained eye, a lacrosse match may look like barely organized mayhem, but watch enough games and you are bound to witness the breathtaking athleticism displayed by its practitioners. While it still exists on the fringe—popular in certain areas of the country and somewhat unfamiliar in others—it is growing. US Lacrosse lists California and Ohio as two states with a significant concentration of youth players. In 2011 the University of Denver became the first university West of the Mississippi to make the Division I men's lacrosse semifinals and did so with a semblance of local talent.
Whether lacrosse can capitalize on its recent growth and morph into a major American sport that can rival one of the four major American team sports remains a question mark. Making a professional sports league work takes a lot more than a large potential fan base. But considering that the sport has grown so strongly at the grassroots level without the type of exposure that comes from a major world tournament, it would be foolish to overlook lacrosse's potential. If the sport's popularity continues to grow, there's no doubt the demand for televised lacrosse games and a more prominent professional league will follow.