NCAA GOES WITH PHILLY OVER BALTIMORE


By Michael Spinner

Not too many big lacrosse related surprises happen in the fall. Upsets occur and nobody notices because, well, it's the fall. But the decision to change the venue for the lacrosse championship weekend to Philadelphia for the 2005 and 2006 season came as quite a shocker to everyone. Despite the overwhelming success of championship weekend in Baltimore in 2003, Philadelphia got the nod for '05 and '06.

One would think that shattering attendance records and the overwhelming support of the lacrosse world would have made Baltimore a lock for at least the next few championship weekends down the road. While one year in Baltimore would not make it appropriate to move the event to Baltimore permanently, it would seem logical to at least give them a chance to see how well they could do as a reward for their great work this year.

Before Baltimore came into the picture the lacrosse championship weekend enjoyed incredible success. But success at college venues such as the University of Maryland and Rutgers was nothing compared to the 2003 event. Let's face it: The decision to move championship weekend into a professional venue like M&T Bank Stadium was a risk of sorts for those who made it happen. After all, assuming that the cost of using a facility like M&T Bank Stadium is significantly higher than Rutgers University or the University of Maryland, had the usual 60,000 fans or so attended championship weekend 2003, it probably would have been viewed as a failure of sorts since in that scenario a better venue would not have attracted more people to the seats. From a profit perspective, had the numbers in 2003 been comparable to previous years, the NCAA would have lost money because of the cost of the better venue.



Baltimore 2003

But championship weekend 2003 was a staggering success in more ways than one. More than 90,000 people attended the three days of lacrosse, beating the previous record by nearly 20,000 fans. The Division I Final was the highest attended outdoor NCAA event of the year (remember, football does not have an official NCAA Division I Championship). By all accounts, Memorial Day weekend 2003 began a new era for NCAA Lacrosse - it was lacrosse taking an even bigger step towards the big-time.

And all of this happened in the worst possible weather conditions. Like the rest of the Spring, Memorial Day weekend was a washout. It rained, it was cold, it was windy, and it was nasty…and the attendance record was still pulverized. It kind of shows you something about the attractiveness of Baltimore and M&T Bank Stadium as a venue. While there is a logic that dictates that Philadelphia will enjoy similar success as Lincoln Financial Field is perhaps the most beautiful new venue in the country, there is also logic suggesting that this move could backfire.



Philly's Lincoln Financial Field

Let's put it this way, of the 91,000+ fans who attended championship weekend in 2003, how many made the long trek and stayed in hotels and whatnot? How many commuted from the Baltimore area? The answers to these questions would also tell us whether or not the move to Philadelphia will be successful. Granted, any true blue fan can make a somewhat easy commute from Baltimore to Philadelphia for championship weekend, but take that out of the picture for a second. What I would like to submit is that championship weekend 2003 was such an overwhelming success because of the incredible volume of fans from the Baltimore area that went as a matter of convenience. If you could drive an hour or so (or potentially much less than that) to see the lacrosse event of the year, it makes it far more attractive to attend than if the event were held anywhere else…even in a driving rain storm.

And in the area surrounding Baltimore, Maryland you have perhaps the highest concentration of die-hard lacrosse fans in the world. Of course, this is open to debate, but it is hard to deny the vast quantity of lacrosse junkies who live within commutable distance of Baltimore. I'm not saying the best fans come from this area, I am saying that perhaps the largest numbers do…thus the Headquarters for US Lacrosse and the Lacrosse Hall of Fame and Museum are in this City. In fact, even though they chose Philly, its proximity to Baltimore was likely among the location's most attractive features. Nobody's talking about the Meadowlands for 2007 and 2008.

In the area surrounding Philadelphia, you have a wonderful and huge group of lacrosse fans who are as die-hard as anywhere else in the lacrosse viewing world. But do the numbers compete with Baltimore? Probably not. So right off the bat, you are moving this event away from where it can attract the most possible commuters who are already lacrosse fans. You leave the attendance figures in the hands of those willing to spend an entire weekend in a hotel and those Pennsylvanians who come to see lacrosse as new experience - Philly is a hard core sports town. Sure, the numbers will assuredly be high and the event will be a success, but to suggest that Philadelphia can be more successful than Baltimore is taking quite a risk.




And being that lacrosse is still developing across the country, isn't that the bottom line? Should we not hope that the best event humanly possible, meaning the highest number of spectators, takes place? Moving the Championships to Baltimore to the home of an NFL franchise was as risky of a proposition as having a championship weekend in the first place. There are probably those who said back in 1992 championship weekend would never work…and look at what it has become. So why not reward those who took this risk by seeing how far this thing can go in Baltimore? Why not see if there are 60,000 people willing to sit in a beautiful stadium on a gorgeous early summer day to see the Division I Semifinals? If nearly 40,000 people were willing to attend on a rain-soaked day, who is to say that 25,000 more would not want to make a short drive when the weather is beautiful?

For 2004, the organizers in Baltimore hope to sell out the bottom tier of the Stadium and, if they do that, maybe it is possible to open up the upper deck and sell that out too in another year or two. But Baltimore was not given that chance. In fact, for all of the risks and efforts of the people involved to bring the Championships to Baltimore in the first place, they were more or less slapped in the face by having this event moved to Philadelphia even though they have not had a fair chance to flex their proverbial muscles and show what they could really do. I'd say that 91,000 fans during a three-day monsoon is a pretty darn good job that warrants reward, not punishment. Hypothetically, if 2005 and 2006 are somehow complete disasters in Philadelphia, where would that leave the NCAA for negotiations beyond 2006?




I'll also say that the goal should not be short-term financial gain (the reason behind the move to Philly) but what this event could mean in the long-term. We're talking about the growth of lacrosse as a sport here. It is more or less universally agreed that the biggest issue plaguing lacrosse is the lack of growth at the college varsity level. Schools such as St. Johns, Robert Morris, and Bellarmine have caused quite a stir by adding Division I Men's lacrosse and are being universally applauded, but this does not mean that Men's Lacrosse is in an expansion phase.

Title IX debate aside, there are some schools out there with the capabilities of adding men's lacrosse. Perhaps the huge football schools are out of the picture, but with the growth of lacrosse at every level everywhere, there are some schools out there who simply want to make a splash in the Division I athletics world, and adding men's lacrosse is a pretty easy route. Seeing a Final Four in front of 65,000 people at a professional football stadium on live national television is certainly a huge step in the right direction towards expansion. As much as St. Johns Athletics Director David Wegrzyn did not mention the notion of seeing SJU in such an environment on Memorial Day weekend as being a motive for dropping football and adding lacrosse, the big picture had to become relevant in the decision making process. SJU football was going nowhere in a hurry, lacrosse at SJU has a shot to make it to the big time because of location and facilities. So he decided to fully fund a program and go out and get one of the best young head coaches in the sport. He did not make these series of decisions without a run to the top in mind.



Baltimore 2003

There is a reason why every college athletics director has an obsession with symbols such as a school's logo and its colors and appearance. They want to be special and unique. They want to see the school's logo on television and on the national stage. The exposure for a school and its athletics program by reaching the Division I Final Four is worth its weight in gold, so until men's lacrosse is expanding to numbers that reflect somewhat the national rates of participation, we as a sport should endeavor to make it as attractive as possible for potential expansion by making our cornerstone event to be as big as possible. Championship weekend 2003 proved that Baltimore is in every way capable of doing just this, while the case supporting Philadelphia is not nearly as convincing.

What I'm trying to say is that lacrosse is not big-time enough to make decisions like this one. By essentially slapping the Baltimore organizers in the face and walking away because the pot was sweeter in Philadelphia is not the right direction for a sport still in its developing stage. Football and basketball and even hockey in a sense can do this because every ticket for their championships is going to be sold no matter where you hold the contests. Lacrosse is nowhere near that point yet and until it does happen, those who can help take lacrosse to the next level should be embraced, not pushed away. Looking at what was faced in 2003, it can be said with certainty that having the Championships in Baltimore helps the growth and exposure for lacrosse. Can the same be said for sure about Philadelphia? Simply, no. Does that mean that Philly can't pull it off? Not at all.



A Philly Indoor Lacrosse Crowd

As always, there is an “on the other hand” to this story, and in this case, on the other hand, if the NCAA were to choose a different city to host the Championships, Philly is the one. Talk about a sports town, Philadelphians are in their own world when it comes to cheering on their teams. The Wings are renowned for selling out NLL games and Philly sports fans sell out everything from the NBA and NHL to Minor League Hockey as well. If there is a sporting event in Philadelphia, it seems like the fans tend to show (note to MLL brass!), so if any city is going to outdraw Baltimore, it is this one. The question is, are the Championship Weekends about to be held in Philadelphia going to be marketed to the droves of Philadelphians who simply love sports, all sports? Doing so could be the only way to make Philadelphia the overwhelming success that Baltimore was in ’03.

October 24, 2003





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