Walking down über-trendy Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles a little while ago, I was taken aback by what I saw in one of the overpriced surf and skate clothing boutiques. Next to the 'vintage' t-shirts (made in Tijuana last Tuesday) and cliché plaid pants worn by every homeless preppy hipster in L.A., was a lacrosse stick. Not just some circa '87 Hi-Wall thrown in for kicks, but a new and offset model. The stick was not off to the side of the display either. Instead it was situated rather prominently across a mannequin's thigh, carefully integrated into this oh so 'cool' and 'alternative' scene. I was confused…. Did I just step into LaxWorld LA? Was this store even selling lacrosse sticks/equipment? Or had the X-games crew just become lacrosse fanatics?
That's when the laughter started- not so much at the price of the "Fresno? Fres-Yes!!" t-shirt ($39), but rather at the absolute absurdity of all this. Here in the epicenter of cutting edge hipster trendy-ness was a lacrosse stick? A lacrosse stick set in a display designed in order to sell clothes to Californians and tourists in Los Angeles - and very expensive clothes at that. I had to wonder- "Since when did lacrosse become so cool"?
This store was not a new Lax World, nor was this stick for sale. Rather it was a mere prop to catch the eye of those on the street - a marketing tool. A tee shirt was worth 39 dollars because it was next to a lacrosse stick; because perhaps, lacrosse players wear them? Needless to say, it worked on me. It brought me inside, though I wasn't there to buy the clothes. Instead I was flooded with questions about what lacrosse had become to those marketing INSIDE the game. Did the game need to be sold as something 'cool' to kids who already played the game while, at the same time shops, hip enough to sell t-shirts for 39 bucks, use a lacrosse stick in a shop window to sell the good stuff.
Since I have been involved with lacrosse, it has always had a unique feel amongst team sports. A rebellious, individualistic, different cache when compared to the traditional sports of football, baseball, basketball and hockey. That aspect, as well as the unique combination of speed, strength, toughness and smarts made it so attractive to the 'cool' elements of society. People of all shapes and backgrounds came to the field, each with a different take on the game, and each just as addicted as the other. Lacrosse was cool without trying, and now it seems as if it's trying too hard.
Granted, lacrosse has always had a little Ivy League or prep school niche in the advertising world. Abercrombie and Fitch, Polo, Hilfiger, Gap and others have involved lacrosse in their marketing campaigns and catalogs or employed the occasional lacrosse stick or emblazoned the word "Lacrosse" on their clothing in an effort to increase sales. In many of these instances it was a natural progression; the clothes were preppy in style and were marketed to a predominantly preppy customer base. Since lacrosse had traditionally been known as an east coast prep school sport, its imagery enhanced the message the products were selling. The lifestyle these clothing companies were trying to push was perfectly emulated by the aluminum stick hanging out in the background - similar to crew or sailing images, but more fresh. Lacrosse was the game of Andover and Gilman and all the other places where Dockers and loafers were the unspoken uniform. Some people who buy polo shirts really play polo too.
But, lacrosse, at least in my experience, has never quite lived up to that clubhouse, green lawn and crested blazer image that the ads suggested. For most these days, it doesn't. When I first was introduced to the sport out here it was still an underground sort of cult, headed by players who were fanatics. The players and coaches came in all shapes and sizes, though few, if any, fit the bill as a J. Crew reject. One of my most vivid lacrosse memories was of my first coach- Jake Azevedo- patrolling our sidelines in a Tahitian sarong and flip flops- screaming his guts out to run harder. Needless to say, we did. Jake was huge, Hawaiian, and played with a Canadian axe-handle shaft that left welts the size of your fist. Although the image of a mellow Californian/Hawaiian molding a team of young men into on-field warriors might have appeared odd to anyone watching, it didn't seem that way to me or my teammates. It was just the way lacrosse was. It wasn't main stream. It wasn't easy to explain to outsiders. And it certainly wasn't the sport for everyone. Yet, everyone who played seemed to be addicted to it like we were.
If anything, that diversity of participants WAS the lifestyle pitch when I was introduced to the game. Lacrosse drew an odd assortment of characters to a common field to share a common bond of sport and competition. It wasn't a cult, though there were similarities: a devoted following, committing much of their time and financial resources to a relatively obscure passion. Although some lacrosse players were also into various aspects of alternative culture, such as surfing and skating, they were for the most part the exception and not the rule, especially out here where the surf culture lives. Thus one of lacrosse's all too-enthusiastic marketing angles of today- that lacrosse is an X-game or alternative sport- is based on hollow bricks. LACROSSE IS NOT AN X-GAME OR EXTREME SPORT, and how it got such an identity crises I haven't a clue.
Sure the laxers at South Swell are surfers. Of course the laxers at Stylin' Strings are also skaters. But the laxers in Utah go hunting, like the laxers in Minnesota go fishing and those in Ontario play some hockey from time to time. In the west coast growth of the last ten years, just as many players were musicians, or chemists or hippies or meatheads, and all of these guys played football, soccer or basketball as well. Lacrosse was merely another sport that attracted the active athlete, not because of the 'Lacrosse Bro' lifestyle, but because it was fun, fast-paced, high-scoring, and you were allowed to hit people with sticks. The sport did not need a cool association. It was a cool association. It still is.
But inside lacrosse there is an attempt to hammer out a niche as something different and cool within the community. The marketing is drifting from selling the tools with which one plays the game towards selling a lifestyle. Buy Lacrosse, the T-shirt. Open any lacrosse magazine today and you will see to what I refer: Players in street clothes, wearing trendy glasses and sporting the just-don't-care 5 o'clock shadow, while nonchalantly gripping a lacrosse stick to the side. There's not an in-game action-shot of the stick they want me to buy. But there's a profile shot along side a bigger picture of guys hanging out and living 'the life'. Flip the page and you will find shoes made by lacrosse companies, but designed for skating. Next time I need to do a heel flip-ollie to break off a defender I'll be sure to slide these on.
I guess this all started in print ads a few years back. Warrior's lifestyle-centric advertising began to revolutionize how lacrosse was marketed and sold. Suddenly lacrosse was at the beach, in the club, on the street, living hard, riding the peak, rocking out. Amidst player's clubs and R&D teams, Paul Gait was even witnessed in the middle of a non-descript downtown at night just being cool with his lacrosse stick. Did he get lost on his way to the park? Are there secret nighttime urban lacrosse games that I don't know about? I know Jay Jalbert, Tillman Johnson, Nick Polanco, Conor Gill, and Mikey Powell, to name a few, are amazing athletes and incredible lacrosse players. That, in and of itself, makes each one of them rather interesting to the readers of the publications where lacrosse ads are bought. They are our superstars. It seems completely unnecessary to rely on their perceived "hip-ness" to sell the game and the products of the game instead of how well they crush an attackman or break a defender's ankles and rip a shot.
It is a strange paradox. While I can see the genius of promoting the game as something different and of creating marketable and recognizable stars, I wonder if there has been too much emphasis on what lacrosse could be instead of what lacrosse is. I wonder why there needs to be a lifestyle pitch in selling the game to the folks who already play. It feels contrived and unnatural to be marketed to as if we didn't know how incredible and cool this game is. Save that for selling tickets for MLL games to those that never heard of lacrosse. If it fits there, fantastic- more people in the stands, thus more fans of lacrosse.
Given the wide array of personalities drawn to lacrosse in this growth era, I would hesitate to narrow the marketing scope any time soon. Lifestyles and their appeal to others are subjective calls and influenced by geography, climate, tastes, fads, media, and so much more while the game of lacrosse is consistently impressive and has been for hundreds of years. And it's way too late to stereotype the lacrosse player. We are all breeds now. If lacrosse was some 'cool' guy sport, many of the amazingly awkward characters associated with the game wouldn't exist. The slightly off goalie (in itself redundant as most goalies are absolute nut-jobs), the deranged fo-go and the attackman who writes poetry would all be missed as they are the characters that actually give the sport its sincere flavor. In marketing the game to a diverse audience I would focus less on the narrow culture of lacrosse as perceived by their marketing gurus and instead focus on what makes it so cool in first place. Last time I checked it was the game itself.
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