2009 E-Lacrosse Feature: How Baltimore stacks up against other finalists for NCAA lacrosse championshipsIt was announced last week that Baltimore, Denver, New Jersey and Boston are the finalists for the 2010, 2011 and 2012 NCAA men's lacrosse championships. Presentations were given on Dec. 11 to the NCAA Championship Committee, which included members from Division I, II and III as well as NCAA staff. The committee will advise the NCAA, which will make a decision and award the championships or at least the 2010 event in February 2009.
The bids are for any or all of the three lacrosse championships from 2010 through 2012. The NCAA lacrosse final four event is played annually over Memorial Day weekend and includes the Division I semifinals and finals Saturday and Monday, and the Division II and Division III championships on Sunday.
I spoke to Terry Hasseltine, director of the Maryland Office of Sports Marketing, who led the effort to bring the event back to Charm City. Hasseltine was instrumental in bringing the Ryder Cup to Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Ky., during his time as the Kentucky Sports Authority deputy executive director. The Ryder Cup brought in over $100 million to the local community, according to Hasseltine, while the NCAA lacrosse event is reportedly in the $18-20 million dollar range.
Hasseltine had help. He credits members of the Ravens with taking a lead role on the project. Ravens president Dick Cass, vice president of corporate sales and development Mark Burdett, and senior director of ticket operations and sales Baker Koppelman were the principles in a one-hour presentation to the NCAA selection committee Dec. 11 at the Marriott Waterfront in Baltimore. The Ravens are the main tenant at the state-owned M&T Bank Stadium, the proposed venue for the Memorial Day lacrosse event. The university hosts of the event would be Loyola, Johns Hopkins, UMBC and Towson.
Baltimore's selling points are its rich lacrosse history, the stadium's location and proximity to Inner Harbor hotels, restaurants and other establishments, practice facilities, and its proximity to I-95 and so many lacrosse fans emanating from the multitude of lacrosse communities within driving range of downtown Baltimore.
Baltimore last hosted the games in 2007. A record announced 123,215 fans attended the event over the entire weekend. M&T Bank Stadium was also the site of the championship in 2003 and 2004. Last year's championships were held at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., and set a new record of 145,828 for weekend attendance. This 2009 event will also be held in Foxborough, which is between Providence, RI and Boston, this May.
In Denver, the U.S. Air Force Academy would be the host institution, with help from the University of Denver. The event would be held at Invesco Field at Mile High, home of the NFL's Denver Broncos and the Denver Outlaws MLL team. I spoke to Metro Denver Sports Commission president KieAnn Brownell, who guaranteed $3 million in revenues at the final presentation. She stressed that lacrosse is not an alternative sport in Colorado.
Said Brownell: "Denver is the lacrosse capital of the West and here's why: Since 1999, when lacrosse was first sanctioned by the Colorado High School Athletic Association, the sport has seen explosive growth. Today there are 59 high school programs in eight conferences. Youth are regularly hanging up their baseball bats and football helmets and taking up lacrosse. And Denver's high school programs are top notch. Kent Denver is ranked in the top 10 of U.S. high school programs. Ten players from Colorado were named All-Americans in 2008. The University of Denver's 2008 recruiting class is ranked No. 10 in the country."
The Denver bid is bolstered by the great crowds at Outlaws and Mammoth (NLL) games. Brownell pointed out that the professional lacrosse franchises in Denver are thriving and lead the country in attendance.
"The Colorado Mammoth, Denver's NLL franchise, consistently tops attendance records and outdraws the NBA and NHL franchises," Brownell said. The Mammoth outdraws its closest East Coast competitor by 15 percent."
She added: "Denver's attendance will be comprised of their professional fan base noted above; the strong collegiate fan base from the two Division I programs at the University of Denver and the Air Force Academy; the collegiate fan base from the eight collegiate club programs in Colorado, including perennial club contender Colorado State University; the event-driven Denver sports fans, who have set and held attendance records in the MLB, NHL, NFL, NCAA hockey, USGA, NLL, and the MLL, where this past summer they broke their own single game attendance record. Further, Denver Sports received letters of support from several lacrosse clubs in other western states, saying they would travel to Denver but not to the east."
The common perception is that Denver would be a "growth of the game" play instead of a huge attendance and revenue play, but Brownell says that the idea that Denver's attendance would be down is a misconception. "Denver will undoubtedly set an all-time attendance record for the lacrosse championships," she said.
Since 2006, Denver has sold more than 600,000 tickets to professional lacrosse. The Outlaws average 11,000 fans per game and the Mammoth averages 18,000 per game, and these are two groups of different people. The interesting difference between the professional fans in Denver and the lacrosse fans in the east is that the professional fans in Denver are an entirely different demographic. They are not the lacrosse community's committed core; instead, they are sports fans who have fallen in love with the game. Unlike the east that depends on the lacrosse community and the collegiate teams to fill the stadium, Denver will appeal to a wide variety of fans.
And that will need to happen. But, certainly, people from outside the Denver area would attend as well. Utah has a large lacrosse-playing community only hours away and the trip from other states like Texas and California would be a reasonable one, and much shorter and more affordable than if the games were held at an eastern venue. Many new and undeserved fans would have a chance to experience our sport's premiere happening. Brownell puts it this way -- "The only way to truly serve the NCAA sport would be to move it out of the east and make it available to the entire NCAA community across the country."
In that spirit, the Denver group is not expecting or asking to host all three years that are up for bids. They would expect to only get one of three years. I agree with the sentiment Brownell expressed to me on this point. She said that "there seems to be no real long-term benefit to the sport of lacrosse or the NCAA holding the event for multiple years in the same city. The Final Four basketball championship and the Frozen Four hockey championship have both created revenue-rich models by moving their events all across the country and breaking the mold of only going to traditional hockey or basketball cities."
The Denver bid is a collaborative effort of the Metro Denver Sports Commission, Visit Denver, the City of Denver, Invesco Field at Mile High and the United States Air Force Academy. Former Air Force coach Fred Acee, University of Denver coach Jamie Munro, Denver Outlaws general manager Brian Reese and former Princeton and Outlaws star Trevor Tierney presented for the Denver group.
I'm not sure who presented for New Jersey or Boston, but those are known entities to lacrosse and the NCAA folks.The championships are currently enjoying a two-year stint in the Boston area and Rutgers University in northern New Jersey hosted the event eight times from 1974 through 2002.
All of the venues are used by pro teams and have the parking, luxury boxes, concession options, locker rooms, etc. needed to host the event. Here are the local specifics for each venue:
Invesco Field at Mile High was opened in 2002 and is state of the art. It seats 76,125 and has a grass field. There are three Mitsubishi video displays located inside the seating area, two boards on the north end of the stadium with a viewing size of 48' x 27', and a large board on the south end with a viewing size of 96' x 27'. It only has 10,000 parking spots on site. General parking is available on the other side of the interstate, at the Pepsi Center, Six Flags and the Auraria Campus, and the walk across is a safe one. North and west of Invesco Field are residential neighborhoods where entrepreneurial neighbors sell parking spots as well.
M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore was built in 1998 and seats 70,107. It's a a very modern facility with Sportexe Momentum Turf and two SmartVision video screens, one in each end zone. There are only 2,200 parking spots on site, but thousands more are available at nearby lots throughout the Inner Harbor area. You'll pay at least $15 and as much as $35 to park in these lots. The light rail system and MARC trains drop you right at the stadium.
Gillette Stadium in Foxborough was built in 2002 and has a capacity of 68,756. The field is grass. In each end zone are huge, clear HDTV video boards and there are digital LED effects boards, running across the sidelines, directly above the club seats and the lighthouse and bridge in the north end zone. Fourteen thousand on-site parking spots are augmented by at least that many in local fields and at local lots. The MBTA Commuter Train runs from the South Station in downtown Boston and the Attleboro/Providence line has a special stop at Gillette Stadium for events only. The train running from Boston was a dodgy prospect last time around, as there are limited spots on the train.
Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands was built in 1972 and seats 78,741. Two Sony Jumbotron color video scoreboards are featured in each end zone of the stadium and the surface is grass. Both the New York Giants and the New York Jets play at Giants Stadium. It has 25,000 parking spaces and is accessible by public transportation.
The New Jersey and Boston venues are far from any place worth hanging out and are less favorable socially. Denver and Baltimore venues are in great locations, close to hotels, restaurants, bars, shopping and generally cool neighborhoods. Last year Boston's one road in and out of Foxborough was not the best and the train from Boston was sold out when many got to the station for the trip to Foxborough. The new $350 million Patriot Place mall, a hotel, shopping and entertainment mecca, has been completed right next to the stadium, but was not available to fans in 2008.
Boston is surrounded by lacrosse communities and they supported the games last year. Baltimore is a sure thing, with so many college fan bases within a 150-mile radius of the venue. New Jersey might be a sure thing, with Long Island, New Jersey and Pennsylvania hotbeds within a reasonable drive of the venue. Rutgers hosted the championships a while back and the attendance was good but not quite what the Baltimore or College Park crowds were in those days. Denver does well at drawing a pro lacrosse attendance but they obviously need many more fans to turn out for the NCAA event. If fans are willing to travel a day by car or by plane to the event, the midwest/west venue opens up the experience to Utah, California, Texas and other lacrosse hotbeds, but that's not a sure thing. Denver is a sports town, more than the others in contention here. Like in Philadelphia, many strangers to the game may attend out of sheer curiosity and love of sport.
Growth of the game
Denver is the obvious winner here. Expanding the experience to all of those fans would be a huge step in the growth of lacrosse and for that reason they should get at least one of the years to see what they can do. I have often said that a 35,000 attendance in Denver for the Division I men's final would be a historic and meaningful growth indication. But it would be a failure in the eyes of the NCAA money people.
Baltimore and Boston are proven money and the others are a bit of a gamble. If the NCAA is really looking to simply monetize the event, all three years would be awarded to Baltimore, in my opinion. Of course, without trying a place like the Meadowlands or Denver, they'll never know if they missed out on a big opportunity there.
Baltimore and Denver are the two most fun places for the event because of their close parking and great surroundings within walking distance. Boston was a great place to stay and we had a blast for last year's championships. You could also choose to stay in lovely Providence or along the Massachusetts coast, but all were about an hour (in traffic) from the venue and the public transportation was not a sure thing.
The Meadowlands are in New Jersey. Enough said.
The draw is best in Baltimore because Johns Hopkins, Maryland, Virginia and perhaps Princeton, Navy or even UMBC (my 2009 dark horse), all within driving range of the city, may make the show.
Boston didn't have any more Syracuse people than would have been at another venue. Syracuse people will go wherever it is being held if their team is in. I'll make a prediction that if the games are held in Denver, the crowd will look orange because Syracuse travels better than any other program. Brown will be strong in 2009 so maybe we'll see a New England representative in the final four.
Princeton is the only legitimate draw for the Meadowlands, but the northern New Jersey venue is the true center of the bigger lacrosse hotbed megalopolis, from Charlottesville or even Durham to New England. Philly always did pretty well without home teams in the mix.
The Denver and Baltimore venues have the best food, without question, even if you stay at the stadium to eat. In Denver, Coors beer is served. Foxborough serves Sam Adams beer, but you have to drive to Boston for great food. I spoke to Steve Stenersen, president and CEO of US Lacrosse, about the bidding process and the choice that the committee faces. He and US Lacrosse have nothing to do with the selection, but the success and growth of the game is their goal so they are interested in the outcome. The US Lacrosse headquarters is in Baltimore but the lacrosse community, their constituency, is nation-wide, so they have provided general statistics to the bidding organizations without choosing sides.
While Stenersen sees the value in hosting the tournament in different places, he thinks that financial considerations will rule the day when the decision is made. He does not favor a permanent home for the contest, like there is in NCAA baseball, but does see value in multiple years at one locale for continuity. He admitted that a Denver event could grow the game immensely in the west but also noted that the big East Coast crowds are good for the game, too. He'll be at the event, wherever it is.
In 2005 and 2006, the tournament was held in Philadelphia, and it was very successful. Many wonder why Philly is not a finalist for 2010 through 2012. It is rumored that Philly pulled out of the bidding when the NCAA tightened the operating budget requirements to $500,000 in revenue for the venue. Philadelphia spent $600,000 the last time they hosted the event. The insiders I talked to all said the NCAA had changed the formula and the profit-sharing model for this year's round of bids, making it very hard for a venue to make any money at all in the process. The lacrosse championships is one of only a few profitable NCAA championships and the NCAA is looking to make as much as they can on it. Just the escalation of ticket prices in recent years is a great indicator of that. It's all about the money.
December 24, 2008