2009 E-Lacrosse Feature: Rooting against the status quoOK, so today's lesson is about the "Inverse Law of Lacrosse Growth" -- the more people who attend the national championship, the slower the game grows. That's an observation made over thirty years. On a year when a team like Delaware or anyone other than Virginia, Hopkins, Princeton and Syracuse makes it to the final four, the attendance is said to be lower, yet we know for a fact it excites lacrosse people everywhere and broadens the game's possibilities. Seeing the same old teams win year after year is just about as boring as Oxford and Cambridge battling at crew. To the crew purist, that big matchup is heaven on water, but nobody is drawn to crew by that 100+ year-old rivalry. A few years back, an American team went over and beat either Oxford or Cambridge and it made The Washington Post, The New York Times and most evening news broadcasts. It's the same in lax, except the Times will write some obligatory lacrosse paragraph either way. The World Cup suffered from the same affliction until the game of soccer grew to include just the possibility of new champions from time to time. The game has grown many-fold since. Entire nations play soccer today that did not know the game only decades ago.
While the lacrosse press and the NCAA seem to go gaga every time we add a few hundred to our championship weekend attendance total, the game actually appears more elitist, insulated and small at our biggest event. How crazy must it seem to the lacrosse novice that 40,000 pack a stadium to watch Princeton play Hopkins or Virginia play Syracuse in some sport they just heard of? I have interviewed quite a few ticket scalpers in Baltimore and Philly who had no idea which teams were playing in the games inside and when I told them, in almost every case, they were not impressed. It must be even stranger to them than it is for me. I live in the lacrosse community on a daily basis and it is still boucoup bizarre to me every year.
It all starts with the myopic decisions made by our very best high school players to value a guaranteed national lacrosse championship over the challenge of earning one, because lets face it, some teams remaining in the field of eight will have to earn it on the field more than others. The traditional winners all have easier roads than the other four (and Duke is in this group, replacing Princeton in the eyes of lacrosse elite, believe me). Again, it started when 70 percent of the top recruits went to just four or five schools this past fall and every fall before that. It's sad really, to think that if a player the caliber of a Steele Stanwick (Loyola) had chosen Notre Dame, Ohio State, Albany, UMBC, Hofstra, Colgate, or so many others, the game might actually change (though we're not putting that burden on the players). As it stands, the young man will comfortably walk into a championship or three that have relatively no significance, like the last few championships, unless you are alumni or a fan of that school.
Hopkins' and Virginia's victories after the long, long stranglehold by Syracuse and Princeton have been worthless to the game. The Michigan and BYU college club championships have affected growth so much more. The indoor team in Portland is far more valuable to lacrosse. Almost any high school championship is more inspiring. Add that the game is now largely owned by corporate entities ESPN and Inside Lacrosse and it has become the most elitist and facetious event of the sporting year.
There are three ways this tournament can go. The first is toward the future - the end of the tunnel, so to speak - a break from this claustrophobic incest fest. The second is status quo - same old crapola. And then a mix of the two is possible but still less likely than the escape from mediocrity we, most of us, crave.
The first scenario would feature next-round winners and final four participants Navy, Ohio State, Maryland and Notre Dame. It doesn't matter who wins. They are all modern-era virgins. A matchup of Ohio State and Notre Dame in the final would be historic and really move the game for the first time since UNC won it when I was a boy. We had hope back then. It would be nice to get it back. The sport reeks of stagnation.
The second and likely scenario has Hopkins, Virginia, Duke and Syracuse in the greatest snooze and privilege-fest since, well, last year. Foxboro would be the only attraction in that scenario. Look kids, they have different cloud patterns up here ...
Now, granted, the bigger crowd will show if Syracuse is in and if the Hop and Virginia get back to the show. Most people either love or hate Duke in every sport so the Blue Devils will draw too. But again, that's the WORST-case scenario. What is most unfortunate is that a team like Notre Dame, Ohio State, Maryland or Navy probably will get to the semi or the final and keep it close but that's when this year's 12th blue-chip recruit from the Hopper, 'Cuse or Wahoos gets some garbage goal on a rare substitution to win and we can all say, "The Hop was just too strong" or "Those Cavs were too loaded -- maybe next year we'll get someone new."
Isn't that fun? I so look forward to seeing all the exact same people at the celebration tailgate parties acting like they couldn't lose and rightfully so. They'll be already bragging about next year's class, and rightfully so. So instead of picking games based on merit for you today, I simply wish you, the game and Notre Dame, Navy, Maryland and Ohio State my very best for the next two weeks. It's nothing against the kids at Hopkins, Virginia, Duke and Syracuse. Oh, who am I kidding? Those kids took the easy road while others took a chance, put themselves out there and pioneered the game. The latter deserve, at the very least, my best wishes and yours too.
May 16, 2008