Lacrosse Participation ... Wait For It ... Shows Very Promising Signs

Ever since I heard about the game of lacrosse, back in the 1960s (so respect your elders here, please), it has been evident that it is a game immersed in a communal inferiority complex.

Players feel unwatched, isolated and unappreciated, especially when theytravel to an away game and someone approaches them at the bus depot or the airport and asks if their lacrosse stick is a device for catching crabs or netting squirrels. Coaches wonder where the crowds might be for the sport into which they put sacrifice and devotion. Hear the roar? Yes, that's for the football team or the basketball team. For lacrosse, well, not so much.

After years of effort to increase attendance at games, college officials had to admit in 2013 that they were baffled as to why attendance at the game's premier tournament, which declares the National College Athletic Association's champion for the year, was suffering from a 42 percent decline in attendance from 2008 to 2014.

Well, let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. While that created a compelling headline, the reasons attendance dropped are simple: Lacrosse is not yet recognizable in every home in the country, so much of the crowd at a national championship are made up of devoted fans who travel a long way to get there. There simply isn't a large local crowd that attends because they are swept up in the national craze - like I would go to the Superbowl, even though I hardly see a half a game each year on television.

With lacrosse, with just the hardcore devotees attending, understand first that travel from 2008 to 2014 dropped across the board with the Great Recession rumbling through the land.That wasn't the fault of lacrosse.

If money is so tight that a college student skips going home for Thanksgiving break, it is not likely they can afford to fly from Denver to Baltimore to attend a lacrosse game.

I hear less, lately, about the other built in difficulty that the oldest sport in North America faces, which is the point that lacrosse does not play well on a television screen. With football and basketball, the action is concentrated in a small area of intensity. Lacrosse can be a crunch-heads game,but generally it involves passing a small, hard to see ball long distances.Imagine, for example, a hockey game played on rink twice regulation size. The camera would be wandering around, following a puck, rather than players colliding and hockey's brutal intensity would be diluted by distance. That's what hurts lacrosse. And without the backing of television, lacrosse has found it difficult to make headway.

If you want lacrosse numbers to grow, go to a sports broadcasting company and figure out how to film the game in a compelling fashion. That's how you accelerate interest in a sport.

Yes, it just isn't fair. "Football attendance topped 50 million for the first time in 2013 as the number of NCAA schools playing the sport continued to grow," the NCAA reported this year. By contrast, attendance at the lacrosse championship game in Baltimore was 25,587. For average home games Navy topped the list for 2014, drawing an average of 3,860 spectators per game.

But now some good news. That 42 percent decline in championship attendance over six years is not a very telling number from a statistical point of view.It is not a long-term trend and is likely to turn around, given the point that the recession is receding and more colleges are sponsoring lacrosse teams than ever before.

Besides, that's just one game. By contrast, here are some numbers with much more statistical value, as they have deeper, wider, more long-term implications:

Participation (the number of athletes playing the game) is up 10 percent per year overall, according to a U.S. Lacrosse survey that was done in 2005. There is no reason to suspect that growth rate has changed very much.

The number of college men's teams rose 24 percent over 10 years to the 2003-2004 school year, while the number of women's teams nearly doubled to 258.

But here's the best news yet: with improved equipment, from specially designed gloves and helmets for lacrosse to padding and sticks, the game is safer for youngsters to play and growth among younger age groups is all but exploding.

From 2009 to 2013, participation has jumped 73 percent in Minnesota and 70 percent in Florida, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.

The number of high school players also rose 59 percent in Georgia and 23 percent in Ohio. In states where the game already has a firm footing, like Maryland and Massachusetts, participation rose 12 percent and 18 percent, respectively,the association said.

In California, which boasts the most high school players in the country with 14,549, participation rose 18 percent.

In the time frame in question, between the 2008-09 and 2012-13 school years, participation in high school lacrosse rose 15 percent among boys and 19 percent among girls to about 102,000 and 77,000 players, respectively.

Those are explosive numbers showing growth where it matters: Among the younger age groups that will translate to larger numbers at the college and professional levels in later years.

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By Mo Johnson, Copyright © 2006-2017

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