It’s been a big month for the sport of lacrosse. When the Big City Classic opened New Meadowlands Stadium on April 10, 26,710 people witnessed No. 1 Virginia take on No. 2 North Carolina and No. 3 Syracuse versus No. 4 Princeton. It was a couple of mega-matchups in a mega-venue.
Yet, with the same teams in the top-10 each year and most of the major conferences absent from the lacrosse world, it’s hard not to wonder whether lacrosse at the Division I level has stagnated.
For quite a few years lacrosse has been considered one of, if not the, fastest-growing sports in America. That growth generally stems from the youth level as lacrosse has spread to parts of the country as part of a grassroots movement. Adolescents tossing the baseball around the diamond have given way to youngsters cradling the lacrosse ball.
While this sport spent much of the 20th century confined to Long Island, upper state New York, New England prep schools and the Metro area, it has exploded at the youth level nationwide, and year by year is getting bigger at the high school level. States like Pennsylvania, which slowly adapted to lacrosse at the turn of the millennium, have seen it go from a prep school sport to one that is sponsored at the varsity level at public schools. The sport is now sanctioned by the state athletic association.
Growth has been astronomical at the youth level and has led to considerable expansion at the high school level, but there are only 56 Division I men’s lacrosse programs, some of which, like Johns Hopkins, compete at lower levels in every other sport. Big names like Duke, Syracuse, Ohio State and Virginia are there, but Michigan, Texas and even ACC schools like Wake Forest are nowhere to be found.
The reason for this lies in the faded football lines on lacrosse fields and in a 1972 federal law.
Football is one of the few sports that doesn’t have an alternative for women. Under Title IX there must be proportional equality in both programs and scholarships. So while big time college football hums along with no equivalent, schools are faced with the decision to cut men’s programs to abide by Title IX. Baseball, wrestling, even track programs are getting cut so that athletic departments can balance football and Title IX.
“In Division I with the Title IX issues and the gender equality issues, if a school is playing big time college football, which a lot do, it’s very difficult to add a sport,” men’s lacrosse Head Coach Dave Urick said. “What you do see is tremendous growth in women’s lacrosse and in women’s crew.”
This might be why Division III lacrosse has seen its number of men’s lacrosse programs double in the past 29 years while Division I has held relatively stagnant, never reaching above 60 programs. Meanwhile, women’s lacrosse has thrived at Northwestern and was just started at football-centric Florida.
But while the interest in lacrosse is there, the money is not.
“You look at the schools that have added the sport over the last five or six years, you’re talking about St John’s, Robert Morris,” said Patrick Stevens, a former Washington Times sports writer, who now runs the blog D1scourse.com. “You’re talking Jacksonville, Presbyterian Detroit, Mercer’s adding the sport next year. You’re talking about non-football schools, private schools, which have an interest in trying to be a little bit different and provide something [that] similar schools might not.”
Take Wake Forest for instance. If Wake Forest, which is one of the eight ACC schools without lacrosse, wants to be successful at both football and lacrosse – assuming being successful means dishing out the full allotment of scholarships – they could be using roughly 97 scholarships for these two sports alone.
Good bye, Demon Deacons’ baseball.
That is not to say that college lacrosse isn’t doing better than ever, because it is.
Games are broadcast weekly on the ESPN “family” of networks. The Final Four has become a huge event over Memorial Day weekend and is broadcast nationally on ESPN. Next year, quarterfinal games will also move to big venues like Gillette Stadium. Events like the Big City Classic or the Day of Rivals at MT&T Stadium have increased the sport’s visibility and the crowds have gotten bigger.
While there may not be a true ACC conference, a big step was taken this year with the formation of the Big East lacrosse conference featuring traditional powers Syracuse and Georgetown and up-and-comer Notre Dame.
Having a true BCS conference definitely adds credibility to the sport, but only time will tell what this does for lacrosse.
One option being thrown around is to reform Title IX so that football is treated as its own beast. This would increase sports at big time football schools, many of whom have football and not much else on the men’s side. The biggest winners in such a situation would be baseball, wrestling and lacrosse, but lacrosse in particular because of its popularity at the youth level.
For the foreseeable future, lacrosse’s presence on ESPN will continue, but the lockout among major athletic departments won’t change until either lacrosse truly begins to churn a profit or Title IX is revisited and revised.
*Ryan Travers is a senior in the College and a former Sports Editor at The Hoya. Follow him on [Twitter](https://twitter.com/illprocedure). He can be reached at traversthehoya.com. Illegal Procedure appears in every Friday issue of Hoya Sports.*