Look, as of 9:59 am EST on Monday I was not a lacrosse fan either. I attended Syracuse University for four years without once attending or watching a single game. (I'm not even sure it's officially referred to as a game. Lacrosse game or lacrosse match?)
My collegiate experience with lacrosse was practically the equivalent of living in Green Bay, Wi. and ignoring professional football.
Despite being around the best lacrosse in the world, my reasons for ignoring it were the same as everyone else's. Lacrosse seemed to be an overwhelmingly regional sport and Scranton, Pa. was one of the have-not areas. I didn't know the rules. I didn't know any of the players and the season overlapped with basketball and baseball.
But on Memorial Day I was stuck in a Tuscon airport and noticed folks gathering around the TV. A quick glance showed my alma mater taking on their Central New York rivals from Cornell University for this year's title.
I got bumped from my initial flight and maybe it was simply fate for me to watch my first lacrosse match that morning.
And if you have not guessed by this point, I was riveted.
The rules and strategy were easy to pick up just from watching (think almost hockey on grass). The action was fast-paced and lent itself to group watching (lots of reactionary fist pumping and clapping from Cornell fans throughout).
This particular game also had a good strategical matchup any sports fan could understand. Cornell held a steady lead nearly the entire game through a methodical, possession-oriented offense (think University of Wisconsin Men's Basketball philosophy) that kept SU from increasing the pace of the game to create a shootout (think University of Memphis Men's Basketball).
I watched the entire game. It ended with two plays that made the SportsCenter Top 10 (No. 1 and No. 3) the next day.
I listened to the real fans around me tell me about how this game came to be. SU made it to the Final Four largely due to the midseason addition of a local junior college attacker and after their backup goalie started a tournament game (and rose to the occasion).
Coming off such a compelling title game, perhaps it is time to ask the question again. Is it finally the time for lacrosse to crack into the mainstream as a top five sport?
Consider a few quick reasons why it might:
Lacrosse just had a great Final Four and some of the other top sports in the country are genuinely struggling. Baseball is dealing with steroids issues, the NHL cannot crack network television, and the PGA seems to be slowly regaining its steam after the Tiger injury. Even the NBA seems to be getting caught up in referee performance rather than focusing on the incredible basketball happening in the conference finals.
2) Nature of the Game
Lacrosse is fast-paced and high scoring. This seems to be what fans love most in other sports. The Nash-D'Antoni Phoenix Suns? The home run explosion of the late '90s? The Brady-to-Moss Patriots? Sidney Crosby? I feel like this has been the biggest domestic complaint about soccer but there is nothing slow about lacrosse.
You can even discount the buzz that lacrosse is growing among the country's youth like soccer once did. Just the college entity itself can be so easily marketed to fans.
You have traditional powers around to provide name recognition (top teams include SU, Duke, UNC, Maryland, Virginia). You have Ivy League teams that are actually competitive (Cornell, Princeton) to root against for us non-Ivy graduates.
Players are freak athletes but not unbelievably large and you can see them on campus. Past stars are still involved with the game and they're relatively accessible.
Best of all, fans aren't priced out of the games.
3b) ESPN Seems Ready To Embrace It
For an added bonus, consider ESPN's potential openness to lacrosse. The Final Four games and a few select matchups during the year found their way onto ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Classic, and ESPNU. (Watch any hockey on those channels?) Colin Cowherd even reported they earned higher ratings than some baseball broadcasts.
Also, the amount of sports broadcasters who attended SU is well-documented. Sports journalists from there a) have a passion for SU sports and b) are at least casual observers of lacrosse. (Many even take a test on the sport before they are allowed to cover it for various media outlets on campus.)
Television and media exposure from the worldwide leader can only help a sport create a fanbase.
Sure, the lack of a unified, credible pro league hurts, but women's basketball survived all those years without the WNBA. It's arguably more popular than that league even today.
The likelihood of it happening may be small, but if there's a time for lacrosse to sneak into our sports consciousness, now may finally be the time.
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