It wouldn’t be the first time a sport made it into the Olympics after more than a century’s absence. After all, golf returned to the Games in 2016, and the last time it was a medal sport was 1904. Could lacrosse follow in those tracks?
Jim Scherr, the new chief executive of the Federation of International Lacrosse has made no secret he wants to get the sport back in the Olympics. And he thinks its chances are good.
Scherr, who recently took office at FIL, he is expected to put in place a number of initiatives, including the expansion of the organization’s communications, World Championship and commercial output.
And make no mistake – he has set his sights on getting lacrosse back onto the Olympics.
“I think it’s a fantastic opportunity," said Scherr in an article in Inside The Games. “Lacrosse is growing around the world, and I think it has tremendous potential to return to the Olympic program. The goal of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is to modernize the Olympics and make it more relevant. Lacrosse certainly brings that. It’s an ideal Olympic sport.”
Lacrosse has been played on the North American continent for centuries. Today, it’s one of the fastest growing team sports in the U.S. and is popular on both the male and female side.
The numbers are strong, according to a recent article in Sports Destination Management. The Physical Activity Council, which tracks participation in 120 sports and activities, says lacrosse in the U.S. has seen an average seven percent growth every year for the last five years. Currently, there are about 2.1 million lacrosse participants ages six and up, according to PAC data. Participation on organized teams, as tracked by US Lacrosse, has grown 225 percent from 2001 to 2016, to a total of 826,000 participants. And according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, lacrosse grew by nearly 30 percent from 2010 to 2015, and more and more states are sanctioning the sport for high-school students.
In the U.S. alone, more than 180,000 high school boys and 135,000 girls are playing lacrosse, according to US Lacrosse. College programs continue to experience growth, too, with men’s programs expanding by more than 33 percent and women’s programs by nearly 37 percent over five years.
The sport is also a substantial money-maker for cities. The NCAA Championships are regarded as one of the premier pieces of business for cities. In fact, in 2013, Philadelphia hosted the Division I Final Four as well as the championship games in Divisions II and III. Events generated as much as $60 million in economic impact, with 10,000 room nights being used.
The sport was last featured in the Olympics in 1904 (St. Louis) and London (1908), with Canada winning both gold medals. It was also a demonstration sport at the 1928, 1932 and 1948 Games, which were held in Amsterdam, Los Angeles and London respectively.
So why was it taken out as a medal sport after 1908? According to an article in The Atlantic, the reasons aren’t really clear – and nobody on the decision-making body of the time is still around to talk about it. Global interest could have waned, or it might have suffered the same wartime fate as polo (another Olympic sport that vanished), going out of style with the other equipment-intensive sports of the day as resources became scarce.
Something that could hold back the Olympic aspirations, say experts, is the game’s lack of growth at a global level. It’s huge in the U.S. and Canada, but lagging in many other areas.
“The primary problem is not enough countries have a strong following in lacrosse,” Dave Vatz, a reporter and analyst for Inside Lacrosse, told Excelle Sports. “The 2017 World Cup is expected to have at least 30 nations competing in it, which is a strong increase from the 16 in 2013, but still not where you are needed to qualify for an Olympic sport, which I believe is at least 40.” (Note: the World Cup actually had 25 nations.)
In addition, there would need to be more competition globally, rather than having the sport dominated by just a few countries. In the same Excelle interview, Halley Quillinan, an editor at ILWomen and a lacrosse broadcaster for ESPNU and the Lax Network, noted, “Growth at the FIL level with involvement has been huge, but the competition level just being between the top two teams can’t just be that, in order for this to continue to grow people that know the game have to bring it to those areas [that don’t.]”
In this respect, lacrosse isn't that much different from baseball and softball, which while wildly popular in America, Canada and Asia, lacked a global following, which led to their removal from the Games for several cycles. In fact, according to an article in Wikipedia on the subject, the conditions were eerily similar:
In the stands during the 2008 bronze medal game between the U.S. and Japan, IOC head Jacques Rogge was interviewed by MLB.com's Mark Newman and cited various criteria for baseball to earn its way back in: "To be on the Olympic program is an issue where you need universality as much as possible. You need to have a sport with a following, you need to have the best players and you need to be in strict compliance with WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency). And these are the qualifications that have to be met. When you have all that, you have to win hearts. You can win the mind, but you still must win hearts."