Fast Break: Lacrosse, America’s First Sport, is Enjoying Unprecedented Growth
24 Jun, 2013By: Peter Francesconi
Lacrosse is the oldest sport in the U.S., played centuries ago by Native Americans. Now, America’s first sport is one of this country’s fastest-growing team sports. According to the most recent research by Sports Marketing Surveys USA, more than 1.6 million people played lacrosse in the U.S. in 2012, a 52% increase from 2007. Of that total, more than half are considered “core” participants, playing at least 13 times a year.
According to US Lacrosse, the national governing body that now counts more than 400,000 members, youth participation has grown more than 77% since 2006, to nearly 400,000 in 2012. At the high school level, there are now an estimated 282,000 players, the fastest growth among all high school sports, says the organization. At the NCAA level, there were 671 college teams in 2012, and there are more than 500 college club programs, including nearly 200 women’s teams.
“Infrastructure is important,” says Beth Porreca, director of special events at US Lacrosse. “With youth events, having enough viable parking is a big issue; we look for almost a one-to-one ratio of cars to kids. In older divisions, it’s making sure there’s enough space, or netting, between fields. Lights are another trend—they extend the day and can allow for more flexibility and more teams at events. And many events favor artificial surfaces, which allow play in all types of weather.
“More and more, we also get a lot of families that turn their time at a tournament into a vacation,” Porreca adds. “They want a fun destination that can offer a quality experience on and off the field.”
Lacrosse combines the speed and power of football and hockey with the endurance, agility and strategy of soccer and basketball. There are slightly different rules for each gender, but adult versions are played on a field roughly the size of a football field, so any location that offers field sports can accommodate lacrosse events, too.
Just 22 miles north of Atlanta, and easily accessible by car and air, Alpharetta is home to a dozen artificial turf fields that are well-suited to lacrosse events and include concession space, electronic scoreboards, public-address systems, meeting rooms, restrooms and more. The 109-acre North Park, for instance, also has a media/scorekeeper area, picnic pavilion, and playground so parents can keep an eye on smaller children. And the Wall to Wall Sports Center offers seven fields of various sizes (grass and artificial turf), a pro shop, locker rooms and café/snack bar.
Alpharetta plays host to a number of large events, including the recent SELC Annual Lacrosse College Playoffs, along with the LB3 Reindeer Games Youth Tournament, Legacy Lacrosse Cup Tournament and Merry Laxmas Tournament.
“The Alpharetta CVB is committed to providing the highest level of service and hospitality, which truly enhances the experience of staying and playing,” says Alpharetta CVB President and CEO Janet Rodgers.
Binghamton, New York
Binghamton lays claim to holding what may be the largest indoor lacrosse tournament in the world, says Judi Hess of the Greater Binghamton CVB. The Sixth Annual John Mack Southern Tier Shootout, held in February in the indoor dome at the Greater Binghamton Sports Complex, brought in 99 teams from throughout the Northeast, Midwest and Canada, playing 150 games over two days. Age groups ranged from third-graders up to Grand Masters aged 45 and older. The tournament helps raise money to buy defibrillators to donate to local sports clubs and non-profit organizations.
A new outdoor lacrosse event at the Edge Sports Complex, planned to be held every June, is the Edge Warrior Shootout. The Edge complex has both indoor and outdoor fields, as does the Greater Binghamton Sports Complex. Also available are grass fields and two artificial turf fields at Binghamton University.
“Lacrosse is a sport that’s growing in our community overall,” Hess says, “and that support is definitely helping us to bring more events into our area.”
Even more proof that lacrosse continues to grow across the country can be found in Decatur, where the impressive Jack Allen Recreation Complex hosted its first lacrosse event in June—the co-ed River City Rivalry. The Jack Allen complex has 11 natural grass fields built on three tiers, all with lights (including television-quality lighting).
“After seeing the Complex and experiencing the hospitality by staff members, it seemed to be a perfect fit,” said Tournament Co-Director Melanie Johnson. “We believe this event will allow us to continue to grow the sport of lacrosse not only in Alabama, but in the Southeast.”
“Once you drive into Jack Allen, it’s like no other facility,” says Leonard Morris of the Decatur/Morgan County CVB. “It’s the jewel of our Park and Rec Department. They make sure when people come to play on these fields, they’re taken care of.” The complex (which has hosted soccer events with up to 240 teams) has all sorts of amenities and conveniences for players, organizers, fans and families.
Also available in Decatur, and adding another five fields, is the Spirit of America Fields, which has concessions and an outdoor pavilion that can accommodate up to 500 people.
Greenville, South Carolina
With lacrosse, says Todd Bertka of the Greenville CVB, “We have a unique opportunity. We’re on the cusp of really exploding in growth from a youth standpoint.” Furman University, for example, is adding Division 1 lacrosse next season and renovating its facilities, “so we’ll have some strong lacrosse momentum.”
The marquee lacrosse event in Greenville is the Men’s Collegiate Lacrosse Association National Championships, which takes place in May at the Wenwood Soccer Complex’s six fields (five of which are lighted). The complex includes a full-service concession stand and an athletic trainers’ hut. The MCLA championship match takes place in downtown Greenville at the historic Sirrine Stadium (it was used in the movie “Leatherheads”).
But lacrosse in Greenville also has use of the larger Mesa Soccer Complex, which offers 16 contiguous fields and a ton of parking. Most of the fields are lighted, and there are two full-service concession stands and an outdoor pavilion. The Pittman Park Complex has five grass fields, and there is a full-size, lighted turf facility available at the Salvation Army Center.
Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania
Lacrosse continues to grow in eastern Pennsylvania, says Michael “Kuzy” Kusmuk, the director of sports marketing for Discover Lehigh Valley Sports. “We’re doing three large lacrosse tournaments this year, and we’re hosting once again a women’s national tournament for U.S. Lacrosse at Lehigh University.” Another venue is Bicentennial Park, which is home to the annual Laxpalooza tournament.
In addition, last year’s “Lehigh Laxfest” event, held every June, had about 310 boys’ teams—one of the largest boys’ lacrosse events in the country—which translated into about 14,000 people who came into the area for that one tournament. This year, a girl’s tournament was added to Laxfest on a later weekend in June.
Lehigh University is one of the premier facilities for lacrosse in the area, with about 16 fields available. “It’s a beautiful campus, and they run events really well,” Kusmuk says. The Lehigh men’s head lacrosse coach, Kevin Cassese, is committed to growing the sport and works alongside tournament organizers to make sure the events all run smoothly, he adds.
Loudoun County, Virginia
Karin Aaron of the Loudoun Convention & Visitors Association is already seeing huge growth opportunities for lacrosse. “We have a tremendous number of public rectangular fields and sites available,” she says. “Soccer has been very big here, but in recent years we’ve had three private facilities come on board and they’ve really starting digging into lacrosse, which continues to grow in popularity here.” Aaron says she recently met with lacrosse organizations, “and they all want to come here.”
In addition to excellent venues, Loudoun County, in northern Virginia, has a number of things going for it, including its proximity to Washington, D.C., and the East Coast in general. There also are at least 47 fields in the county suitable for lacrosse events, and they’re all within about 15 minutes’ drive from each other.
The award-winning, public Philip A. Bolen Memorial Park is a huge complex with 17 lighted fields, concessions and more. In addition, there are numerous private facilities available, including the new Morven Park Sports Complex which opened last year with seven full-size fields. By early 2014, another six fields are expected to be added.
Morgan Hill, California
In Morgan Hill, located south of San Jose in Santa Clara County, lacrosse has definitely been growing over the last few years, says Jeff Dixon, president of the Morgan Hill Youth Sports Alliance Inc. Three years ago, MHYSA took over management of the Morgan Hill Outdoor Sports Center, one of the premier facilities in Northern California, and Dixon says the facility now has men’s, women’s and youth lacrosse organizations using it. “We’re proud to say that U.S. Lacrosse is hosting the Western Regional Championships here at the end of June,” he adds. This is expected to bring approximately 80 teams.
The center offers two lighted synthetic turf stadium fields and nine-plus grass fields, which can be configured in many ways to suit all types of tournaments. On-site amenities include full concession stands and “canopy row,” where local vendors can set up. For event organizers, “we’re a turn-key operation in the services we provide,” Dixon says. The area is home to dozens of restaurants all within minutes of the sports facility, along with 500 hotel rooms right across the street, with easy freeway access and an easy drive to three major airports.
Pasco County, Florida
Since 2008, Pasco County has hosted the Dick’s Sporting Goods Tournament of Champions every December, which brings in more than 90 elite-level lacrosse teams from around the U.S. and Canada. “This year, we’re expecting more than 100 teams to play in the event,” says Eric Keaton of the Office of Tourism Development. In addition, the Wesley Chapel Athletic Association hosts several large lacrosse tourneys throughout the year at the Wesley Chapel District Park.
The District Park is about 30 minutes north of Tampa and offers 10 grass fields, and just a mile away is the high school, which has four fields. Also available is the Land O’ Lakes Recreation Complex with eight fields. Keaton says the county is looking to expand and create more sports fields, too.
The Dick’s event is a boys’ tournament, and Keaton says the quality of play “has helped expand lacrosse programs in our local schools,” bringing with it a lot of support for the sport in the area.
Wildwood, New Jersey
A unique lacrosse experience is now in its fourth year in Wildwood: beach lacrosse. “We have several beach sports events,” says Merideth Fiorucci, director of group sales & events at Morey’s Piers, which is along the Atlantic Ocean in southern New Jersey. “We’re an amusement pier and waterpark on the Wildwood boardwalk, and we’ve developed a beach sports brand that includes lacrosse, soccer and hockey. Beach soccer has been going on for 10 years, and we have thousands of players playing barefoot on the beach.” For the lacrosse event July 19-21, Fiorucci says there will be nearly 100 teams, playing on 15 “fields” set up on the sand.
“It’s a phenomenon that’s catching on,” she adds. “We first learned about beach lacrosse being played in the Netherlands, and we sent a team to attend. To our knowledge, we’re the only beach lacrosse tournament in the country.”
Participants also receive free admission to the attractions at Morey’s Piers. Wildwood is about 35 miles south of Atlantic City and has hundreds of hotels and restaurants in the area.