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This could very well be a lacrosse world, and we’re all just living in it.
US Lacrosse releases an annual report monitoring participation at all levels of the sport, from youth to high school to college to the pros, gathering data from organized teams across the country.
Those numbers are quite telling. Simply put, lacrosse is the fastest growing sport in the United States.
“It’s a virus in a good way. Once you pick up a stick, you’re with it for life.” – David Gross, Commissioner of Major League Lacrosse
While the majority of participation remains at the youth level (15 and under), the high school and college numbers are catching up. The feeder system for one of the oldest sports in North America is starting to pay off, as a total of 42 four-year colleges began varsity programs last year and another 29 have been announced for 2016, according to US Lacrosse’s 2014 report.
US Lacrosse began collecting data for its annual report in 2001, and calculated an overall participation number of just over 250,000. The latest tally of organized lacrosse athletes is just a few thousand participants away from 800,000.
“US Lacrosse is a young organization, we started in 1999. That unified structure has been a real catalyst for growth,” said Steve Stenerson, President and CEO of US Lacrosse. “We rely on the support of members and donors, and over that time we’ve invested well over 175-million dollars in grass-root elements of safety, rules, and equipment. That structure has really galvanized the sport.”
Traditionally, the northeast was known as the hotbed of lacrosse in the U.S. It remains a very popular sport in Massachusetts, and New York still yields the most youth players in the country. But the sport has seen large spikes in growth throughout the south, as well as the west coast. In 2015, the University of Denver became the first NCAA Men’s Division I champion outside the Eastern Time Zone.
Lacrosse growth by state
US Lacrosse works with the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) to gather its high school data, and has reported lacrosse as the fastest growing sport for more than a decade. And not only does it show no signs of slowing down, but there is ample room for more growth.
According to the report, lacrosse is sanctioned by the NFHS in just 22 states, while the sport is only sponsored by about 14 percent of high schools that annually report information to the official governing body. Outside of the NFHS scope, there are more than 1,000 additional schools sponsoring the sport of lacrosse.
The growth over the previous five years at the high school level has been substantial for lacrosse, with no other sport topping the 10-percent mark in expansion rate.
While all these numbers are significant, the highest level is in a very interesting position. The professional circuit, which only accounts for a tiny percentage of lacrosse players in the U.S., needs to catch up with its exploding feeder system.
Major League Lacrosse was founded in 2001 with six franchises, including Massachusetts’ own Boston Cannons. MLL grew to 10 franchises, but scaled back to six in 2009 as a result of the struggling U.S. economy.
But as the sport itself continued its meteoric rise in the lower levels, the league added two franchises in 2014 with new teams in Florida and Ohio, and a latest addition of Atlanta brings the league to a total of nine. MLL plans on expanding further in fairly short order, and wants to grow to 16 teams over the next 10 years.
Video: Boston Cannons on the growth of lacrosse
“Our next market is Texas, and we want to keep going west,” said David Gross, Commissioner of MLL. “What we found works for us is to go and sample a market. We just expanded to Atlanta because we spent three years playing there and primed the market for it. We start getting to know the market, build the relationships, and get the right partners involved.”
The Boston Cannons played last season at Gillette Stadium, but return back to Harvard Stadium this year, a place they called home from 2007 to 2014. The Cannons hope to replicate their highly successful 2011 season, one that earned them the coveted Steinfeld Cup.
The Cannons lost a heartbreaker in overtime of the semi-finals last season to the New York Lizards.
“Last season we were a young and powerful team,” said Ian Frennette, President of the Cannons. “There is a lot energy inside our walls. Being that close and losing, it builds character as you look ahead. All these guys work very closely together. It’s very much a team sport out there, it’s one of our best attributes.”
But many of the Cannons athletes, as with other franchises, have full-time jobs to help support the passion of playing professionally. Both Stenerson and Gross understand that drive, and as far as the sport itself, see the forest through the trees.
“What intrigues me and keeps a lot of us in the sport motivated is the opportunity,” said Stenerson, a two-time NCAA champ at lacrosse powerhouse North Carolina. “We’re still dwarfed by many of the mainstream sports, we have such a long way to go. But there is such incredible opportunity to grow and scale in such a competitive and cluttered environment. That’s exciting.”
And there’s something about a pure love for the game, too.
“As soon as you touch a stick, you realize it. It’s more than a game, it’s a lifestyle. Everything about it is fun,” added Gross. “It’s fun to practice, just have a catch, to throw against a wall by yourself. Any body size can play. You don’t have to be 7-feet tall to play the game, we’ll find a place for you on the field. It’s perfect.”
The Boston Cannons start the season on April 23 at the Charlotte Hounds, then return to Boston a week later in their home opener against the Atlanta Blaze. Visit the Cannons’ web site for more information.