The NCAA Championship Weekend is my favorite weekend of the year. I have gone every year since 2007, only missing 2008 and 2011 in that span. Even in those years, I did go see the quarterfinals the week before. The reasons why I enjoy this event are numerous, but they were all confirmed once again this year. Here’s a little run down of the weekend and why I keep coming back.
First and foremost is the lacrosse itself. I love watching top NCAA lacrosse teams and I really do think this is the best version of the sport. I completely understand why people argue that the MLL or NLL are the tops as they have the best talent on display. I can’t argue with that. The talent top to bottom of an MLL roster is no comparison to even an NCAA champion. The best NCAA teams do have MLL talent though. There’s a reason why players from Memorial Day are going to be seeing time immediately the next weekend in the MLL. They’re in the shape to pull it off and they have the skill already.
What NCAA lacrosse offers is what is still a far off hope in professional lacrosse: practice. Not a game. Practice. Sorry, but that classic Iverson rant happened just across the parking lot from these games, thus making this reference superbly relevant. Continuing on, that extra practice and familiarity allows teams to run more players, more schemes, more set plays.
For some, this exact idea is what they hate about college lacrosse right now and will point to the Championship game between Maryland and Denver as the epitome of it. They say increased specialization and over coaching at the DI level is killing the game. This is where I have to point to other sports, namely the NFL version of football, as it is largely regarded as the most popular sport in the US. The amount of chemistry, timing, and specialization in the NFL is hard to match by any sport. Players rotate in nearly every single play to match the down and distance needs at the time. 3rd and 4 on the opponent’s 28? Send in the 2 TE set with 2 WRs to the right and a single back. 3rd and 4 on your own 28? Split Back formation with 1 TE and 2 WRs. The defense of course is doing the exact same thing as they move around linebackers, safeties, nickel backs, dimes, and corners. All this complex terminology and chess piece-like maneuvering has never been discussed as millions tune in and go to games every single week during the fall. It doesn’t seem to be hurting football’s popularity or watchability.
Now, I absolutely believe that lacrosse is meant to be played fast. It is meant to have shots early and often with players taking risks on every possession. With that said, I have to also appreciate when two extremely well coached teams play each other on their sport’s biggest stage. I don’t want every game to be 22-21. Duke’s 6-5 game against Notre Dame in 2010 was one of the best finals I’ve seen. But so was Syracuse’s 10-9 OT win over Cornell in 2009 and the Orange’s first ever title in 1983 where they topped Hopkins 17-16. All three of these games had very different paces, styles, and rules. Will this year’s championship go down as one of the best ever? No. While it is historic for off the field reasons, it still was not as good of a game as some of those that came before it. With that said, I still thoroughly enjoyed the game. Bringing football back into the mix, how often have you heard someone say ” The Super Bowl usually isn’t even a good game”? They still watch and it still commands millions of dollars per each minute of commercial time.
What’s interesting though is that nobody was complaining about the Saturday games involving both of these teams. The Semifinal games were nothing short of fun to watch. They were both rematches from earlier in the season and were very exciting one goal games with over 20 goals scored in each. Notre Dame (Sergio Perkovic specifically) almost staged a comeback that would have been talked about for years to come. Maryland found themselves avenging a three point loss to Hopkins from a month earlier. It was a great day of lacrosse.
Division II and Division III
One of the things that makes this weekend great is also watching the DII and DIII championships on the Sunday. The DIII game hardly every disappoints as one of the fastest games you’ll ever see. Those teams take risks and run like there’s no tomorrow. There are turnovers, midfield battles, and players making spectacular plays. Division II really is a blend of the other two divisions. They’re not quite as crisp as Division I, but more controlled than Division III. The fans for both of these games are also great. A school you’ve never heard of can show up with two or three sections worth of fans who cheer non-stop from the first whistle.
The thing to also remember is that these games play under the same rules as DI. While the top 10 DI teams get the TV time and print attention, there are hundreds of teams battling day in and day out in obscurity. When two coaches at the highest level decide to play possession lacrosse with stifling defense, it is important to remember that there are 349 other men’s lacrosse teams in the NCAA. These games are the reminder of that, and their presence on this stage is not only deserved, but it should be celebrated
Another feature of this event is the fan fest that goes on outside of the stadium. Many of us show up to games during the regular season where there is a handful of parents for each team, no instant replay scoreboard, halftime huddles on the field, and walks across parking lots to get to the lockers rooms. The point being is that it is painfully obvious at times that lacrosse is still a small sport that has plenty of room to grow. At fan fest, you see just how many other fans are around. Fans walking around wearing the gear of their team, even if they didn’t make it this year. Shirts, hats, shorts, and jackets of lacrosse teams from all around the world. Kids running around behind MLL and NLL players as they walk around like rock stars while others can be relatively anonymous (I will never forget John Grant Jr. sprinting between concession stands looking for cheesesteaks a few years ago).
Also timed with Championship Weekend are a number of events going on away from the stadium. There is of course the women’s NCAA tournament which typically happens nearby. Many fans make the trek between the two venues. Equipment and other lacrosse companies host parties and VIP events all around the city. There are youth camps, clinics, and games everywhere. One notable thing new for this year was the Courage Game. Detailed information can be found HERE. This was a fantastic event held nearby at Penn and I was fortunate enough to actually play in the adult game too. It was one of the best lacrosse events I’ve ever been a part of. ESPN was there to film the youth game and there were plenty of lacrosse publishers, coaches, and supporters in attendance. This may just be one small example, but it shows what a great platform this weekend can be for promoting the game of lacrosse and the good it can do.
Much is made about the attendance numbers and how they have been falling for several years since moving to NFL stadiums. While this year did have the lowest total attendance in the NFL stadium era (72,897), it was still more than nearly every weekend from 1992-2002. The lone exception was the 73,983 in 1997 where Maryland was in the Championship at home against an undefeated Bill Tierney Princeton team. In fact, just two years before that, Maryland also hosted a title game they were in against Syracuse and 72,389 fans were there across all three days.
Needless to say, there are still a lot of people going to these games. While it is down from the high in 2007 (123,225), I still feel that NFL stadiums are the way to go. An option often mentioned as an alternative is to move to an MLS stadium. Philadelphia’s PPL Park for example, is great for lacrosse. Unfortunately, it only fits 18,500 fans. You have to go back 23 years to find a weekend where you wouldn’t be turning fans away. Red Bull Arena near New York City is a good choice, but at 25,000, you would once again be turning fans away. This is not something the lacrosse community should be campaigning for, since most of us want to see the game grow, not shrink.
College stadiums are usually brought up, but several colleges are graduating this weekend and their stadiums are in use. With the list already reduced from that, even fewer are in a spot on campus that would lend itself well to the tailgating and festival atmosphere of the weekend. You don’t go to Championship Weekend to just watch a game. You go there to watch at least five, and be a part of the lacrosse community. Those that campaign for smaller stadiums say things along the lines of “a sold out small stadium is better than an empty large stadium”. To counter this, I have to look at Syracuse. The Carrier Dome is often considered an intimidating and difficult place to play. This year, Syracuse led the NCAA in average attendance with 4,802. The Carrier Dome fits 50,000. So apparently a 10% capacity Carrier Dome creates an intimidating environment, but a 50% capacity NFL stadium feels cavernous and empty?
If those who own these NFL stadiums are seeing a return on hosting these events, let them keep at it. The ticket prices are definitely expensive, but when you consider a per game price, it’s not too bad. An all session midfield ticket was $24 per game. Those same seats would cost you $39 for a Boston Cannons regular season game. For the Toronto Rock Champions Cup game, $52. The crowds are quieter in a half full stadium, but they are by no means quiet. You still get the largest lacrosse-only crows you’ll see anywhere and you can tell.
More than anything, this weekend reminds you of the fantastic community feel our sport has. It’s a small world. You can meet the writers behind nearly every lacrosse site out there and the top broadcasters are nearly all in attendance. Coaches, players, owners, and GMs from every league are in the tailgates, enjoying the atmosphere, and talking to fans. There are almost no other sports where an event like this is held and makes the game so accessible for fans. It can of course be improved and can grow, but I love everything this weekend has to offer. It was a fantastic weekend and I already know what I’ll be doing for Memorial Day 2016.