Pro lacrosse in summer not exactly a hot ticket

July 19, 2002|By MIKE PRESTON

THE "HOTBED" of lacrosse has been lukewarm to Major League Lacrosse and the Baltimore Bayhawks. It's pretty much the same cold shoulder the city gave to the defunct professional indoor game a few years ago.

Another sparse crowd of 3,498 attended the Bayhawks' 17-10 win over the New Jersey Pride last night at Ravens Stadium. The weather was decent, with little humidity and no tornado warnings. The talent was good, as usual, a standard for the league the past two seasons.

But where were the fans?

In five home games, the Bayhawks are averaging about 4,000 fans, same as last year. There were just as many bats circling the press box last night as there were fans in the stands. There was a constant echo throughout the stadium from the PA announcer.

So, what gives, Baltimore?

Isn't this the mecca?

Bayhawks and league officials are still scratching their heads over this mystery, but the truth is that Baltimore fans aren't as rabid about the sport as believed.

They aren't like fans of the Green Bay Packers, Boston Celtics or New York Rangers. In Baltimore, only half the sports fans care about lacrosse.

"It's an incredible product on the field. The players do some unbelievable things," said Quint Kessenich, the former Johns Hopkins All-America goalie who does commentary on the games for several TV networks. "Baltimore is known as a lacrosse town, as the capital.

"But unless there is direct involvement, there is not the same interest as other teams. People in Baltimore will coach their sons and daughters, they will root for their high school and college teams, but unless they have been involved in the game as a player or coach, there isn't that much of an interest."

There are other problems as well. It's hard to sell summer lacrosse in Baltimore. It's a beach town. When the college season ends and the high schools close, fans head to Camden Yards for the Orioles (if they are playing well) or Ocean City for fun.

When was the last time you walked into a bar and someone asked you what was the Bayhawks' score?

"Right from the beginning, I thought the sport had a better chance of making it in the fall," said University of Maryland lacrosse coach Dave Cottle. "Lacrosse could challenge college and high school football because they are not inbred like some other areas. In Baltimore, if they are giving out a red alert because of the humidity, people don't go outside unless they are heading to the beach."

The Bayhawks are aware of the weather problem. On June 6, the team's first home game, there were tornado warnings. The second home game was July 4, when it was 116 degrees on the field.

By the way, who was the genius who scheduled the game on the Fourth of July?

The best solution, at least for Baltimore, is to play in the spring during the college season. The Bayhawks could play their games on Saturday nights after the colleges, and at a time of the year when fans are still crazed about the sport, and the humidity isn't so thick that it sends you into hibernation.

The Bayhawks might lose Ravens Stadium as a venue, but there are other options.

"We still believe summertime is great," said Jake Steinfeld, MLL founder. "We feel as though it's the best time for lacrosse fans, and for exposure."

But it's not working in Baltimore. The Bayhawks thought moving from Hopkins to Ravens Stadium would increase attendance because there was more parking, better locker rooms, a natural-grass playing surface and the video replay boards.

That hasn't worked either.

It would be a shame if the Bayhawks failed. This isn't like other start-up leagues like the XFL or the CBA. The MLL has the best players in the sport. The speed of the game, with a 45-second shot clock, is astonishing. The passes are quick, at times unbelievable, and the shooting is extraordinary, with shots coming from all angles.

The stadium music is classic, with some old Funkadelic and James Brown. Now, if the MLL could get the coaches to start coaching when the cameras are in the huddle.

But the sport is flourishing in other areas around the country. Last year, the MLL had one major TV carrier that showed five games. This season, there are 12 major carriers that go into 60 million households, compared to 16 million last season. According to Steinfeld, the league might add two teams next season, with Northern Virginia, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Raleigh, N.C., as possible sites. The league has commitments from major sponsors to keep it afloat for at least two more years.

"When the games are on nationally, I'm getting comments from people in Santa Fe, Colorado, Atlanta who are doing back flips about the sport, some of them getting the games for the first time," Kessenich said. "There was a buzz here early in the season, but those things [weather problems] really hurt. There hasn't been that buzz since."

Something is wrong. Maybe it's because the sport has a shot clock and a two-point arc that makes it different from the traditional version of the game. Baltimoreans like it pure. Heck, some of them think they invented the game.

But they aren't turning out to watch it professionally.

"Baltimore is a top-notch outfit with top-notch guys in the front office and great fans," Steinfeld said. "It took time to build the NHL and the NBA, and it will take time to build up a base in Baltimore. We've got a long way to go, but we've got a great product. I want it to work in Baltimore and believe it will. I really believe that."

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