Hint to NCAA: You should stick with Baltimore

May 31, 2004|By MIKE PRESTON

IF TOURNAMENT director Marty Schwartz's goal was to make the NCAA final four lacrosse heaven in Baltimore, then he succeeded. At this time of year, the city has the flavor of a small Olympic village, with its hotels packed with fans and players who are within walking distance of the stadium. There is a giant lacrosse festival at Rash Field, and the Inner Harbor is close by.

Instead of going to Ocean City and Delaware beaches on Memorial Day weekend, families are spending quality time at M&T Bank Stadium. A record crowd of 46,923 attended the Division I semifinals Saturday, breaking the mark of 37,944 set here last year.

The final four is no longer a sporting event, but a happening.

So now you have to ask why the NCAA, in its infinite wisdom, moved the tournament to Philadelphia for the next two years when it was just starting to take off in Baltimore.

"The NCAA moves their championships around; that's what they do," said Schwartz. "They must run 40-some championships a year, and there is only one [baseball] that stays in one place."

It was a mistake to move this tournament. A big mistake. Forget this move-around-and-spread-the-wealth philosophy. Philadelphia can't draw these enormous crowds; neither can Long Island, N.Y. What the NCAA doesn't realize is that lacrosse is as much a part of Baltimore as crab cakes and summers filled with hot, humid weather.

On any given afternoon after March 1, you'll find a kid outside somewhere with a stick in his hand. Five-year-olds in the Towson area trade their toy trucks and dolls for soft sticks. Fights for players in the Cockeysville and Lutherville areas are as intense as any of the Ali-Frazier epics. Recreation coaches whine and throw temper tantrums about officials' calls as often and as long as Princeton coach Bill Tierney.

On a spring Saturday night in College Park, a Maryland-Johns Hopkins contest will outdraw an Orioles-Devils Rays game at Camden Yards.

The diehard lacrosse fans will travel anywhere for the tournament, but newcomers won't. They'll make the trip to Baltimore, though, because it's special.

Baltimore has the sport's hall of fame and is the host city of U.S. Lacrosse. Towson, Hopkins, Loyola, UMBC, Navy and Maryland are all within a 30-minute drive. No other city has the potential to draw as many fans. There have been only two years (1988 and 1994) since the tournament began in 1971 that the state of Maryland didn't have a representative in the final four.

"It would be extremely difficult," Schwartz said of another city's outdrawing Baltimore. "We have potentially six home schools here, so we always have that opportunity to draw. Philadelphia doesn't have a home team. The closest home team is Princeton, but that's not in their neighborhood. We're talking about people who grew up in Baltimore and went to those institutions."

But it's not just about the culture, but economics, accessibility and atmosphere. There are eight first-class hotels within a short walk of M&T Bank Stadium. Philadelphia can't top that, and neither can Giants Stadium, another possible site, which is surrounded by a swamp.

The NCAA has talked about returning the tournament to a campus, but most colleges also lack a high number of quality hotels in the immediate area.

"When we had basketball championships [first- and second-round NCAA games] here in 1995, the NCAA championship director at that time came in and said there was no better city to host a championship than Baltimore because of the proximity of hotels to the arena," said Schwartz. "Going back to the college campus at this point will be very difficult."

The NCAA made the decision to move the tournament to Philadelphia at the end of last summer. But the decision should have been in Baltimore's favor. Since the inception of the tournament, the top four paid attended events were in College Park.

We all knew it was going to be even bigger and better in Baltimore, where the Ravens have fully endorsed the game. It's just a natural fit. A record crowd still came to the tournament last year despite constant rain and a horrendous playing surface.

"Last year probably surprised me more than this year with the weather and all," said Schwartz. "I thought it would take us four years to hit 50,000. A lot of it has to do with the teams, too. This year, Navy, being in it for the first time, makes a big difference. If Cornell beats Navy, then we only draw 44,000 or 45,000. I think 60,000 is reachable four or five years from now."

That's if the tournament comes back to Baltimore. Schwartz has to put in a bid this summer to bring the games back for 2007 and 2008.

"I really felt like this tournament was given to us to turn this into a national event, a national happening, and I think we've done that," said Schwartz. "We have four great host schools [Hopkins, UMBC, Loyola and Towson], and I've got the pick of the best people from the four schools for the most part. Even with them, without the help of the Ravens, we couldn't be able to do this. This is no different than any start-up business.

"You start it up, build it up to where it is," said Schwartz. "We knew they moved it on a regular basis, and we had hoped to convince them to keep it here. I was a little disappointed when they announced the move, but I'll be more upset if we don't get it back in '07 and '08."

And so will an entire city.

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