Television helping lacrosse enter the picture nationally

The Kickoff

March 14, 2007|By MIKE PRESTON

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, lacrosse has been the fastest growing sport over the past decade, and there has been a similar increase in the college ranks. Louisville, Oregon and St. John's now have programs, and college teams will be started soon in Arkansas, Florida, Michigan and Tennessee.

A major influence has been the increase in television coverage. Lacrosse is now being treated like a real sport, being shown locally on WMAR (Channel 2), as well as on the various ESPN channels, Comcast SportsNet and Mid-Atlantic Sports Network. From the East Coast to the West Coast, all you need to see lacrosse is a remote.

"Television helps the sport hit other areas than the traditional hotbeds," said Quint Kessenich, a former All-America goalie at Johns Hopkins and a commentator for ESPN. "Areas such as Florida, Texas and Ohio are seeing quality Division I games. Fifteen to 20 years ago, these same people were seeing one quality game a year. Now, they're seeing 25."

As the TV market has expanded, so have the college recruiting bases. Areas such as Baltimore, Long Island and upstate New York are still the hotbeds, but coaches need more money for their recruiting budgets. The emphasis isn't on finding the pure lacrosse players anymore, but athletes as well.

Maryland coach Dave Cottle has a commitment from a player in Florida and another from a player in Massachusetts. Virginia coach Dom Starsia has been in Chicago and Ohio.

"Television coverage has been unbelievable and has forced us into other pockets of the country," Cottle said. "The games are now being seen in Utah, Las Vegas and California. Our results are now on the ticker at the bottom of the screen. We're being treated like a real sport now."

Few people imagined lacrosse would ever get this type of coverage. On the men's side, lacrosse always seemed to have potential for success, but was slowed with the introduction of Title IX, which forced colleges to provide equal athletic opportunities for men and women.

But in 1997, Channel 2 televised a Johns Hopkins-Maryland game, followed by a Game of the Week format in 1998. It was a risky move. Lacrosse doesn't have the following of the Ravens, Orioles and University of Maryland, but it does have a strong tradition in Baltimore, and its fan base is extremely loyal.

Also, lacrosse can bring in big corporate advertising dollars.

"We thought there was always a built-in audience, but we were surprised because there was more of an audience than we thought," former Channel 2 broadcaster Keith Mills said. "I think we brought in some new lacrosse fans because this was new, and they weren't used to seeing lacrosse showed this way. Secondly, there is a lot of tradition here with Hopkins and Maryland, and finally, people were able to put faces with the names.

"You've got to give Channel 2 credit because they took a risk. Nobody knew what was going to happen."

The ratings weren't high then, and they aren't high nationally now. But that doesn't mean the telecasts can't be successful.

"The ratings will never be very high," Kessenich said. "But the advertising base is sound and geared toward young and affluent viewers."

When played properly, or at the pace of a Syracuse vs. Virginia game, it's hard for TV to keep up with the game, especially ball movement. But TV has instant replays, and the slow-motion angles are showing the beauty of a well-placed shot by a midfielder. Or it can show the catlike reflexes of a goalie having to make a save one-on-one at the top of the crease.

As in the NFL, cameras are going inside team huddles and picking up coaching strategies. The next step has to be the "miked up" segment, even though that would be extremely risky, because no coaches berate officials more than those in college lacrosse. A top candidate would be Towson's Tony Seaman, because Seaman, well, adds a lot of color to the sport.

"You got the replays, the slow-motion," Kessenich said. "You have more access to tape where you can actually watch the slow-motion, the angle of a good shooter, and learn how to defense him if you want. All the tape of an opponent is available; all you have to do is run it through a computer."

Television also puts coaches under scrutiny. They can be second-guessed for decisions on the air just as the NBA's Pat Riley or the NFL's Tony Dungy can. There are plenty of armchair quarterbacks out there waiting for them the next day, too.

But Cottle isn't offended. TV has helped with the game's evolution.

"What were there, like 40,000 people at the last Final Four? No one could have predicted that," Cottle said. And then he smiles and laughs about the second-guessing.

"Like I said, I guess we're a real sport now," he said.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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