State sport makes triumphant return

Ncaa Lacrosse Final Four

May 26, 2007|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN REPORTER

Tens of thousands of lacrosse fans will descend on downtown Baltimore over the next three days for the NCAA men's semifinals and finals, an ever-growing celebration of a sport with deep ties to the area.

Local residents will cheer Johns Hopkins' storied program, Delaware fans will caravan down in hopes of seeing an upset. The Cornell faithful will root for the emergence of a new powerhouse. And Duke supporters will pray for a happy ending to one of the most dramatic sports sagas of the past year.

They'll be greeted not just by games but by lacrosse clinics, concerts and tall ships at the Inner Harbor. The tournament's director equated the gala to an Olympic Village for lacrosse.

The local sports officials who helped bring the final four back after a two-year absence would like to see the same scene every spring. They view Baltimore as the cradle of lacrosse and say it would make an ideal permanent home for the championship weekend. They believe the expected record crowd will help them make their case.

"I think this is a real opportunity for Maryland and Baltimore to make a statement to the NCAA that this is where the event should be permanently," said tournament director Marty Schwartz. "I think it comes down to attendance. If we put 60,000 or 65,000 in the stadium, then that becomes pretty hard to argue against."

With 49,000 tickets already sold as of yesterday for today's semifinals and Monday's title game, Baltimore has surpassed the advance-sales record set in Philadelphia last year. Tournament officials hope to pack as many as 60,000 fans into M&T Bank Stadium and project $15 million in economic impact for the city.

The NCAA isn't ready to settle on one location for the lacrosse championships just yet. The event drew well in Philadelphia last year, so it's likely to keep being shifted to other cities, said a key NCAA decision-maker.

"Might we look for a permanent home someday?" said John Williams, NCAA director of championships. "Maybe. But I think it's good to keep moving for now. It helps the sport continue to grow."

In many ways Baltimore remains the cultural center for lacrosse. US Lacrosse and the sport's Hall of Fame are headquartered in the city. Six Maryland college programs are perennial favorites to make the NCAA tournament. Area high school stars dot rosters of other teams. And Baltimore is one of the only towns in America where yards are as apt to feature lacrosse goals as basketball hoops.

"This is the place for lacrosse," Schwartz said. "This is where it lives and breathes."

Schwartz acknowledged that the large crowds for the 2005 and 2006 events in Philadelphia work against naming a permanent site. Philadelphia set an attendance record of 47,062 last year.

"My gut feeling is that they're not going to settle in one place," he said.

Boston will host next year, and that could test the breadth of the sport's appeal. Will Maryland-based devotees make the trip, and will enough New England residents replace those who don't?

Schwartz isn't so sure. But Williams said that the sport has become popular enough that it could draw healthy crowds anywhere on the East Coast.

If the sport continues to grow, the NCAA might look to Colorado or California, Williams said. But he said the event will remain in the Northeast for now.

Baltimore will bid to bring it back in 2009. The city will make its presentation in August.

Williams said he likes the current scenario in which cities try to one-up each other to attract the championship.

"We like keeping everyone challenged to make it bigger and better every year," he said.

Williams said that's no slap against Baltimore. "We're well aware of what the city has to offer," he said. "Could Baltimore be the host forever? Sure."

US Lacrosse takes no position on where the championship should be held. "But it's been neat to see other areas get involved in the success," said spokesman Brian Logue. "I think people were surprised to see how well it did in Philly, and it's taken on a whole other life with that.

"If you had suggested a crowd of 50,000 or 60,000 a few years ago, people would've thought you were crazy," he said.

The NCAA holds several lower-division championships in fixed locations. Omaha has hosted the College World Series since 1950. But the more heavily attended championship games tend to move annually.

Until 2003, the NCAA held its lacrosse championships on various campuses, including the University of Maryland. Baltimore was the first city to hold the event in a professional stadium. The 2004 attendance of 43,898 showed other cities that lacrosse could be a big draw in the Northeast. Philadelphia's success confirmed it.

But Schwartz and others believe that between strong attendance and the proximity of the Inner Harbor, Baltimore still offers the most appealing setting.

"We're a sure, solid success," said Paul A. Tiburzi, chairman of the Camden Yards Sports and Entertainment Commission, an off-shoot of the Maryland Stadium Authority. "And you can't beat success."

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