Baltimore is no-brainer for lacrosse's hub

May 25, 2008|By DAVID STEELE

Back in March, the Face-Off Classic at M&T Bank Stadium brought four elite lacrosse programs together for an electric season opener: Johns Hopkins, Princeton, Syracuse and Virginia. Less than three months later, three of those four - all but Princeton - convened again in Foxborough, Mass., with a little more on the line.

That tells us that the Face-Off Classic organizers can really pick 'em. The crowd of almost 20,000 for the first weekend of March tells us that, as usual, Baltimore stands behind no one as the go-to location for the sport - the teams, players and fans. So does the record final four-announced attendance of 52,004 last year at the stadium.

If you haven't guessed where this is going yet, time to end the suspense. If Baltimore does not become the permanent home of the men's final four - and, in all fairness, it should do some more moving around to keep spreading the gospel of the sport - then it needs to be placed here on a permanent rotating basis.

Better than that, though, either the Face-Off Classic or the final four should be here every year. Either begin the Division I season in town or finish it here.

Yes, that contradicts the plea in this space in March to give the Face-Off Classic a permanent home at M&T Bank. This idea is better.

There is precedent for this, albeit with an established sport with much broader appeal. When Indianapolis, the home of NCAA headquarters, started building its new stadium (which opens this fall), it cut a deal with the NCAA to be in a regular cycle of hosting men's and women's basketball Final Fours, with earlier-round games locked in the year before each one. That puts a men's regional in the stadium next March, the men's Final Four the year after and the women's event in 2011.

So it's not a radical idea. We already know the NCAA lacrosse folks are set on testing new waters. Face-Off Classic organizer Andy Bilello said last week that he doesn't mind his event doing the same - but not right now. Next season's event is all but locked in to M&T Bank, with Hopkins and Princeton committed to playing again.

Syracuse and Virginia have said they can't commit every season and keep giving up big home games, but they loved the Classic and want to stay in the loop.

Even hosting one on campus at Scott Stadium was not far-fetched, Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage said: "But then, do you lose some of the aura of being in a place like Baltimore, and being at the hub of the sport?"

Yes, you do.

This all demands a real balancing act - serving the core of the game here in town, and letting others into a circle that it's still hard to convince people is not snobbishly closed. Plus, with crowds such as the ones here, in Philadelphia and in Foxborough, at NFL stadiums, there's money to be made, too.

The Face-Off Classic knows that eventually other programs will need to get into the mix (hello, Maryland and Navy), as will other sites. "It definitely is something we'd like to do, to take this example and take it to other markets," Bilello said, adding, for various reasons, including scheduling, travel and weather, "Right now, this is the best market for this."

Meanwhile, the next final four up for bidding is in 2010, after another stay in the Boston area next spring, meaning the first window for either event to be in Baltimore is just two years away. NCAA officials will discuss it in Foxborough this weekend. Besides Baltimore and the other recent big-stadium sites, Denver, Cleveland and even Washington (FedEx Field) are believed to have interest in future final fours.

Remember, though, it was Baltimore, in 2003, that got the tide turned in that direction. "Because of Baltimore's past success, it's a completely different playing field for the NCAA," said Greg Smith, the former chief operating officer of the Maryland Stadium Authority and the founding president of the Camden Yards Sports and Entertainment Commission, who now runs a sports consulting firm.

So, to repeat, we have two top-notch college lacrosse events with proven drawing power, each at one end of the season, devoted to establishing, growing and cashing in on the sport.

But there's only one true, recognized hotbed. One event or the other needs to be in that hotbed, every year.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Listen to David Steele on Wednesdays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).

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