Baltimore typically likes to view itself as the mecca of college lacrosse. Why hold the championship anywhere else, supporters ask, when people from Maryland and the surrounding region are going to show up every year regardless of who is playing?
It's an intriguing argument -- Baltimore is, after all, a central location with a rabid lacrosse fan base -- but it's also one that suffered a minor blow this Memorial Day when only 37,126 people attended the men's Division I title game between Duke and Notre Dame at M&T Bank Stadium. It was the smallest crowd at a men's final since the championship was moved to football stadiums in 2003.
But Baltimore still has a pretty strong case to argue that it should be the permanent home for the final four. For the weekend, 116,289 fans came out to M&T Bank Stadium to watch the Division I semifinals and final and the DivisionII and Division III finals, which was up from the 102,601 that turned out last year in Foxborough, Mass.
And across town, the women's Division I championship game between Maryland and Northwestern, at Towson University's Johnny Unitas Stadium, was watched by 9,782 people -- the most ever to see a women's lacrosse game in the United States. That broke the mark of 8,762 set just two days before, when Maryland faced Syracuse in the national semifinals.
The men's championships are returning to Baltimore next season, and then they'll go back to Foxborough for 2012. But for 2013 and 2014, the site has yet to be determined, and there are plenty of people who feel it should return to Baltimore and stay there.
Baltimore is one of five cities believed to be bidding for the right to host the championship those years, although the NCAA doesn't discuss the official bids. The Greater Washington Sports Alliance has stated publicly that it is hoping to host the event at FedEx Field, which would be the farthest south it has gone. And Gillette Stadium in Foxborough and Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia are also likely to be interested. The announcement is expected to come in July.
Duke coach John Danowski, whose team defeated Notre Dame, 6-5, in the men's final for its first national title, said he wouldn't mind if it was held in Baltimore every year.
"I love having it in Baltimore," Danowski said. "It's easy to get to.
"It's easy to drive to. It's easy to fly to because you've got Southwest. It's downtown and close to everything. When you're in Boston, you're driving 45 minutes from the hotel and nobody knows who you are. Here, the kids are like rock stars for the weekend. So it's really a neat environment."
Jeff Jarnecke, the NCAA's associate director for championships, said he understands the obvious benefits of having the event in Charm City.
Jarnecke said the Saturday semifinals crowd of 44,389 "exceeded expectations and then some" by the NCAA. The fact that the attendance was that high despite the absence of a local team or a traditional power such as Syracuse was impressive, he said.
"If you throw a Hopkins, a Syracuse or a Maryland into that, and we're looking at 10,000 to 15,000 more and a record year," Jarnecke said.
"So we now know what that core audience is, and we'll be able to build on that and see 55,000 to 65,000 the next couple of years."
But there is also a delicate balancing act, Jarnecke acknowledged, that the governing body feels it has to attempt to grow the sport. Speculation within the sport has grown in recent years that the NCAA might hold the final four somewhere such as Colorado, California or the Pacific Northwest -- areas of the country where the game is growing the fastest.
"The men's lacrosse committee is committed to the grassroots effort in terms of growing the game," Jarnecke said. "We know we have a responsibility to the game of lacrosse to take that west of the Mississippi -- to Denver, to Southern California, to Texas and all these other pockets that are growing. Does that mean we take the championship there? Maybe not in the next five years. But does that mean we start looking at the first round, or a quarterfinal round?
"Absolutely. So while we have great success [in Baltimore], I believe we can have great success in a number of locations."
Kristen Jacob Smith, the NCAA's assistant director of online properties and media for championships, said there is an advantage in terms of media exposure when the championships are held in Baltimore.
Nearly 300 media members were credentialed this week, which she said is a noticeable increase from last year.
"We all know Baltimore is the hotbed for lacrosse," Jacob Smith said.
"And we did have a great showing in Gillette. But with the economy being down and papers cutting their budgets, I do think it's easier for more media to travel to this one."
Notre Dame coach Kevin Corrigan said he wishes the final four were held in two places, and they could trade off each year as the host.
And Baltimore would certainly be one of those places.
"It's so much more than a lacrosse game," Corrigan said. "It's an event. And if you look at the crowd, it's families. For those people, I think it's nice when it's in one place or another. They know the setup, they know where to stay. I think that makes it easier. I'd love to see them leave it in a couple places, but greater minds than mine get to decide that."