Coaches seek balance as more lacrosse games move to NFL venues

Traditional powers want to make sure a few marquee games are also played at home

March 05, 2011|By Kevin Van Valkenburg, The Baltimore Sun

On March 12, thousands of lacrosse fanatics will filter through the gates of M&T Bank Stadium for the Face-Off Classic, eager to watch a triple header where each game could have the feel of an NCAA Tournament semifinal.

The event is expected to generate significant revenue for the city, promote the game to a larger audience, and serve as a de facto celebration for a sport that continues to grow on a national stage.

Playing a regular season contest in front of a large audience in an NFL stadium seems, at first blush, to be a no-lose situation. That feeling is not universal among elite coaches, though.

Plenty of them love it, but others, such as Duke coach John Danowski, feel somewhat ambivalent about it. Everyone loves having the Final Four in a big NFL stadium — something that's happened every year since 2003, when it was first played in Baltimore — but Danowski can't help but long for the days when important regular-season lacrosse games were a part of campus life.

"I think it's just OK," said Danowski, who won a national championship with the Blue Devils in 2010. "Part of the beauty of our sport is we're a people's sport that's played on a college campus. I've seen both sides of it. We played in Baltimore [in the Face-Off Classic] for two years, and gave up a home game, and it was nice. But there is something special about being on campus. I was just at Cameron Indoor Stadium the other night [for a basketball game] and it was really something. ... I don't know that we've done a very good job of promoting our sport as a part of the community, as something you can do on a Friday night or Saturday afternoon."

Danowski said the Blue Devils plan on scheduling fewer games in NFL stadiums next year, but he also understands he's swimming upstream on this issue. This is the fifth year of the Face-Off Classic in Baltimore, and similar promotions that feature regular season lacrosse in NFL stadiums have popped up elsewhere.

Last month, Duke and Notre Dame met in a rematch of the 2010 NCAA Championship game at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla., as a part of the Sunshine Classic, and more than 8,800 people showed up to watch. And in April, New Meadowlands Stadium will host its third annual Big City Classic, a triple header that will feature Rutgers, St. Johns, John Hopkins, North Carolina, Duke and Syracuse.

Growing the sport

Both the Face-Off Classic and the Big City Classic were created by Inside Lacrosse, which promotes the events. John Jiloty, the company's vice-president, and the editor-in-chief of its magazine and website, said he understands why someone like Danowski might feel the way he does, but for the sake of the long-term growth of the sport, he disagrees.

"I've heard that from other people, but to me, that's kind of a shortsighted view for the sport," Jiloty said. "You're going to help the sport the most by putting it in an NFL venue and giving the fan the experience of going to a top-of-the-line stadium and getting to see lacrosse on the big screen, on a great field, in a place where the Ravens or Giants play. That's was our logic when we started doing our events. Let's put the sport on the pedestal that it deserves."

While NCAA sports such as basketball and football made the decision a long time ago that generating revenue was going to play a major role in how they operated, lacrosse is still wrestling with how much it wants to hold onto some of its old traditions. There are still programs ranked in the Top 20 — Penn, for example — that do not even charge for admission to their games.

"I think like a lot of things in our sport, people now are trying to figure out ways to make money, and before, that was never a factor," Danowski said. "At lost of places don't charge admission still. At Duke, we just started charging two years ago. I think the sports has always been one where people are playing for a little bit different reasons. But now I think people see games as an opportunity to promote the game."

How much people should focus on promoting the game versus simply playing the game is a constant debate within the sport. Notre Dame has played in several NFL Stadiums in recent years, and Fighting Irish coach Kevin Corrigan has relished the experience.

"I think it's tremendous," Corrigan said. "I think about the experience the kids are having. They have plenty of games where they play in a more intimate setting. And I do think it helps grow the game. I think it's an opportunity to draw some positive attention to our sport and for people to look at our sport in a different way."

Campus matters, too

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