US Lacrosse prepares to move to new home as game continues booming

Sport has spread rapidly since governing body formed in Baltimore, but group's focus is still education

July 13, 2013|By Chris Korman, The Baltimore Sun

Even as US Lacrosse prepares to move from its city headquarters to a business park in a Baltimore County, the governing body for the country's fastest-growing sport isn't straying from its roots.

The organization outgrew its original base on University Parkway next to the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood Field more than a decade ago and has been renting office space nearby for its 80 employees.

Since forming 15 years ago as the merger of eight disparate groups, US Lacrosse has grown from 12 employees serving 15,000 players, coaches, officials and others involved in the game to a current membership of more than 415,000.

Such growth brings its own challenges, but the group's mission has changed little. While it works to increase the sport's popularity, it also spends millions of dollars working with existing leagues — most of them for youths — to establish a unified approach toward playing and teaching the game.

"Because we're one of the later national governing bodies to form, our programs are not quite as mature," said Steve Stenersen, US Lacrosse's president and CEO. The game has always grown organically, and certainly that has been the case over the last decade and a half. What we're doing now is driving that growth but also trying to put best practices in place."

More than 722,000 people play the game, but there's no widely accepted system for organizing youth leagues or ensuring officials and coaches are qualified to do their jobs, said Stenersen, a St. Paul's School alumnus who has been US Lacrosse's chief since its founding.

He and other US Lacrosse officials worry about the commercialization of the youth game, particularly elite recruiting tournaments that they believe are geared toward making money for organizers. They fear such events serve to reinforce the negative stereotype of lacrosse as an elite sport that's too expensive for a broad swath of athletes.

They also face controversy over the sport's safety, particularly for girls and women. US Lacrosse has fought attempts to force — or even allow — females to wear helmets like the boys and men do. Citing statistics that show the rate of concussions for male and female players is about the same, the organization has argued that adding helmets to the women's game would encourage players to play more recklessly.

But prominent voices have criticized lacrosse for failing to protect players, saying it has valued tradition over safety. Dr. Kevin Crutchfield, director of LifeBridge Health's Comprehensive Sports Concussion Program, works with patients dealing with severe concussions, including female lacrosse players.

"The vast majority of the girls I have seen through the years were injured because they were struck in the head with a stick or a hard shot," he said. "That's precisely the kind of thing a helmet protects against."

Against that backdrop, US Lacrosse needs to keep pace with its growth. A new home for its growing staff is a necessity, Stenersen said.

After exploring options in the city, US Lacrosse bought 12 acres adjacent to York Road in Sparks for $4.5 million in November. Preliminary plans call for offices and possibly a training center for the men's and women's national teams. What's not clear is whether the Lacrosse Museum and National Hall of Fame, currently in leased space at Hopkins, also will move.

While Stenersen told The Baltimore Sun in 2004 that he expected to field offers from other lacrosse hotbeds — namely in New York — to host US Lacrosse and its museum and hall of fame, it never seriously considered leaving Baltimore.

It did look at buying a building on the Hopkins campus or moving to the planned Harbor Point development downtown. But a facility at the high-profile Harbor Point, including a turf field with stands for spectators, proved too costly.

"We need to be sure we're in a position to focus our spending on our membership," said Stenersen, who declined to discuss specific plans for the new Loveton Center site.

Stenersen reports to 25 board members who oversee US Lacrosse. He said it would be premature to discuss plans or a timeline for the new location until those directors have input.

"We're highly motivated to move forward as quickly as we can do so in a prudent manner," he said.

To buy the land, US Lacrosse dipped into cash reserves at both the organization and the US Lacrosse Foundation, a separate nonprofit that supports the governing body by fundraising.

A new headquarters, training center and fields would cost millions of dollars, money that US Lacrosse would need to raise. But it hasn't had great success with fundraising. In 2012, it spent about $500,000 to raise about $1 million, Stenersen said.

"It's fair to say that our development arm might be immature," he said. "A lot of our focus in the early years was on the operational side, and now we're in a position where we need to improve our ability to reach out to donors who can support what we are doing."

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