Losing lacrosse too [Commentary]

Revenue raising sports events are going the way of the dinosaur in Baltimore

June 02, 2014|By Marty Conway

The recent three-day 2014 NCAA Men's Lacrosse championship event at M&T Stadium drew the lowest attendance yet — 78,234 — since Baltimore introduced it to NFL stadiums in 2003. And the Baltimore Ravens, the main stadium tenant, did not submit a bid to host the event in 2015 through 2018 in part because of potential parking lot conflicts during simultaneous Orioles games.

How does this happen with a sporting event and geographic region, that seem to be so right for one another? With the sport's national governing body, US Lacrosse, here, along with the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame,  there is little doubt about the depth of both participation and support for the sport locally, and within 100 miles from Baltimore.

There has been no shortage of opinions on what is causing the attendance to trend down significantly — it's off nearly 40 percent since reaching a high in 2007, when 123,225 attended.

Some suggest the ticket prices have become too high, driven in part by the financial guarantee due to the National Collegiate Athletics Association in order to host the event. Others point to the ability to watch the event on television, in the comfort of your living room and without the parking hassles. Even college coaches have weighed in with a lengthy list of reasons and potential remedies for the recent drop-off. Each supposition may have some validity, but the root cause of the problem is unclear.

Beyond the three jewels in its sports tiara, the Orioles, the Ravens and  Preakness, Baltimore is struggling to find it's footing in the competitive environment of hosting major sports events. As the NCAA men's lacrosse event flounders, so did the Grand Prix of Baltimore, eventually dissolving after three financial strained years. The newly arrived Colonial Athletic Conference Basketball tournament in March got off to a modest start, generating far too little buzz during the sports-mad calendar of "March Madness".

As the NCAA Men's Lacrosse championships demonstrate, in Baltimore, the business of bringing sporting events in a repeatable and sustainable way to the local area has no road map for success. A soccer match here, an auto race there, a basketball tournament in still another corner. There lacks cohesion and a central theme to what live sports events means to Baltimore, both culturally as well as economically. 

Cities wishing to host national sport events need to ask themselves a few questions:

* Why should a particular event, be matched up with a particular city, or region?

* Why is this the right time, and the right place?

* What is the host cities marketing plan?

* What does this event do for the community?

* What legacy does it leave behind as the calendar of sport marches on throughout the year?

Those are important questions, because in years when you don't get your popular teams involved --  such as in college lacrosse when you don't have Johns Hopkins, Syracuse, Virginia or other teams with strong followings – the region will need a narrative to raise interest in the event.

There is a corollary in the NCAA lacrosse championships with Omaha Nebraska hosting the College World Series. Omaha has played host to the NCAA baseball championships since 1950, and the multi-week event drew its largest crowd in 2013, with more than 340,000 people attending.  The success of the College World Series in Omaha is about vision, leadership, planning, exposure and all sorts of cooperation in the local community, along with concern for the legacy of the event, and oh yes, financial impact.

Locally, the Baltimore Ravens took the lead, as well as the risk, in bringing the lacrosse national championship event to the city. Currently, it's hard to see who else is in line behind them. On the horizon here at home, there are a series of one-day football games and the occasional concert headed to M&T Stadium. But any city can have those if the price is right.

Baltimore is seeing live, multi-day sports events on the two weekends that kick off and close summer — Memorial Day (lacrosse) and Labor Day (the Baltimore Grand Prix) — dissolve right before our eyes. If the city and sports community can't find a way to do for sports championships what Omaha has done for college baseball, it will lose out on a significant revenue stream and a chance to show off our city to thousands.

Marty Conway is an adjunct professor of sports management at Georgetown University and former Vice President of Marketing for the Baltimore Orioles. Twitter: @MartyConway.

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