Championship Weekend experienced its seventh season of attendance decline this past year in Baltimore, but the NCAA isn't continuing to club baby seals with an emotionless fury. John Jiloty of Inside Lacrosse spoke to a host of agenda-setters and it looks like some important changes are on the way for college lacrosse's biggest event, including a reduction in some ticket prices.
First: The NCAA has collected data on feelings and wants to determine what therapy is necessary:
[NCAA Associate Director of Championships Anthony Holman] said the NCAA met with key "stakeholders" on Sunday of championship weekend in Baltimore for three hours to discuss possible changes to the Final Four and that he’ll take that feedback with existing fan response in advance of the August meeting. Analysis of the event falls in two categories: what can change for 2015-16 in Philadelphia and then the more long-term changes that would start with this next bid cycle in 2015 for the 2017-18 championship weekends.
That sounds like a meeting to plan for further meetings, but it's also an illustration that the NCAA is taking a 360-degree approach to try and determine what the Final Four should look like down the road and also what can be accomplished -- tangibly -- in the short term. The NCAA seemingly created much of Championship Weekend's issues with an eye toward immediate concerns, and the fact that Holman is indicating that the NCAA is blending short-term and long-term considerations is one that should potentially ensure the viability of the event while avoiding the downturn the Final Four has suffered over the last decade.
Second: Deals! Deals! Deals! (at least for Philadelphia next year):
Holman said last Monday that while results haven’t shown that fans are really buying up the cheapest ticket options ($79 for all-session tickets this year), the NCAA is going to lower prices starting in 2015. The cheapest all-session ticket for 2015 is $50, and they will also be offering a family-friendly $99 package for Saturday’s semifinal double-header that includes four endzone tickets, four hot dogs, four Coca-Cola drinks and parking. Holman, drawing on his experience working in the NBA with the Sacramento Kings, also talked about coming up with a $12-15 one-day endzone ticket that’s available at any time. (This year's cheapest Saturday non-group ticket was $50.)
$50 for an all-session ticket? And that ticket gives you two national semifinal games, the Division III national title game, the Division II national title game, and the Division I national championship game? That's a $10 admission for each game (if you skip the Division II and Division III games that $17 a game)! For comparison purposes, a regular season general admission ticket to see Syracuse play in the Carrier Dome was $10 in 2014. You can get into every single Final Four event next year for as much as it costs to see Syracuse play Siena. That's an unbelievable bargain, and that doesn't even consider the bonkers family package that goes for $100 and includes parking.
I know people will find a way to complain about those two changes -- "But those aren't the seats that I want!" "But why isn't the all-session pass $25!" "Families ruin America!" -- but those two ticket deals are friggin' amazing.
Third: Venue re-assessment seems like it’s on the table, but there isn't as much wiggle room as folks may expect:
Venue size has been another frequently mentioned component. The current minimum venue size is 40,000, and Holman said they could look into lowering that requirement. However, due to cost implications of double travel, Holman said, it’s unlikely that the event will split so that the semifinals are one weekend and the finals the next. The NCAA also likes that DII and DIII are part of the weekend, and the initial feedback from the USILA North-South Games being in the same venue were positive. This year’s Saturday crowd of 30,428 means the venue minimum is unlikely to go below 30,000.
The conundrum, though, is there aren’t many venues with capacities between professional soccer stadiums that seat up to 25,000 (PPL Park in Chester, Pa., seats 18,500 and Red Bull arena in Harrison, N.J. seats 25,000), and football stadiums that are typically more than 50,000. Holman said they had great conversations with Nationals Park in D.C., which has a capacity of just over 41,000, but the baseball dimensions, infield surface and schedule make that an awkward fit for the lacrosse Final Four. Navy-Marine Corps Stadium (35,000) is another oft-mentioned site, but the U.S. Naval Academy hosts graduation on Memorial Day weekend.
I'm not sure this is the biggest issue that Championship Weekend is facing, but it is interesting that there are some inherent issues is simply sticking the event in an MLS building. On the spectrum of Things That Matter, the venue itself isn't in the red. Looking at a building that is sold out at 25,000 or a venue that looks barren with an 80,000 capacity is more cosmetic than anything. It probably doesn't relate to the true vitality of the event.
Fourth: This is somewhat concerning:
But despite this year's success at Hofstra, neutral-site quarterfinals are actually something the NCAA is investigating as having a negative impact on championship weekend attendance. The 2015 quarterfinals are in Denver and Annapolis, Md., while 2016’s are in Providence, R.I., and Columbus, Ohio. After that, the NCAA may look to move them to the highest remaining seeds, to both help with travel costs and also to dilute competition with the Final Four.
"I think a lot of people said, ‘We’re going to that [quarterfinal] site for $22 and not going to the championships. They’ve done such a good job promoting those quarterfinals, it’s taken away from championship weekend," said Buttafuoco, who has worked with lacrosse’s championship weekend since 1980. "We need to reevaluate those going back to higher-seeded teams, so that more people are circling their calendars for Memorial Day weekend."
I don't know how prevalent that idea is -- diminishing the quarterfinals in order to raise the profile of Championship Weekend -- but I'd be incredibly worried if that theory dominates the conversations that people are having about the Final Four. Adopting such a myopic view ultimately deflates the growth of college lacrosse in totem: The idea here isn't to view NCAA Tournament attendance as a zero-sum game; the idea here is to grow the pie. In other words, actors in this process shouldn't be looking to move 40,000 bodies from one venue/weekend to another; they should be looking to increase the body count to 100,000 bodies, keeping the quarterfinals powerful and increasing the attendance at Championship Weekend. Simply reducing the attractiveness of the quarterfinals fabricates the strength of the Final Four and doesn't address the true issues that the event -- college lacrosse's marquee moment -- faces. Fixing Championship Weekend with a form of Tommy John surgery isn't the growth model that the NCAA should be pursuing. The ultimate purpose, of course, is to have a healthy three-week tournament that culminates with an explosion of unmatched proportions. Achieving this through a manufactured reality is too short-sighted to support where the game needs to go.