When the Virginia Cavaliers defeated the Maryland Terrapins 9-7 on Monday to win the 2011 NCAA Lacrosse National Title, they did so in front of the smallest crowd to watch a title game since 2002 (35,661).
That number is troubling on a number of levels.
- 2002 was the last year the NCAA Title game was played in a non-NFL stadium. Since 2003, it's been played in either Baltimore's M&T Stadium, Foxborough's Gillette Stadium or Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field.
- It's not the attendance was way down all weekend. Saturday's semifinal between Duke and Maryland was witnessed by 45,039, the sixth-best attendance for a semifinal game ever. Where'd everybody go?
- The sport was breaking championship attendance records every year from 2003 until 2008. Since then, the drop has been precipitous. Down 7K in 2009, followed by another 6K dip in 2010 and almost another 2K in 2011.
I wrote a piece Monday for SBNation outlining the possible reasons for this massive dip in Championship Game attendance in spite of the fact that the sport continues to get bigger and grow broader. On paper, such a huge drop doesn't make any sense. Neither do most of the popular arguments.
"Baltimore isn't the lacrosse mecca it's made out to be!" - Well, attendance began dropping in 2009 when the Final Four was still being held in Boston. And like I mentioned, Saturday's attendance was through the roof.
"There weren't any Upstate New York teams in the finals!" - Again, 2009 saw a significant drop in attendance from the year prior and the finals that year were between Syracuse and Cornell. Can't get much more Upstate New York than that. Though to be fair, I do think there is some kind of correlation between New York-area fans and the drop, which I'll get to.
"It was so hot on Monday!" - True, it was 96 degrees in Baltimore and probably a lot hotter inside the stadium. But do you really think someone drove 3-4 hours to Baltimore, woke up that morning, checked the weather and decided to eat the cost of their tickets and stay in their hotel room all day? And besides, that wouldn't explain the drops in '09 and '10.
So what possibilities are left? Any long-time lacrosse fan has noticed one significant change to the National Championship in the past couple years. It's being played later in the day. For years, the game was played at 1:00pm EST. A perfect time that allowed fans to travel in and travel out without getting bogged down in Memorial Day evening traffic while also providing a perfect time for TV coverage (what other major sporting event is going on at that time?).
In 2010, the game was moved back to a 3:30pm EST start, likely at the request of ESPN who saw the opportunity to grab a larger audience with a mid-afternoon slot than an early-afternoon one.
So what did those extra two and half hours do? Well, in my humble opinion...a lot.
Now, instead of ending between 3:30-4pm, the game ends closer to 6-7pm. And if you've got a long drive ahead of you, which is a distinct possibility considering you probably drove in from Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York City, Long Island or Upstate New York, you're about to find yourself on a parking lot called the 95. Not to mention that everyone already dreads the idea of traveling on Memorial Day. Now there's nowhere to hide. Throw in some cranky kids, a sunburn from sitting in direct view of the sun all day and a weekend's worth of travels that have you worn down and the whole thing suddenly sounds very unappealing.
Especially if you're coming in from Upstate New York, which makes up a rather large percentage of the audience for college lacrosse.
Here's a handy-dandy chart I made up that includes the past nine NCAA Title games, where they were held, what time they started and how well they were attended. They seem to drive home the point:
||Champ Attendance||Total Attendance|
|2003||Virginia||Hopkins||M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore
|2004||Syracuse||Navy||M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore||?
|2005||Hopkins||Duke||Lincoln Financial Field, Philly
|2006||Virginia||UMass||Lincoln Financial Field, Philly||1:00pm
|2007||Hopkins||Duke||M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore||1:00pm
|2008||Syracuse||Hopkins||Gillette Stadium, Foxborough
|2009||Syracuse||Cornell||Gillette Stadium, Foxborough||1:00pm
|2010||Duke||Notre Dame||M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore||3:30pm
|2011||Virginia||Maryland||M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore||3:30pm
So, couple the late start with the far-enough distance from the NY/NJ/Conn area and throw in just how accessible NCAA lacrosse coverage is these days with ESPN and the Internet...well, it makes sense for a family of four to think twice before driving down to Baltimore, ponying up for tickets and rolling the dice that their favorite team will win in the semis.
So let's say this is the truth. A 3:30pm start time is killing NCAA Lacrosse Championship Game attendance. Where do we go from here? I'm going to guess ESPN doesn't give a s**t and they're happier with the 3:30 start so they can run pre-game coverage and boost their ratings a couple points.
If we're stuck with the 3:30 start, should the powers-that-be cater to the lacrosse world by choosing locations a little more central to all fanbases? The Final Four has yet to be hosted in the New Meadowlands, which is a mystery to me. I'm sure there's a good reason, perhaps the Meadowlands isn't interested, but we know they draw well for the mid-season tournaments so it stands to reason they'd kill it for the Final Four.
Still, if it doesn't matter where the games are held, then there's a much more obvious question that begs asking...does the game absolutely need to take place on Monday?
I'm sure there are purists out there who will cry foul at the mere thought of moving the game from Monday. But look at the facts...the Saturday games still pull great numbers. Why? Because its Saturday. It's the middle of the weekend. No one has to be anywhere the next day. With Monday, once the game is over, your Memorial Day Weekend is over and it's back to work. That's a big hindrance for people unsure if they want to stick around and watch the game over getting home early on Monday and relaxing.
So what if we moved the game to Sunday night?
Now, I think it's probably unfair to move the Final Four to Friday if we did that. The attendance is too good and the schedule is too perfect not to play on Saturday. But is it out of the question to ask the two winners to play again the very next evening? Maybe. Maybe not.
I imagine ESPN would be game, considering a prime-time showdown would draw great ratings. Coaches and players would likely grumble, but if you ask the 2010-2011 UConn basketball team, playing two days in a row is nothing...try playing five.
Most importantly, a Sunday night game eliminates the entire reason fans are questioning whether or not to attend the Title Game. They can attend the game and then have the entire next day to head home whenever they want. Maybe the winning team can have a little ceremony for those who stick around in the morning or early afternoon. Otherwise, if you want to hit the road Monday morning, you can.
It might sound like sacrilege but it's worth considering, especially if we see attendance dip again next year in Foxborough. Then the Baltimore-haters will have nowhere to hide and the 3:30 issue will be that much more obvious.
Do I expect anyone to really consider this kind of move? Nope. Lacrosse has a lot of issues it needs to work out right now (shot clocks, westward expansion, conference growth, etc.). This is a big issue, sure, but they're locked in to the current set-up until 2014, when the Final Four returns to Baltimore after a 2013 stopover in Philly.
Still, it's something to keep an eye on. If next year's Championship Game is attended poorly in spite of two great teams, a non-Baltimore location and a closer proximity to Central New York, it will hard to deny that a later start means less butts in the seats for NCAA Lacrosse.