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Lacrosse and Opportunity Cost: New Division I Programs

How will all of these new Division I programs impact the landscape of men's lacrosse?

That tweet is from Inside Lacrosse's John Jiloty. He sent it shortly after the news broke of Richmond moving to Division I for -- what is anticipated -- the 2014 season. It's sharp on its own -- the value of the new programs is going help shape the face of college lacrosse for the near future -- but it's also incisive in totem: While overall sponsorship in Division I has stayed fairly static over the last 30 years, squad sizes have grown dramatically. Division I lacrosse is basically becoming a game of opportunity cost, and there is a strong possibility that decisionmaking could drastically change in the next five to 10 years. (Yes, I just wrote something about lacrosse and related it to a concept in economics. And you thought lacrosse sites had to just be about helmets and gloves and awesome pinnies.)

Let's try to keep this at a foundational level: What we're talking about here is a recruits decision around picking a program. There are all kinds of things that factor into this process -- program prestige, playing time, academic opportunities, location, etc. (basically, all those things that you see in EA Sports' college football game except, you know, this is real freaking life) -- and every recruit is going to make different kinds of decisions. There is no guarantee that these new programs are going to alter the landscape of Division I recruiting, but there is a confluence of two facts -- new programs looking for live bodies and the size of current Division I rosters -- that I think will ultimately drive whether these new programs (and other historically non-elite programs) can start getting a higher caliber player.

The thesis is straightforward: If you're a good player (not a great one, but a guy that may eventually see the field in some capacity in his junior or senior year but not quite at the developmental level of other guys that are definitely going to get substantial time), do you want to stay buried on a 45-man roster at, say, Maryland or do you want to go to Richmond and get a similar education and have the opportunity to contribute right away? Maybe you even get a bigger cut of scholarship cash picking Richmond over Maryland. This is an inticing option and it lends nicely to this proposition: If the NCAA isn't going to arbitrarily deflate squad size to try and re-distribute talent, do these new programs (and existing emerging ones), functionally re-distribute talent throughout Division I? It's not clear right now.

There are always going to be kids that want the experience of going to a Johns Hopkins or Virginia or wherever else; they're not going to care if they sit buried on a bench and otherwise have the talent to play big minutes elsewhere and, other than feeling the adrenaline of chasing a national title from Day One, have a substantially similar college experience. However, the next best alternatives to picking, for example, Syracuse -- be it Colgate or Lehigh or Bucknell or wherever -- are looking stronger; the crisis of decision should become more pronounced. The lost benefit of attending a North Carolina over, for example, Furman is potentially decreasing over time.

How do I know this? The growth of Notre Dame, Colgate, Lehigh, Penn State, ad infinitum over the last 10 years. The depth of talent in college lacrosse is growing as a result of the depth of talent at the preparatory level; with additional depth being added to the roster of options, the landscape could drastically change relative to the relationship between scarcity and choice.

This is a pretty fluid period, you guys. I can't wait for Paul Krugman to write about this in The New York Times.