Championship Weekend is just a week away and Philadelphia -- the nation's premier city for watching D batteries in their natural flight patterns -- is preparing to host college lacrosse's biggest event. Folks will flock to The City of Hating Everything That Isn't Philadelphia to experience three days of cheesesteaks, offerings from Victory Brewing, and crab fries. Everything is lining up for a great Memorial Day Weekend, topped with a Memorial Monday victory lap for a yet-to-be-determined team, but will this, for the foreseeable future, be the last time that lacrosse fans have the opportunity to sample the atmosphere of an area that isn't Baltimore, Maryland?
The Baltimore Business Journal dropped the news yesterday: The NCAA is changing its bidding model for sponsored championships. The result? Baltimore is looking to establish itself as a semi-permanent (if not totally permanent) home for May's most important lacrosse moments:
New NCAA rules have state officials hopeful to make Baltimore a long-term home for all collegiate lacrosse championships starting in 2015.
The NCAA announced this week it will open bidding for 82 of its 89 championships starting in July. Instead of awarding sites annually, the organization will name host cities for almost every one of its championships from fall 2014 to spring 2018. While cities could still be awarded tournaments for only a year, NCAA officials say the organization is looking to find more permanent sites for its events.
Omaha, Neb., for example, annually hosts the college baseball’s World Series.
“You hear everybody say they want to try to find their Omaha,” said Jeff Jarnecke, associate director of championships for the NCAA. “There is a greater willingness and appetite for that.”
That has state officials excited about an opportunity to make Baltimore the longtime host of the NCAA men’s and women’s lacrosse championships, said Terry Hasseltine, director of the state’s Office of Sports. The state would also hope to create a lacrosse festival around the Inner Harbor as part of the championship games, he said.
M&T Bank Stadium is scheduled to host the men’s lacrosse championship in 2014. The goal, Hasseltine said, would be making the Baltimore area the “official or semi-permanent home” for the fast-growing sport’s championships.
The arguments for making Baltimore a "semi-permanent" hosting site are the same that have dominated the discussion since Championship Weekend started pitching its tent in professional stadiums in 2003: Baltimore is the "heart" of the game and its relationship to lacrosse creates a kind of merit-based right to host the event on a permanent basis; there are tons of lacrosse-playing schools -- and fans of those schools -- in the greater Baltimore area that will support the games and make it a showcase event; Baltimore is accessible via car, train, or plane; there's lots to do around the stadium and beyond; treating Championship Weekend like the College World Series -- a destination event -- will reap rewards; etc. Here are the problems with those arguments: They're not bulletproof with respect to the state of college lacrosse and where college lacrosse wants (and needs) to go.
The strength of college lacrosse is directly tied to its national growth, shedding its reputation as a regional sideshow and finding true acolytes in only Baltimore, Central New York, and Long Island. Eliminating the exposure the Final Four gets through its current rotating model stunts the game's ability to reach into emerging markets and to draw in lacrosse fans that can't continually make a trip to Baltimore year after year to experience the collegiate game at its highest level. The importance of bringing the circus to town is not an insignificant aspect to the future of college lacrosse -- it's a lot easier to bring big time lacrosse to different markets than it is for big time lacrosse to naturally grow in non-traditional locales. This is both a perception and growth-of-the-game concern. College lacrosse is more than Baltimore, and it needs -- in a layered way -- to continue to pursue functions that embrace and drive other regions that are becoming part of the fabric (or the future fabric) of college lacrosse.
Then there's the "fairness" issue of establishing a permanent home in Baltimore: Is it right (or even smart) to makes folks from New England, Denver, the Midwest, the Southeast, and everywhere else in the nation that has a relationship with college lacrosse travel to Baltimore every year for Championship Weekend? The costs of attending the event become recurring and non-trivial, all for repetitive experiences. The argument that supposedly mitigates this concern is that Baltimore-area lacrosse supporters will fill in the gaps that non-locals create due to their non-yearly treks to M&T Bank Stadium, but that counterposition is built more on hope than certainty -- Baltimore hasn't exactly established a rock solid reputation for eating up any and all tickets at lacrosse events. Where were all of the exceptionally interested Baltimore-based lacrosse-mad fans for the Face-Off Classic this year at M&T Bank Stadium (10,487 was the announced attendance for the doubleheader, almost 10,000 fewer people than what attended the Big City Classic doubleheader)? Navy led the nation in home attendance this year (3,860) and Maryland finished third (3,643), but no other Baltimore-area school finished with average attendance above 2,500 per home game this season (Loyola was ninth at 2,471, and the school was the only other Baltimore-area institution to finish in the top 10). Why hasn't Baltimore found immunity from the attendance drain for Championship Weekend when it hase hosted (M&T has hosted the event three times since 2007 -- 2007, 2010, and 2011 -- and has seen its attendance drop from 123,225 to just 98,786)? Why is Byrd Stadium's pre-weekend ticket sales lagging so far behind Indianapolis? If you're going to put a burden on non-Baltimore lacrosse fans to travel each and every year and it isn't a certainty that Baltimore-area lacrosse fans are going to fill in the gaps, how does a unique relationship with the game trump fairness and intelligence? Hope is not a plan. The cost-benefit analysis here bends toward rotating the event through different markets and putting responsibilities (burden and benefit) on fans in all markets to respond similarly.
As for the argument around wanting to build a situation like the College World Series has with Omaha, the circumstances that stand-around-and-do-nothing-ball has with its biggest event doesn't correlate well to what college lacrosse has (or should have). The ability for Omaha to draw a consistent gate year-in and year-out isn't necessarily because Omaha is a "baseball town" or that Rosenblatt Stadium (and now TD Ameritrade Park Omaha) was/is some kind of holy destination requiring a pilgrimage. The College World Series -- and Omaha -- has an important advantage over college lacrosse's Championship Weekend: Eight teams (and their fans) are shipped to Omaha; those teams are guaranteed at least two games over finale of the tournament and the championship series is a best-of-three event. The NCAA sends eight teams to Championship Weekend, but the Division II and Division III title games are undercards to the four Division I schools that are playing knockout games (at a maximum, two) over three days on a major national holiday weekend. There simply isn't an artificial attendance mechanism in place for a permanent site model for college lacrosse's biggest event as there is for college baseball. There are substantial differences in the two championship events that create problems in establishing a correlative model.
It just doesn't make sense to establish Baltimore as a semi-permanent home for Championship Weekend. Keeping a rotating model in place (even using Baltimore as a hub of sorts, returning to the area on a predetermined basis) makes much more sense for where college lacrosse is and wants to go. Bring the event to Denver, try Atlanta, explore New York and Charlotte, find out Chicago's interest or even Columbus, and still keep Philadelphia and Foxborough as options. A semi-permanent location -- potentially transitioning to a permanent location -- in Baltimore simply misses the big pictue in college lacrosse.