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NCAA Considering Non-NFL Venues for Championship Weekend

The Baltimore Sun's Ed Lee gets the straight dope from the NCAA.

Rob Carr

Ever since Philadelphia put up less-than-stellar attendance this past May for Championship Weekend (continuing the event's attendance slide, a death march that came out of almost nowhere a half-decade ago), the chatter around college lacrosse this offseason has centered on what can be done to prop the event up and establish itself -- once again -- as one of the NCAA's premier showcases. Ideas have come from all over the map, illustrating that interested parties are engaged in the kind of discourse designed to create a progressive model for future stability. Unfortunately (at least in my eyes), the conversations around "fixing" Championship Weekend were directed at a monolith of seemingly endless bureaucratic nonsense: The NCAA. The institution has decades upon decades of history indicating an inflexibility and/or incapacity of reacting to the impassioned pleas of those it impacts, and I wasn't particularly encouraged that the NCAA would get around to addressing college lacrosse's Championship Weekend concerns until the NCAA, you know, actually cleaned up its own act in athletics administration and governance.

Fortunately, my pessimism was mislaid: Important people at the NCAA are thinking about Championship Weekend, and they're thinking about it functionally and at appropriate levels. As Ed Lee writes in The Baltimore Sun, the NCAA is taking a measured approach to dealing with the attendance issue gripping college lacrosse's most important moment, and they're willing to consider a host of options that assumedly weren't on the table until recently:

In response to an attendance downturn at recent NCAA men's lacrosse championship weekends, the organization is now open to allowing non-NFL stadiums to serve as hosts in upcoming years.

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The change in the NCAA's stance, which was first reported by Lacrosse Magazine, could benefit Maryland, which publicly had expressed interest in applying to host the lacrosse championships from 2015 through 2018.

In addition to M&T Bank Stadium (71,000 seats) — which will host the men's and women's final fours next year — venues like Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis (34,000) and Maryland's Byrd Stadium in College Park (54,000) could serve as venues. But the Naval Academy and Maryland would have to agree to host Championship Weekend at their respective stadiums.

Terry Hasseltine, director of the Maryland Office of Sports Marketing, confirmed that the state was one of several that announced by Aug. 9 its intention to bid for the lacrosse championships. But he also conceded that the decline in attendance has impacted Maryland's enthusiasm for hosting the final four.

"It definitely influenced us to maybe not be as gung ho," he said. "But at the same time, though, because lacrosse is a very significant sport in our sport culture, we always have to assess and evaluate lacrosse opportunities. … We're throwing our hat into the ring to make sure that we have vetted and explored this championship opportunity at its fullest because we understand the nature of that event has a tendency to succeed here."

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Hasseltine said the move to smaller, non-NFL stadiums should provide the NCAA with more options for determining host destinations.

"I think it allows them to evaluate more venues in the process," he said. "Some collegiate stadiums are perfectly suitable for lacrosse championships. Where the attendance has been in recent years, probably a midsize to upper size collegiate stadium might be more appropriate. But the thing that you lose sometimes when you go to collegiate campuses is the atmosphere — i.e. that a Baltimore can provide where our stadium is so close to the Inner Harbor and our amenities and attractions are all right there in great accessibility. Sometimes when you get on a college campus, sometimes you [lose] that identity of a desirable travel destination for those who are coming in for the championship."

Another measure the NCAA has undertaken to draw more fans is addressing escalating ticket prices. In May, Inside Lacrosse pointed out that the most inexpensive all-session ticket when the three-day event was moved to M&T Bank Stadium in 2003 was $40 with parking costing $25. The cheapest rate for the weekend in Philadelphia three months ago was $85 and the price at M&T Bank Stadium next May is $79 with parking set at $55.

Holman said the NCAA will no longer require bidders to add a revenue guarantee to their offers, which could mean lower ticket prices in the near future.

Obviously the biggest thing here is that the NCAA is attempting to make Championship Weekend an affordable venture for those that don't own private spacecraft. This is a good thing; paying prices for tickets that dwarf the gross domestic product of certain Latin American countries (not to mention the cost to park a car outside the stadium so as to make meat more delicious with fire) is the first step in getting butts back in the seats. I'm somewhat stunned that the NCAA is turning down guaranteed money (I mean, if anything, the NCAA is an investment bank that requires its labor force to wear jerseys instead of Vineyard Vines neckties), but given the decline of Championship Weekend in recent years, it's nice that the NCAA isn't going all Scrooge McDuck on one of its biggest spring events.

As for the alternative venue approach -- I have no problem with this. When the NCAA went to the NFL stadium model in 2004, it was novel, but it was never the reason -- at least to me -- that people went to Championship Weekend. Using NFL stadia doesn't necessarily validate college lacrosse as a big time sport; rather, it merely exists as an odd opportunity to try something different (and the value of that difference is arguably waning). Getting Championship Weekend in college venues or even soccer-specific stadiums could give the event more of an appropriate feel, with more seats filled and a charged atmosphere. If schools and alternative venues are willing to host the event, the decision to move in that direction seems pulled from the pages of Duh! Magazine. It just makes more sense in totem.

Despite the details, though, the most important takeaway is this: The NCAA is listening, and they're looking to make Championship Weekend work.