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Lacrosse, Ice Hockey, and Growth Notes

How does ice hockey's pattern of sponsorship compare to that of men's lacrosse?

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

There was an interesting piece in the Star Tribune the other day. The story was built around the potential for college hockey to expand its footprint given Arizona State's recent decision to sponsor varsity men's hockey and Penn State's instant success on the ice in the Big Ten:

The success in Pennsylvania and Arizona have observers and fans wondering: Which school is the next Arizona State? The answer could impact Big Ten hockey, the two-year-old conference that is already eager to expand beyond its current six-team footprint. At least three Big Ten schools are considering, quietly in most cases, adding hockey, and the conference has had talks with Arizona State about a hockey-only alliance.

"What has been most exciting is, since the Arizona State announcement, the number of people that have contacted us … about what needs to be done to have [hockey] happen at ‘our school,’ " said Mike Snee, executive director of College Hockey Inc., a company funded by USA Hockey and a grant from the NHL with a mission to promote the sport. "There is enough percolating out there to keep us motivated and believing that we can make this contagious if it isn’t already."

Leaders from the NHL, USA Hockey and college hockey have formed The Campus Effect committee built of 12 influential individuals, including Bill Daly (NHL deputy commissioner), Tod Leiweke (Tampa Bay Lightning CEO), Joel Maturi (former Gophers athletic director), Jamie Spencer (Wild vice president) and Joe Battista (Buffalo Sabres VP and brainchild behind Penn State’s program). The committee believes the profile of college hockey has never been higher, with sold-out Frozen Fours and a graduation rate of 85 percent.

The vibe in the piece is that men's ice hockey is on the verge of exploding; men's ice hockey is the kind of virus that people want to catch. Many similar sentiments have been issued on the men's lacrosse side of things: Lacrosse has the kind of momentum that athletic departments want on their sponsorship rolls. This raised a simple question: Which sport has been growing more prominently at the Division I level?

Looking at the NCAA's most recent Sports Sponsorship and Participation Rates Report, men's lacrosse has been outpacing men's ice hockey in terms of growth in the examined periods, and if history is an indication of where each sport is going, lacrosse's growth trajectory is more likely to attract new participants than ice hockey:

Number of teams: 1981-1982 48.00 50.00
Number of teams: 2013-2014 59.00 67.00
Percent growth: 1981-1982 through 2013-2014 22.92% 34.00%
Standard deviation: number of teams (1981-1982 through 2013-2014) 4.36 4.53
Number of teams dropped: 1988-1989 through 2013-2014 10.00 11.00
Average number of teams dropped per season (1988-1989 through 2013-2014) 0.38 0.42
Number of teams added: 1988-1989 through 2013-2014 6.00 21.00
Average number of teams added per season (1988-1989 through 2013-2014) 0.23 0.81
Net change in sponsorship: 1988-1989 through 2013-2014 -4.00 +10.00
Average net change in sponsorship per season (1988-1989 through 2013-2014) -0.15 +0.38

Some brief notes on this:

  • Lacrosse has been growing at a rate that pretty significantly exceeds that of ice hockey. Lacrosse has been adding around a team per season over the last 26 years while ice hockey is adding a Division I program about once every four years in the same time span. Lacrosse's surge has preceded any push from ice hockey, and if ice hockey is going to grow like men's lacrosse at the Division I level it may need to experience the kind of push that lacrosse has received over the last few seasons (men's lacrosse added seven teams between 2011 and 2014, the largest growth spurt for the sport over any of the examined periods). Even if ice hockey does create the kind of energy that men's lacrosse did over the last few years, men's lacrosse was still adding more teams per season between 1988-1989 and 2010-2011 (0.60) than ice hockey was over the same period (0.22).
  • Of the 59 teams men's ice hockey teams that were part of the 2013-2014 cohort, 24 sponsor a Division I men's lacrosse program (40.68 percent) while another nine programs sponsor a men's lacrosse program at the Division II or Division III level (about 55 percent of Division I men's hockey teams have a varsity men's lacrosse team at one of the three NCAA levels). There is overlap between the two sports, but it isn't a perfect mirror. Somewhat interestingly, of the 24 schools with both a Division I men's hockey team and a Division I men's lacrosse team, only seven also sponsor FBS football. Division I hockey-lacrosse schools are predominantly non-FBS members (almost 71 percent of those schools either don't play football or play football at the FCS level). This is an interesting fact that is worth tracking both in terms of ice hockey's growth and lacrosse's development.
  • It would be interesting to see how much scholarship limits impact each sport's growth trajectory. Men's ice hockey has an 18 scholarship limit while lacrosse has a 12.6 scholarship cap, even though men's lacrosse was carrying about 20 more members on an average squad than men's ice hockey in the 2013-2014 cohort. The men's lacrosse scholarship limit means that more players are contributing to the tuition pot than men's ice hockey, which is probably fun for emotionless bean counters in the bursar's office of lacrosse schools (it's also an additional expense than men's ice hockey schools need to absorb compared to men's lacrosse).