Lacrosse and the Economics of College Sports
Anyway, if you are still reading, then you are willing to overlook my lack of inside expertise and are as curious about this as I am. As the financial impact of COVID-19 becomes more apparent, we have started to see the first tangible actions. Teams have mandated pay cuts; some have even dropped programs.
That has led to speculation that lacrosse programs, as non-revenue-generators, are in jeopardy. And while I have no doubt that is true, I think lumping lacrosse in with all the non-revenue-generating sports misses a key nuance. Note: I’m writing this with men’s lacrosse in mind, because it’s what I know. The situation is different for women’s programs, which are less likely to be cut.
Before I dive in, let’s frame this discussion a bit. Instead of broadly saying that lacrosse programs are on the chopping block, let’s ask a more important question: will there be more or fewer lacrosse programs in 5 years than there were in the shortened 2020 season?
Of course lacrosse programs are going to be cut. How many? Who knows. But this virus, and the financial fallout guarantee it. For the players and coaches affected, it will be traumatic. I don’t want to dismiss that.
But for the larger “sport” of lacrosse, the important question is overall health and trajectory, not what happens in the next 18 months.
Hence the focus on the medium term.
Inertia is a powerful force
My prediction: there will be significantly more D1 programs in 2026 than there would have been if COVID-19 had never appeared.
Now this declaration rests on 2 assumptions, so let’s examine them. If either of these are wrong, then I reserve the right to rescind my prediction before it can be proven wrong in 2026.
First of all, I am assuming that colleges and universities that have 10 to 15 athletic programs today are still going to have at least 7-10 programs in 2026. That is, college sports will still be a huge deal in the US. There may be fewer programs, and they may be working with less money, but I am assuming that there is not going to be some seismic shift completely away from college athletics.
That is table-stakes; if that is not the case, then all bets are off.
The second, and arguably more important assumption in our context, is that if you were to rank the desirability of all sports, as far as their being included in a college’s athletic department, lacrosse would be in the top-half. This is super important.
But before we going into the why, let’s quickly run through recent history. The past 3 years have seen St. Bonaventure, LIU, Merrimack and Utah join the ranks of the D1 college men’s lacrosse programs. And there have been fervent rumors propagating around LaxTwitter about other programs, even some intrepid FOIA requests from the College Crosse team.
The headline may not seem super encouraging: “Among the hundreds of potential D1 colleges, only 1.3 added men’s lacrosse per year!” Not great.
But consider the background: to add men’s lacrosse, you either have to A) add comparable resources in the form of a women’s team OR B) you have to cancel an existing men’s program.
Route A is more expensive, but politically much much easier. What administrator wants to inform a coach and a bunch of students that their program is being replaced? Much easier to tell people demanding a lacrosse program that you can’t fund it. In that context, it might be considered a minor miracle that we have seen 1.3 new D1 Men’s teams a year for the past 3 seasons.
If someone mandated that a school add lacrosse, they could go with Route B fairly easily (I would imagine). And yet it hasn’t happened.
The financial squeeze that schools are facing is already baring its teeth. Many programs are going to be cut, including some lacrosse programs. But, did you know that there are 143 Division 1 Men’s Swimming programs? If there are broad, across the board cuts to sports programs, lacrosse programs are likely to suffer fewer losses than some other sports, in terms of overall men’s slots lost. This is simply a function of the fact that there are fewer lacrosse programs than some other sports.
All of a sudden, the political challenge in replacing a program is gone. And ask yourself this, how many of those swimming programs have been inaugurated since the growth of lacrosse picked up to where it is today? No one was making a choice between adding swimming or adding lacrosse. But for 143 schools, swimming means a coach and a bunch of families committed to the program. For most of them, the idea of adding lacrosse is simply a headache. Inertia is a powerful force.
College Lacrosse: 2026
So instead of having to either A) come up with millions of dollars to fund a new program or B) boot an existing, entrenched program, those that want to add lacrosse in the future may face a less uphill battle. Not to mention the fact that if there are broad cuts now, the number of potential slots for lacrosse could be much higher than it is today.
If we get to a situation where after a few years of cuts, schools start to poke around at building up their athletic departments, lacrosse is going to be well-positioned. And this circles back to my 2nd assumption, that even if programs are down to 7-10 programs (14-20 across men and women), lacrosse is likely to be one of them.
Consider this, lacrosse has been one of the fastest growing youth sports nationally for many years. This article is a bit dated, but the NY Times reported that between 2012 and 2018, youth participation in lacrosse grew by 25%. The report they cited from the Sport
The discussion in the future will move from “It’s just too expensive; we can’t do that” to “does your argument beat out theirs?” COVID-19 is going to wipe out some programs, but it’s going to remove inertia just about everywhere. That is great news for people who couldn’t get lacrosse over the hump before.
Look, I’m not out here trumpeting the downfall of any college sports program. There are real players, families, and coaches that are going to be devastated as a result of the financial turmoil associated with COVID-19. To say that that is trivial in the context of the wider health and economic catastrophes doesn’t mean that for some, the pain won’t be real. This is a terrible situation and we need to rally around those affected. But the negative effects are already baked in; they are coming.
This is a lacrosse site, and when we talk about the future of the sport in the context of COVID-19, I think it’s important to keep our eyes focused on the longer-term and not get too caught up in the immediate fallout. Granted, its a sport that I love and it is possible that I’m seeing this through rose-colored glasses. Maybe there is a fledgling swimming analytics site making the exact same argument about their sport. Who knows.
Is this going to be the end of men’s lacrosse? No. Are we going to lose some programs? Very likely. But when the history of COVID-19 is written, I think that we will look back on it as one of the reasons that lacrosse continued its ascent.
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