Monday, May 02, 2016
Last weekend, I drove past the city park where my kids, Bryce and Robbie, regularly played soccer. As I expected on a spring weekend morning, the three full-sized fields and four smaller ones were covered with young players either in the midst of a match or preparing to begin. However, all of these eager participants flocking across the soccer pitches weren’t kicking a ball. They were flinging it with lacrosse sticks. Then last night I drove past the high school where the football field lights were blazing not for a spring scrimmage but in order to illuminate an interscholastic boys’ lacrosse match. The proliferation of this century’s old sport has now become rampant in the United States. Where much of our interaction with lacrosse had been news reports a decade ago about the Duke men’s team, we can now watch matches regularly on cable sports channels and read reports on high school and college competitions in the sports section. Even one of my grandsons has gone over to the lacrosse side.
Soccer has enjoyed a special status as the new and growing sport in the U.S. over nearly three decades. It began when the U.S. Men’s National Team qualified for the 1990 World Cup, the first time since 1950. Interest grew when the U.S. won the bid to host the 1994 World Cup, bringing international attention and teams to our shores. This was followed by the formation of Major League Soccer (MLS) in 1996. Since 1990, youth involvement in soccer has increased 89 percent with over three million registered players as a component of the 24 million men, women, and children participants in 2014, second only to China. According to 2015 Pew research, soccer is now the fourth-most watched sport ahead of ice hockey, auto racing, tennis and golf. With an average turnout of 19,000 at MLS games, America ranks eighth in the world for attendance at first division soccer matches, ranking ahead of soccer-obsessed Argentina and Brazil. The women’s game has seen not only phenomenal growth but equal success. There were 318 women’s college teams in 1991, which increased to 959 in 2009. The Women’s World Cup has been hosted by the U.S. twice in 1999 and 2003. In the 1999 Women’s World Cup, the U.S. Women’s National Team beat China to win the title before a crowd of 90,000. This event still ranks as the best attended women’s sporting event ever. In 2011, 8.2 percent of adults listed soccer as their favorite sport. Even when the U.S. loses, the team pulls in huge audiences. The men’s 2-1 loss to Belgium in the 2014 World Cup had 24.5 million viewers, which compares favorably to last year’s NBA finals that averaged 15.5 million, the World Series that averaged 14.9 million and the Stanley Cup that pulled in under 5 million. Soccer has come of age in the United States, and with the continued growth of MLS, which also attracts major European soccer stars, the sport should continue to enjoy a bright and expanding future.
However, no status is ever secure, and lacrosse has begun to nip at soccer’s heels. According to US Lacrosse, the sport’s governing body in America, participation has grown from 254,000 players in 2001 to 773,000 players in 2014—a 300 percent increase. Youth players doubled from 2006 to 2009, and in 2014, lacrosse was the fastest growing sport in high school, increasing 28 percent for boys and 31 percent for girls. Likewise, the number of college programs has increased from 247 in 2009 to 339 in 2014 for the boys and 319 to 443 for the girls. There are two professional North American lacrosse leagues and both are indoor. Major League Lacrosse recently expanded to eight franchises and now has a contract with ESPN3 to stream every league game. The National Lacrosse League has nine franchises and plays in Canada and the U.S. Its primary popularity is in Canada where box lacrosse is the official summer sport of our neighbors to the north. Just as soccer took off once a significant professional league began in the U.S., lacrosse will need its own strong foray into the professional ranks in order to build a loyal fan base. Adding to the hype are international competitions overseen by the Federation of International Lacrosse, which holds World Championships every four years for men, women, and U-19 players. US Lacrosse can boast of a record 27 wins at the World Championships since 1974.
The blossoming of a new sports option for our kids should always be welcomed. The more choices kids have, the more likely they are to find something that excites their passions and gets them out and moving. Lacrosse costs more than soccer for equipment but is still relatively affordable for all families, especially when clubs help organize equipment swaps. As college teams increase and kids can find role models in the sport to inspire them, the future does look bright for lacrosse. However, this growth brings some complications with it, and that is primarily competing for resources. This brings me back to those lacrosse sightings I had this past week. Just as soccer had to carve out space from football, now lacrosse will be carving out space from soccer. There’s only so much groomed green space available and, even worse, precious few indoor facilities. The freedom to practice and compete should be limitless, but restricted resources means fierce competition now spills from the pitch into municipal recreation scheduling offices. Trying to find ways of fairly subdividing these patches of green can lead to some sharp conflicts and sour grapes.
As one sport surges, it’s not unusual for other sports to decrease. This is especially true when the sports share aspects. Kids could find the movement and purpose of lacrosse to be similar enough to soccer to spur some crossover. Just as moving off the ice onto the pitch can come naturally to hockey players, so too soccer players might find the addition of sticks to their scoring arsenal equally enticing. Such shifting of allegiances makes clubs nervous because they survive on increasing their membership, not losing it. These shifts can elicit hostilities while increasing recruiting, which is supposed to be forbidden. As we begin the spring tryouts for soccer teams across the U.S., frustrated coaches may be seeing some players siphoned off by competing sports and others by rival soccer clubs. It’s an uncomfortable situation which works against the “for the kids” policy that youth sports promotes. Clubs need to fill rosters just to meet payrolls and expenses, but they also need winning teams in order to sell the club in the future to parents looking for success, so they must retain and locate what they consider to be quality players. It’s a tough balancing act – giving all players a fair shake while having to keep an eye on the power of the roster. Throw in losing kids to other sports and you can end up with a toxic situation. In some cases, coaches will promise these players that they can play both sports and not have to come to all practices and even games. That’s dangerous because it creates a double-standard that has glaring problems. My sons faced the pull between football and soccer and several of their teammates got “deals” in order to play both sports, which only created resentment and uneven results. Now kids may feel a pull between soccer and lacrosse with the same offers of “dual citizenship.” Finding a way to navigate this prickly course will remain an important aspect of making youth sports fun and fair for all.
No one should be leery of a new sport on the horizon. Kids benefit from a variety of choices because development, size, skills, and interests are so varied among pre-teens and even into high school. It’s really great when a child can find a sport that fit his or her particular attributes to a tee. Hopefully, physical education programs in elementary schools will offer a couple of weeks of exposure to lacrosse so kids can discover if that’s where they see themselves. The point of youth sports is to improve fitness and bring another level of fun to kids’ lives, and youth team sports are meant to encourage collaboration and develop friendships. So we should all applaud this upsurge in lacrosse. However, along with that, parents need to be mindful of the pitfalls. We can help facilitate cooperation among the field sports in order to make the use of our resources fairly available and help restrict in-fighting. We also need to encourage our kids not to straddle sports in the same season but learn to face the tough choices everyone has to make throughout life. We can and should be open to all the possibilities for youth sports, even as we hold a special place in our hearts for soccer, and help our young players to navigate those options. We want our kids to build great memories while improving their health and fitness. We can score goals in either sport.