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US Lacrosse prepares to move to new home as game continues booming

Sport has spread rapidly since governing body formed in Baltimore, but group's focus is still education

By Chris Korman, The Baltimore Sun

9:53 PM EDT, July 13, 2013

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Even as US Lacrosse prepares to move from its city headquarters to a business park in a Baltimore County, the governing body for the country's fastest-growing sport isn't straying from its roots.

The organization outgrew its original base on University Parkway next to the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood Field more than a decade ago and has been renting office space nearby for its 80 employees.

Since forming 15 years ago as the merger of eight disparate groups, US Lacrosse has grown from 12 employees serving 15,000 players, coaches, officials and others involved in the game to a current membership of more than 415,000.

Such growth brings its own challenges, but the group's mission has changed little. While it works to increase the sport's popularity, it also spends millions of dollars working with existing leagues — most of them for youths — to establish a unified approach toward playing and teaching the game.

"Because we're one of the later national governing bodies to form, our programs are not quite as mature," said Steve Stenersen, US Lacrosse's president and CEO. The game has always grown organically, and certainly that has been the case over the last decade and a half. What we're doing now is driving that growth but also trying to put best practices in place."

More than 722,000 people play the game, but there's no widely accepted system for organizing youth leagues or ensuring officials and coaches are qualified to do their jobs, said Stenersen, a St. Paul's School alumnus who has been US Lacrosse's chief since its founding.

He and other US Lacrosse officials worry about the commercialization of the youth game, particularly elite recruiting tournaments that they believe are geared toward making money for organizers. They fear such events serve to reinforce the negative stereotype of lacrosse as an elite sport that's too expensive for a broad swath of athletes.

They also face controversy over the sport's safety, particularly for girls and women. US Lacrosse has fought attempts to force — or even allow — females to wear helmets like the boys and men do. Citing statistics that show the rate of concussions for male and female players is about the same, the organization has argued that adding helmets to the women's game would encourage players to play more recklessly.

But prominent voices have criticized lacrosse for failing to protect players, saying it has valued tradition over safety. Dr. Kevin Crutchfield, director of LifeBridge Health's Comprehensive Sports Concussion Program, works with patients dealing with severe concussions, including female lacrosse players.

"The vast majority of the girls I have seen through the years were injured because they were struck in the head with a stick or a hard shot," he said. "That's precisely the kind of thing a helmet protects against."

Against that backdrop, US Lacrosse needs to keep pace with its growth. A new home for its growing staff is a necessity, Stenersen said.

After exploring options in the city, US Lacrosse bought 12 acres adjacent to York Road in Sparks for $4.5 million in November. Preliminary plans call for offices and possibly a training center for the men's and women's national teams. What's not clear is whether the Lacrosse Museum and National Hall of Fame, currently in leased space at Hopkins, also will move.

While Stenersen told The Baltimore Sun in 2004 that he expected to field offers from other lacrosse hotbeds — namely in New York — to host US Lacrosse and its museum and hall of fame, it never seriously considered leaving Baltimore.

It did look at buying a building on the Hopkins campus or moving to the planned Harbor Point development downtown. But a facility at the high-profile Harbor Point, including a turf field with stands for spectators, proved too costly.

"We need to be sure we're in a position to focus our spending on our membership," said Stenersen, who declined to discuss specific plans for the new Loveton Center site.

Stenersen reports to 25 board members who oversee US Lacrosse. He said it would be premature to discuss plans or a timeline for the new location until those directors have input.

"We're highly motivated to move forward as quickly as we can do so in a prudent manner," he said.

To buy the land, US Lacrosse dipped into cash reserves at both the organization and the US Lacrosse Foundation, a separate nonprofit that supports the governing body by fundraising.

A new headquarters, training center and fields would cost millions of dollars, money that US Lacrosse would need to raise. But it hasn't had great success with fundraising. In 2012, it spent about $500,000 to raise about $1 million, Stenersen said.

"It's fair to say that our development arm might be immature," he said. "A lot of our focus in the early years was on the operational side, and now we're in a position where we need to improve our ability to reach out to donors who can support what we are doing."

The organization has a planned operating budget of nearly $19 million for 2013, officials said, and is sitting on about $10 million in cash reserves. (By comparison, USA Hockey spent $30 million in 2012, its 75th year.)

The bulk of its 2012 revenue came from nearly $12 million in member dues. The rest came from sponsors, advertising and other sources.

The group spent nearly $6.7 million for member services — such as an insurance policy that covers players, a monthly magazine, and printing and distributing yearbooks — and about $1.5 million each on special events and marketing. Running the organization cost about $2.5 million. In 2011, Stenersen was paid nearly $213,000, according to its tax documents.

It also spends about $2.9 million on the sport's development, including its "First Stick" program, an initiative to build new teams and help existing ones.

Kristin Ventrusca used a First Stick grant to help establish youth and high school lacrosse programs in Montville, Conn. A group of about 12 players had been traveling to nearby towns to play, but parents sought to start a league closer to home and create a way for their children to play in high school.

At first, Montville High School rejected a request to sponsor lacrosse as a club sport. Then Ventrusca's group was awarded the grant from US Lacrosse, which provided sticks and goggles for 24 players, two sets of goalie equipment and the means to send coaches to become certified by the organizing body. The high school subsequently relented.

"I don't think there's any way the school would have paid attention without US Lacrosse's backing," Ventrusca said. "That proved that we were serious and we had backing."

Being able to offer free equipment to athletes who might have been scared off by the cost also enabled the club to grow quickly, she said. After only a year, the club has 127 athletes, and the boys and girls high school teams have been promoted to varsity status.

The grant also paid for Ventrusca to attend US Lacrosse's convention and Fan Fest, allowing her to mingle with 7,000 other league organizers, coaches and players.

The event will return to Baltimore in 2015 for the first time since 2011. The Baltimore chapter — one of 64 regional chapters spread through 42 states — has 6,000 members, and US Lacrosse has helped fund teams for inner-city players of all ages.

Influencing the game elsewhere has come more slowly for US Lacrosse. Stenersen wants the game to appeal to a broad group of athletes from a variety of backgrounds. A former player at the University of North Carolina, he believes it sells itself.

Lacrosse has often been described as a combination of aspects of other sports: the finesse of soccer, the one-on-one isolation seen in basketball, strategy similar to ice hockey, physicality akin to football.

Whatever it is, its growth has been undeniable. It continued despite being scarred by the Duke University lacrosse scandal in 2006 that painted the sport's athletes as privileged and out of touch. Three players accused of raping a stripper were cleared, but the stigma was hard to shake.

At the same time, programs labeled "elite" and focused on pushing players toward college careers sprung up, creating an environment Stenersen feels is too focused on competition and the unrealistic goal of earning a scholarship.

Peter Baum, the first player from west of the Mississippi to win the Tewaaraton Award as the best college lacrosse player in the country, credits the West Coast Starz program for helping him develop into a top player — and getting him in front of college coaches.

"Programs like that push players to new levels and make coaches aware that great players can come from these areas," said Baum, a recent Colgate graduate who has accepted a job with Adrenaline, which owns the Starz program. "Starz did so much to push the game to a new level."

While US Lacrosse runs the national program for elite players and has an interest in supporting the game at its highest levels, Stenersen's philosophy calls for a focus on young players who may not even play the game in high school.

"We understand the importance of providing a consistently positive experience for our youngest players," he said. "That is when there is the greatest impact, when the lessons that all sports can teach are most likely to take hold. That is why we've focused so much attention on making sure coaches and officials are held to high standards. Leaders of youth sports are very important to the development of a child, and having kids enjoying our game the right way creates the foundation we need for US Lacrosse."

chris.korman@baltsun.com

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