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.
The development comes on the heels of three consecutive years of reduced attendance for Championship Weekend. Attendance at May's Division I semifinals (28,444) and final (28,224) at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia was the lowest since the final four began rotating between M&T Bank Stadium, Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., and Lincoln Financial Field in 2003.
While pointing out that the NCAA still has a 40,000-seat requirement for host venues, Anthony Holman, the NCAA's associate director of championships and alliances, said that figure could be lowered while accounting for suites and club-level seating.
"So I don't know how many venues could accommodate that," said Holman, also the championship administrator for Division I men's lacrosse. "But our committee has certainly had discussions about venues whose primary tenants are not NFL football teams. I think we would still be looking for the same things like a facility that can accommodate the number of games that we're going to play, the field, the surface, the hotels, restaurants and all of the other amenities that go along with hosting a championship. While we've been pleased with the NFL stadiums that we've been in, there's certainly no requirement that they be that way."
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."
Baltimore was the site of the best-attended championship weekend in the sport's history, drawing a weekend record of 147,094 for the 2007 Division I semifinals and final at M&T Bank Stadium.
"We've had our most successful championship in Baltimore," Holman said, referring to the weekend record of 146,003 who watched the Division I semifinals and final at M&T Bank Stadium in 2007. "So I think everybody feels that is a premier venue. The city, the Ravens organization, the entire community has done really well for our championship, and anytime they put in a bid, they're a likely and viable candidate."
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.
"The financial model will now be a revenue share with an approved budget and expenses," he said. "So I think it will allow for a lot more flexibility in ticket-price structuring and some flexibility in family package options and group packages and things like that. The venue and the host won't be so concerned with meeting the guarantee number that the ticket prices may be higher than what some of our attendees would be willing to pay. We've already identified a really good premium purchaser. We've got fans that still order their tickets early because they want the premier locations and they want the access to the suites and stadium clubs, and I think that market is fine. But we want to be able to do it so that we have some options for families and groups to come and take part as well."
Moving the Final Four from Memorial Day weekend has also been discussed, but Holman said feedback from fans on that topic has been mixed.
"Just as many folks who say, 'Well, I might be inclined to come if it didn't take up a Memorial Day weekend,' we have just as many folks that say, 'This is a destination trip and we plan this every year around our Memorial Day holiday,'" he said. "That one is a little trickier and it would also require some changes in our regular season scheduling and our television partners. But it's certainly one on the table to be explored."
The state has until Sept. 16 to submit a formal bid to host either one, a few or all of the lacrosse championships between 2015-18. The sport is especially important in Maryland, Hasseltine noted.
"It's our state's team sport, it's significant in our identity as a sports destination," he said. "We host some of the most significant amateur lacrosse tournaments in the country. So it just seems natural that our efforts with any type of lacrosse opportunity are there."
Attendance at NCAA men's lacrosse Championship Weekend
YearSiteSemifinalsFinalTotal2013Philadelphia28,44428,22479,1792012Foxborough, Mass.31,77430,81696,6002011Baltimore45,03935,661116,8722010Baltimore44,38937,126122,9832009Foxborough, Mass.36,59441,935126,6732008Foxborough,Mass.48,22448,970145,8282007Baltimore52,00448,443146,0032006Philadelphia49,56247,062144,6042005Philadelphia45,27544,920132,8012004Baltimore46,92343,898129,2252003Baltimore37,82337,944106,601
*Total figure includes attendance at Division II and III championship games.