On Memorial Day 2007, the possibilities for lacrosse seemed limitless.
A record 123,225 fans had flocked to M&T Bank Stadium that weekend to watch the NCAA men's championships, and they were rewarded with a thrilling final between local favorite Johns Hopkins and perennial power Duke.
The three-day event had drawn similar crowds the year before in Philadelphia and would again the next year in Foxborough, Mass. Youth participation was skyrocketing in states that had barely known the game 20 years earlier. Baltimore stood at the center of an exhilarating moment for a sport it had long nurtured like a favorite son.
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Seven years later, the outlook is less brilliant as the city prepares to host the NCAA men's Final Four for the first time since 2011. The women's Final Four is also returning and will be played at Towson University's Johnny Unitas Stadium, with the semifinals Friday and the final Sunday night.
Lacrosse is still spreading geographically, as evidenced by the presence of Notre Dame and Denver in Saturday's semifinals. Overall participation is up 42 percent from five years ago, according to a US Lacrosse survey.
Yet attendance at the sport's signature event has declined each year since 2007, dropping to 79,179 in Philadelphia last year. Baltimore, the city that has traditionally drawn the largest crowds, won't host the championships again until at least 2017. And future hosting bids could be imperiled by possible scheduling conflicts with the Orioles.
"The sport is still growing exponentially," says Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala, whose team was eliminated from this year's tournament by Duke. "But maybe our marquee event needs to be looked at to see if it's time for some changes."
'A market correction'
Among the possibilities is a move away from NFL stadiums to smaller venues such as on-campus stadiums. NCAA officials are also looking to offer more affordable tickets and weighing the benefits of moving the event off of its traditional place on Memorial Day weekend.
A panel reviewing the lacrosse championship could submit recommendations for a future direction by this winter, says Anthony Holman, the NCAA's associate director for championships and alliances.
Holman hopes the event is measured by more than crowd size. He says the championship's success has helped push lacrosse into new geographic areas and college conferences and has given the sport a greater presence on television (ratings for last year's final on ESPN were up 27 percent from 2012).
"I'm not burying my head in the sand," he says. "We want to get more folks here. … But you can't look at the attendance alone and say it means the championship and the sport haven't been successful."
The attendance declines aren't limited to Philadelphia and Foxborough. When Baltimore hosted in 2010 and 2011, the crowds averaged about 100,000, well down from the 2007 peak. The numbers were likely hurt by the absence of local teams, save for Maryland in 2011. The Terps are the state's only hope again this year, and advance ticket sales as of Thursday afternoon were at about 70,000.
With Maryland still in contention and a promising weather forecast, organizers hope they can surpass last year's attendance in Philadelphia.
"I don't think it's any one thing," US Lacrosse president Steve Stenersen says of the declining crowds. "But I'm not sure we're going to see the attendance approach what it was in the mid-2000s any time soon. We might be seeing a little bit of a market correction."
Stenersen — whose Baltimore-based organization serves as the sport's governing body — paints a picture of an overcommitted lacrosse parent deciding whether to spend hundreds of dollars and brave Memorial Day traffic to attend the event. "The quality of the television coverage is excellent now," he says. "So maybe you just stay at home, mow the lawn and turn it on in the afternoon."
Pietramala also mentions ticket prices as a possible concern. The cheapest all-weekend tickets are $79, and a parking pass is $55, meaning the cost for a family of four could approach $400 before food and lodging even come into play.
"It's a fair question," Holman says, adding that he expects fans to be pleasantly surprised by the array of lower-priced seats for next year's championship in Philadelphia.
Regardless of how many fans this year's Final Four draws, the event's future in Baltimore is cloudy. All the stakeholders seem to agree the city is an ideal location, with its historic connection to the sport and easily accessible downtown.