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.
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.
Ravens president Dick Cass says he'd like to see the event return to M&T Bank Stadium and would be open to discussing the possibilities for 2017 or 2018 with NCAA officials. (The Ravens initially declined to submit a championship bid for 2015-2018, but the host cities for 2017 and 2018 have yet to be awarded.)
Cass says potential scheduling conflicts with the Orioles represent the largest impediment. On Saturday, the lacrosse semifinals begin at 1 p.m., while the Orioles' home game against the Cleveland Indians starts at 12:35 p.m. The likely parking and traffic difficulties have both sides concerned.
"We won't do it in the future unless the Orioles agree to it," Cass says. "It's hard for a baseball team to agree to be away every Memorial Day weekend. If I'm the Orioles, I certainly wouldn't want another event across the parking lot."
The Orioles don't receive their schedule from Major League Baseball until September of the previous season, so any long-range promises for Memorial Day are unlikely. A spokesman for the club did not respond to a request for comment.
Given the inevitable scheduling uncertainty, Cass says he can't imagine hosting the lacrosse championships year after year.
Holman says the NCAA will likely discuss the direction of the championship this winter and solicit bids for 2017 and 2018 by spring of next year.
"We would hope they will be interested," he says of the Ravens. "But we would understand it if they're not."
'Lacrosse is so important here'
Holman says it would be "disappointing" if the event were away from Baltimore for too long. Local college coaches share the sentiment.
"I just feel Baltimore is ideal for so many reasons," says Maryland coach John Tillman, whose team will play Notre Dame in Saturday's second semifinal, after Duke faces Denver. "The harbor is right there, and you can walk to it from the hotels. Lacrosse is so important here. It has such a big following."
That said, Tillman also sees possible benefits to returning the event to campus stadiums, at least in some years. He remembers attending the championship at Maryland's Byrd Stadium in the 1990s.
"I'm biased, but Byrd is a great venue for it," he says of the 54,000-seat stadium. "The crowds would really fill it up, and that might look better on TV. I think bringing it back to campus wouldn't be a bad thing."
Holman says the NCAA is open to the idea but has yet to hear from campuses eager to host. For now, the focus remains on NFL stadiums, because of their greater seating capacities and amenities such as suites and restaurants.
The current scenario is also preferable to the state, says Maryland Stadium Authority vice president Terry Hasseltine, because people who attend the championship stay in downtown hotels and patronize local businesses and restaurants. If the same people attended in College Park, they'd be more likely to disperse once the games were over, he says.
Despite the scheduling roadblocks, Hasseltine says "we obviously want to be part of the fabric of any discussion" about where future championships are held.
With the game's reach expanding to the Midwest and even to western states such as California and especially Colorado, the NCAA might also look at holding the championship on one of lacrosse's new frontiers. This year's Federation of International Lacrosse World Championship will be held outside Denver, and Stenersen expects college organizers to keep a close eye on how that event draws.
Despite the sport's westward crawl, Pietramala, who played at Hopkins before becoming head coach in 2001, says he can't imagine the NCAA championship leaving Baltimore for too long.
"This is still one of the great lacrosse towns," he says.
Future NCAA men's Final Fours
*The NCAA will solicit bids next spring
Attendance at NCAA Men's Lacrosse Championship
Year Site Semifinals Final Total*
2013 Philadelphia 28,444 28,224 79,179
2012 Foxborough, Mass. 31,774 30,816 79,595
2011 Baltimore 45,039 35,661 98,786
2010 Baltimore 44,389 37,126 102,219
2009 Foxborough 36,594 41,935 102,601
2008 Foxborough 48,224 48,970 121,511
2007 Baltimore 52,004 48,443 123,225
2006 Philadelphia 49,562 47,062 120,614
2005 Philadelphia 45,275 44,920 111,247
2004 Baltimore 46,923 43,898 110,023
2003 Baltimore 37,823 37,944 91,184
*Total figure includes Sunday attendance for Division II and III championship games.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun