Lacrosse on television growing, but still has some pains

The Baltimore Sun

What was the key moment for growth of lacrosse in this country?

You might say it was in 1999, with the movie American Pie, which depicted Jim, Stifler and pals as members of their high school lacrosse team. Though maybe that's just because you like thinking of Shannon Elizabeth, and you should be ashamed of yourself.

I'll wait while you adjust your mind-set.

OK, good to have you back. The actual big moment might have been 1980, when ESPN began televising the NCAA men's championship game, or 1988, when it started covering the entire final four. The network is carrying it again this weekend, with tomorrow's semifinals on ESPN2 starting at noon and Monday's final on ESPN at 1 p.m.

Lacrosse on television remains somewhat problematic, with a small ball, a large field and lots of moving parts. In fact, for the untrained eye - and I have two of them - the ball can end up disappearing until we see the ripple of the net on a goal. Perhaps a change is coming, though - thanks to high-tech and low-tech solutions.

Quint Kessenich, analyst for ESPN's telecasts, acknowledged how difficult it can be for the viewer to follow the ball, pointing out part of the game is for the offensive player to hide the ball from the defense. But Kessenich noted how the advent of high-definition telecasts has sharpened the look and how Major League Lacrosse - as in tonight's Boston-Long Island game on ESPN2 at 7 - is using an orange ball, much easier to see when cradled in a white stick head.

Colleges aren't switching from white to orange yet, but that doesn't mean Kessenich doesn't have a clear picture of the two NCAA semifinal matchups.

"Delaware-Hopkins is kind of a microcosm of the season, where the mid-majors rose up [against the traditional powers]," Kessenich said. " ... Both are playing their best lacrosse right now, and both emerged from their [early-season] adversity.

"Game 2 [Duke-Cornell] could be a national championship-caliber type of game. ... These teams are fun to watch."

Kessenich wouldn't predict outcomes nor pick a favorite, though he did say Cornell is "probably the best overall team in terms of players playing roles."

A couple of other factors to consider: the hot goalie and the M&T; Bank Stadium crowd. A strong performance in goal is "worth four-five goals a game," said Kessenich, a former All-America goalie for Johns Hopkins. And performing before 50,000-plus fans can turn many a player's head.

"All bets are off, because you never know what to expect," he said. " ... It'd be like the Ravens playing in front of 500 people every week and then playing in front of 50,000."

Second jewelry

The thoroughbreds are more like your idols than any ol' singer, Baltimore. NBC's telecast of Saturday's Preakness produced some higher ratings on WBAL/Channel 11 than Fox's American Idol finale did on WBFF/Channel 45 Wednesday night. Idol drew an 18.5 rating and 28 share. The Preakness, broken into two segments for ratings purposes, drew a 14.5/30 for the first 45 minutes and a 20.8/41 for the last hour, which included the race itself.

(Ratings measure the percentage of television households watching a program. Shares measure the percentage among homes where television is in use. Man, that felt good. Haven't typed it in so long.)

Nationally, the telecast's segments got 3.7 and 5.7 ratings. Overall, NBC averaged 7.2 million viewers for the entire Preakness presentation. Though NBC reported it was the highest-viewed sports program of the weekend - 60 percent more than Sunday's NBA playoff game on ABC and 80 percent more than Fox's Saturday baseball - the audience was down from last year's 8.0 million. NBC said the drop can be explained by the normal post-race decline in viewers this year, as opposed to 2006, when the Barbaro story kept the audience in place until the end of the broadcast.

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