Monday's NCAA men's Division I lacrosse final in Philadelphia was an exciting matchup of one of the sport's most storied teams, Syracuse, against Duke, an underdog that came back from a losing record early in the season (and a 5-0 deficit at the start of the championship game) to win it all. There was only one thing missing: about 13,000 people.
The NCAA started holding men's Division I finals in NFL stadiums in 2003, rotating among Baltimore, Philadelphia and Foxborough, Mass. During that time, the average attendance for the final match on Memorial Day was 41,678. But Monday's final drew just 28,444 to Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field. Including the semi-finals on Saturday, the total draw for the Division I event was 56,668, about 45,000 fewer people than showed up at Baltimore's M&T; Bank Stadium in 2007, despite the presence this year of Syracuse and its famously loyal fans. That's only a handful more fans than showed up in 1995, when the University of Maryland played Syracuse in a much smaller stadium in College Park.
The declining attendance, on the heels of a similarly disappointing turnout at Foxborough last year, is clearly ringing alarms at the NCAA, which had developed its practice of rotating the event among East Coast NFL venues after seeing initial success with that strategy a decade ago. Officials there have told members of the lacrosse media that they are considering all manner of options as they prepare to solicit bids for the 2015-2018 championships, including a return to college stadiums or rotating the event to venues in the Midwest, South and West.
But Maryland lacrosse boosters are talking up an idea that merits particular consideration: making Baltimore the permanent or semi-permanent home of the championships, much in the same way that Omaha, Neb., hosts the College World Series every year.
It's easy to see what's in it for Baltimore. The event can be a significant economic development and tourism driver, and it would make a nice bookend to the summer with the Labor Day weekend Baltimore Grand Prix. But the operative question is not what lacrosse can do for Baltimore but what Baltimore can do for lacrosse, and the answer is that it can provide stability and continuity for a sport that is moving beyond its East Coast base but has not yet established a critical mass anywhere else.
There are emotional and historical arguments in favor of making Baltimore the lacrosse championship's regular home. US Lacrosse, the sport's governing body, is here, and so is the lacrosse hall of fame. The sport's origins in Baltimore date back to at least the 1870s, and Johns Hopkins fielded its first team in 1883. The first women's team in the United States was started at Bryn Mawr School in 1926. If any other city could claim similar status as the center of the lacrosse universe, it would be Syracuse, and Syracuse is not quite so accessible to travelers as Baltimore is.
But the reasons the NCAA should settle the finals here for the time being are financial and practical. Baltimore has the highest average attendance at the finals events it has hosted in the NFL-stadium era (nearly 86,000 fans), and Maryland had, by far, the highest attendance in the pre-NFL era (about 49,000 fans on average, dating back to the advent of the current championship weekend format in 1986). According to US Lacrosse's participation surveys, Maryland has the most lacrosse players of any state (including New York), which makes for a large and geographically concentrated fan base.
There is also more likely to be a home-field rooting interest in Baltimore than anywhere else. This year's lack of a Maryland team in the final four is an anomaly; that's only happened five times since the NCAA lacrosse championships began in 1971. During that time, Maryland has had two teams in the final four 16 times and three teams four times. Its record in that regard is far better than any other state or region.
Critics of the idea of Baltimore as a permanent home for the lacrosse championships argue that while the city certainly has a lock on the sport's past, its future is the expansion of interest in other regions. Holding the finals somewhere like Denver, Chicago or Atlanta could help seed interest there, they say. There's some truth to that. But it's also true that putting on an event like this is a massive financial commitment, and to make the numbers work, the NCAA needs strong ticket sales, and moving the finals to the Midwest or the South would be a huge risk. NCAA officials were encouraged by the 7,800 fans who came to this year's quarter-final at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis; using that round to spread interest in the sport seems prudent.
But when it comes to the Championship Weekend, there is much to be said for Baltimore. It has the facilities — enough to host the men's and women's tournaments simultaneously — the experience and the proven fan base. Baltimore is home to the most storied and intense lacrosse culture in the country. It should be home to the sport's most prestigious championship, too.