College lacrosse is getting a $10 million dose of big-time athletics as it grows from the province of private schools in the Northeast into a magnet for corporate sponsorships and alumni donations.
The University of Michigan said Wednesday that it will spend up to $10 million on men’s and women’s varsity lacrosse facilities, joining Penn State and the University of Florida as traditional college athletic powers pouring resources into the sport.
The interest state schools -- with their booster clubs, conference television packages and football revenue -- are paying lacrosse may threaten the dominance that private schools such as Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, have enjoyed.
“We are going to bring the money, coaching talent and recruiting that we believe will allow us to assume a position of national prominence in the sport,” Michigan Athletic Director Dave Brandon, 59, said in a telephone interview.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s lacrosse tournaments wind up this weekend. Virginia, Denver, Maryland and Duke are competing in Baltimore for the men’s championship; Maryland, Duke, North Carolina and Northwestern are playing in Stony Brook, New York, for the women’s title.
Michigan’s decision to elevate its club lacrosse teams has business sense behind it, said Brandon, who served as chief executive officer of Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Domino’s Pizza Inc. (DPZ) from 1999 to 2010.
“It will take our brand into places that, frankly, we don’t go with many of our other sports,” Brandon said. “It’s the sport of the future.”
Youth participation in the sport increased to 297,271 in 2009, from 125,000 in 2001, according to Baltimore-based U.S. Lacrosse.
About 120,000 fans are expected to attend the men’s Final Four this weekend, paying from $75-$130 for a three-day pass, up from $40-$60 in 2004, according to Baker Koppelman, vice president of ticket sales and operations for the Baltimore Ravens, whose M&T Bank Stadium will host the event.
Corporations have taken notice, too. The number of sponsors has increased to eight from three in 2004.
Marc Mentry, managing vice president of advertising and sponsorships at McLean, Virginia-based Capital One Financial Corp., said fans fit the high-income, college-educated demographic to which he wants to promote his company’s credit cards.
“It’s right in our sweet spot,” he said in a telephone interview. “We want to get in early with the sport so we can grow with it.”
It hits the sweet spot for university officials, too.
Penn State Athletic Director Tim Curley has been taking steps to ramp up the Nittany Lions programs, and will soon begin talking to donors about raising $11 million for a lacrosse-only stadium.
“We have many alumni who come from the northeastern lacrosse hotbeds, so there is a lot of interest, and we think we can excel at it,” Curley said in a telephone interview. “If it continues to grow at the high school and club level like it has been and the sponsors continue to follow, I think you are going to see a big shift with more schools adding the sport.”
Coaches and athletic directors at the traditional programs say it’s good that big schools like Michigan are entering the sport because it increases opportunities, promotes the game and generates jobs and higher salaries.
“I think that’s the biggest news in our sport since we went to a Final Four 20 years ago,” said Virginia coach Dom Starsia, who set the Division I career record for wins at 327 last weekend. “If Michigan provides a little spark, 10 years from now you could see the Big 10, Pac-10. We could see a dramatic change in the game.”
The University of Florida spent $15 million on a stadium and fielded its first varsity women’s team two years ago. The Gators were ranked as high as No. 2 this season and made it into the quarterfinals of the tournament.
Denver made the men’s tournament in its eighth year competing in Division I, the sport’s highest level, and this year hosted Villanova University in the first NCAA tournament game played west of the Mississippi River.
For now, though, NCAA rules and federal laws may temper ambitions.
Men’s lacrosse teams are allowed to have the equivalent of 12.6 scholarships for roughly 45 players. If the NCAA increased the number of scholarships, bigger schools could gain an advantage.
Title IX, a U.S. law requiring schools provide an equal number of opportunities for men and women, may keep schools from starting men’s lacrosse programs because it effectively doubles their costs. And because lacrosse usually doesn’t earn enough to pay for itself, schools would have to subsidize their teams.
Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala said his program costs $2 million annually, including about $650,000 for scholarships. The school has an undergrad enrollment of about 5,000.
Penn State Coach Jeff Tambroni, who won or shared eight Ivy League titles and appeared in two Final Fours and one national championship in 10 years while coaching Cornell, said a larger school must effectively use its advantage in resources and boosters.
“The value of going to a Final Four or winning a national championship in lacrosse isn’t nearly as cost effective as going to a basketball or football championship with all the money they are making,” he said.
Nonetheless, Penn State, with 38,500 undergrad students on its main campus, hired Tambroni in June 2010 and is spending about $2 million annually to fund its lacrosse teams.
Being a sports powerhouse doesn’t ensure success in recruiting. Jamie Faus, Denver’s freshman goalie, drew interest last year from Ohio State, whose main-campus undergrad enrollment is 42,000. Faus, 20, said in an interview that though he understands the allure of a big athletic department, he chose to attend Denver, which has 5,500 undergrads and a Hall-of-Fame coach in Bill Tierney and four NCAA tournament appearances in the last six seasons.
“We’ve shown that success doesn’t depend on the prowess of your whole athletic program but rather the players you get there and how it comes together,” he said.
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