NCAA Is Studying Lacrosse Championship’s 42% Attendance Skid

The National Collegiate Athletic Association and lacrosse coaches are trying to determine why attendance at the sport’s top event has declined for five straight years even as participation is setting records.

The NCAA’s committee that oversees championships will discuss the decline from 48,970 in 2008 to 28,224, or 42 percent, in August. The Intercollegiate Men’s Lacrosse Coaches Association has appointed a committee to research the issue and report its findings to the NCAA.

The decline comes as the sport is setting records for participation. The number of high school boys’ and girls’ lacrosse programs increased 30 percent between 2007-08 and 2011-12, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations participation report. The number of men’s and women’s teams in the NCAA’s top division rose 16 percent since 2007-2008, according to the NCAA.

“We want to see if we can get back to some of the numbers we had in the past,” said Anthony Holman, the NCAA’s associate director of championships and alliances. “But we don’t want to be too quick to react, thinking something is broken.”

Attendance at the women’s championship, which draws about a third of the men’s, has risen for two years.

Among the potential reasons for the decline that will be explored are more television exposure, higher ticket prices and the tradition of holding the event Memorial Day weekend, Holman said.

“Five to 10 years ago, if you wanted to see top level lacrosse you were going to come to our championship,” Holman said. “But the things that used to be unique to our championship aren’t necessarily unique anymore.”

Holman says fans used to look forward to one opportunity to see the best players in the nation gather on championship weekend. Now, they watch them all year at home. ESPN broadcast 35 regular-season games this past season, averaging 51,000 viewers per telecast across three ESPN channels.

TV Ratings

The TV audience for the championship game was 496,000 U.S. households this May, up 27 percent from last year, according to the network.

While television is probably good for growing the sport, it can also negatively affect a fan’s decision to spend thousands of dollars to travel to a three-day tournament on a holiday weekend, Holman said.

“We’re not burying our heads in the sand,” Holman said in an interview. “There is an uninttended consequence to growth, broadcasts and exposure.”

While attendance at the sport’s premier event is slipping, lacrosse is growing.

The number of high school boys’ and girls’ lacrosse programs increased by 1,017, according to the National Federation of State High School Association’s participation report. Meanwhile, the number of men’s and women’s teams in the NCAA’s top division increased by 23, or 16 percent, between 2007-2008 and this year, according to the governing body.

Women’s Attendance

While the men’s championship attendance has been in decline, women’s has been rising the past two years.

North Carolina beat Maryland 13-12 in triple overtime to capture the Division I women’s title in front of 9,391 at Villanova University outside Philadelphia, up 32 percent from last year’s 7,127. The best turnout was in 2010 when 9,782 witnessed Maryland beat Northwestern 13-11 in Towson, Maryland. All-session general admission tickets sold for $25, up from $20 the past two years, according to the NCAA.

For the men’s championship, an all-session pass that allowed fans to watch the Division I semifinal and championship games and the Division II and Division III championship games in premium seating cost $135 this year, more than twice the $60 it cost in 2006. For comparison, a four-day ticket to last week’s U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club near Philadelphia were priced at $175.

Ticket Prices

Individual lacrosse game tickets that cost $40 for the Division I championship were held back until the beginning of May to encourage fans to buy the more expensive package.

Lee Stevens, tournament director for this year’s championship, is recommending the NCAA start selling single game tickets now for next year’s tournament in Baltimore, and consider hosting just the Division I, II and III finals so the tournament can be pared to one or two days, rather than three. That would reduce the time commitment and cost of hotels and restaurants for families, he said.

Attendance at the Division I men’s lacrosse championship peaked in 2008 when 48,970 watched Syracuse beat Johns Hopkins University, 13-10, in Foxborough, Massachusetts.

Attendance hasn’t been as low as this year’s 28,224 for Duke’s 16-10 victory over Syracuse at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia since the 2002 game when Syracuse defeated Princeton 13-12 in front of 19,706 in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Position Paper

In addition to the NCAA conversation in August, the coaches association will submit a position paper to the NCAA in time for the summer meeting.

Duke Coach John Danowski said the NCAA should delay the championship a week so it doesn’t interfere with the holiday, and should consider moving the games out of 75,000-seat NFL stadiums and into smaller venues.

“You make it supply and demand. ‘I have to get my ticket early,’” Danowski said. “It might only be 25,000, but it’s sold out.”

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