Expanding NCAA Hockey and Lacrosse

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Introduction

Many collegiate sports are widely popular, to the extent that almost every college and university in the United States fields at least one team. Examples of these are baseball, football, and basketball, sports that have widespread appeal in America, though there are regional preferences. On the second tier, as it were, are lower-profile sports such as hockey, lacrosse, golf, etc. Many colleges field highly competitive teams in these and other similar sports, but for the most part, that is the exception rather than the rule. This paper will examine the possible causes for the limited appeal of lower-profile sports at the collegiate level, in the context of examining two specific sports: hockey, which at the collegiate level has only developed regionally, and lacrosse, which has a limited player and fan base nationwide.

Collegiate Hockey and Lacrosse

Collegiate Hockey: Overview

Hockey is a sport that has wide appeal throughout the United States. Many large cities now have professional teams that play in the National Hockey League (NHL), a league that includes teams in both the US and Canada. This includes warm-weather cities where it is impossible to play the sport at all except in indoor facilities, such as Phoenix and Los Angeles. The NHL started in only cold-weather cities, however, where the availability of outdoor rinks had generated a strong local interest in hockey and other winter sports. While the appeal of hockey eventually expanded to the rest of the country, that appeal has not, as opposed to with the NHL, caused colleges in warm-weather cities to create facilities and teams for the sport (though a few small programs do exist outside the US Northeast region, notably in Colorado and Alaska).

Collegiate Lacrosse: Overview

In contrast to hockey, lacrosse is not a particularly well-known sport in the US. Its player base is quite small, and there is as yet only one professional lacrosse league, currently with nine teams, four of which are in Canada (National Lacrosse League). Only a relatively few colleges field teams, most of those in the US Northeast and mid-Atlantic regions. The regional appeal of the sport may be due to lacrosse’s historical popularity among the indigenous native tribes of those regions, such as the Mohawks and Ojibwas. That said, within that fairly narrow geographical base, the sport is often quite popular; many collegiate programs have existed for decades and current rivalries are often fierce.

Unlike hockey, there is no particular reason why lacrosse could not be played in warm-weather cities. Soccer fields, which are ubiquitous throughout the US, can easily be adapted for use as lacrosse fields (also often called, as with soccer fields, pitches). The sport requires only a small amount of specialized equipment.

Problems in Expanding the Reach of Lacrosse and Hockey

Hockey

Perhaps the single greatest problem in expanding the appeal of collegiate hockey is the large investment in infrastructure needed to create a viable hockey rink and an arena to enclose it. It is a considerable amount of trouble, furthermore, to create an ice rink surface and maintain it. The building containing it has to be maintained at a low enough temperature so that the ice does not melt. These requirements mandate a substantial capital investment as well as an ongoing maintenance budget. If the arena does not attract enough paying spectators, it is unlikely that the costs of the facility (both capital and ongoing expenses) will be recouped. This means that colleges contemplating building a hockey arena are faced with a chicken-and-egg question: unless their hockey team attracts spectators, the arena probably shouldn’t be built, but it won’t attract a fan base until an arena is built. In cold-weather cities where hockey is already popular, the benefit of having a dedicated facility for school hockey teams to play and practice might be enough to justify building the facility, but a college in, say, Arizona might not deem the expense worthwhile.

An example of the cost was recently reported in the Omaha-World Herald (Perry, 2013). A new multipurpose arena is in the process of final approval, with the projected cost now $87.9 million. It will house the University of Nebraska’s hockey team as well as the men’s and women’s basketball teams. While it is difficult to estimate the difference in cost between a basketball-only and a multipurpose hockey facility, it is safe to say that a substantial additional capital investment is needed to make an arena viable for hockey; this would include cooling facilities, special flooring and enclosures for the rink, machines to pump water and create the ice surface, and ice resurfacing equipment. Nebraska, though not in the American Northeast, certainly fits the definition of a cold-weather city (at least in the winter), so hockey may prove to be popular enough there to justify the expense. It is difficult to say whether a college in a warm-weather city would consider that expense justified.

Lacrosse

Unlike hockey, lacrosse requires no specialized facilities. Essentially, all one needs is a sufficiently large grassy surface and a couple of goal structures. An existing soccer field can be adapted for the purpose by marking off the particular boundaries needed for lacrosse by flags, pylons, or painted striping. The soccer goal structure would have to be replaced with the much smaller lacrosse goal (National Collegiate Athletics Association, 2013), which only measures 6x6 feet. This could be problematic if the soccer field’s goal structure is permanent, i.e., embedded in the ground, but in a pinch, the lacrosse goal could be placed just in front of or even inside the much larger soccer goal.

The problem in expanding lacrosse is not one of available facilities but rather, in simply expanding the appeal of the game to American players (and, ultimately, audiences). Lacrosse is similar in many ways to soccer, which has exploded in popularity in recent decades. This might be an impediment for two reasons: people might not go out of their way to learn a similar game, and if one did need to switch, one would need to buy a lacrosse stick (and somebody would need to buy a lacrosse ball). Part of the worldwide popularity of soccer is that one needs minimal equipment to play it: the primary equipment players need is their feet! By contrast, almost no one who isn’t already an aficionado of the game owns a lacrosse stick. Also, the goalie, much as in hockey, needs a special oversized stick as well as special protective equipment (which should not be foregone under any circumstances, due to the high risk of injury to an unprotected goalie). This means that the first building block for a given sport’s popularity, grassroots informal games, are hard to come by: it’s hard to find, in any city outside the Northeast, a dozen or more people who own a lacrosse stick, a lacrosse ball, and a goal.

Factors in the Increase of Popularity of a Given Sport

In American society, it’s often difficult to figure out precisely why one activity becomes popular and another does not. Sports are a good example of this. One might think that the inherent appeal of a sport might be the primary reason for its popularity or lack thereof. This idea is subverted by the fact that many sports have rapidly waxed and waned in popularity in America, despite similar demographics over time. Nonetheless, a number of possible factors suggest themselves.

Ease of Play and Entry for New Players

This encompasses several factors. Is the equipment needed to play the sport minimal or extensive? Is that equipment expensive or inexpensive to obtain? Is the playing area readily available? Is the game relatively easy to become skilled at? Can people with a wide range of abilities enjoy the sport? For example, golf, though quite popular, carries with it several limitations: it needs a huge playing facility, it requires specialized and extensive equipment, and its learning curve is steep. Bowling is an example of a game that while requiring specialized facilities, needs no specialized equipment to play (shoes can be rented and house bowling balls are free to use) and can be learned very easily. Soccer is popular worldwide in no small part because all one needs to play it is an open area and a ball.

Media Exposure

America is a media-driven society. What is popular is largely a function of the amount of media exposure it receives. Baseball, football, and basketball have sustained mass media exposure and thus, immense popularity. Soccer, though steadily rising in popularity in the last several decades, has been greatly boosted by recent US Olympic teams’ successes and competitiveness in the World Cup: the US team is currently at the top of the standings in its qualifying group (US Soccer, 2013). These successes have garnered much sports media attention. In the case of the two sports discussed here, collegiate hockey receives only regional TV and radio coverage, except for nationwide broadcasts on ESPN of the “Frozen Four” national collegiate championships; lacrosse receives virtually no media coverage.

Hockey’s popularity as a spectator sport has been proved by the expansion of professional teams nationwide, many of which, such as the San Jose Sharks, have attracted a huge fan base despite being in warm-weather cities. Lacrosse might very well be an exciting game to watch (and this author, never having seen a game, can offer no opinion on the subject), but here the same chicken-and-egg problem arises: a sport’s exposure and therefore popularity is largely a function of the exposure it has already received. In other words, a sport is popular because, well, it’s popular. Frequently, there is a “tipping point” such as an Olympic gold medal performance or a high showing in a world championship that changes a sport from relatively obscure to mainstream (the US women’s World Cup victory over China in 1999 created an explosion in girls’ and women’s soccer). It is hard to imagine, however, such a mass media-pleasing event in lacrosse, given the game’s present obscurity in most of the country.

Inherent Appeal of the Game

This is certainly a subjective factor. That said, some games are simply fun to play, while others have a somewhat limited appeal; games such as curling or bocce ball rely in large part on ethnic and cultural connotations rather than how enjoyable the game is to play (at least, in this author’s opinion). An example of an easy and fun-to-play game is table tennis, which is indeed widely popular. When considering the appeal of the most popular sports in America, it should be noted that most such sports’ enjoyable moments, such as making a basket, catching a pass, or hitting a home run are all within the reach of the casual player and therefore part of many Americans’ embedded memories. Much of the reason we watch professional or collegiate sports is that we imagine ourselves down on the field, performing the same feats that our cultural athlete-heroes do. In the case of hockey, many Americans have played the game; in the case of lacrosse, relatively few have, though this number is growing: USLacrosse reported that “The US Lacrosse survey reveals more than 360,000 players on organized teams in 2011, an increase of 10.9 percent over the previous year (2011). Despite this growing number, it would be much more difficult to build a collegiate player and fan base for lacrosse than for hockey, which enjoys a player and fan base in the tens of millions.

Marketing

The success or failure of many sports teams, particularly those in small markets and/or in the minor leagues, is often dependent on marketingcampaigns and strategies. Prospective fans must be convinced that an afternoon or evening spent as a spectator will be fun and exciting. Zhang et al., in their study of minor-league hockey team marketing, stress the importance of targeting marketing efforts to a given demographic:

The findings indicate that salubrious effects, achievement seeking, and stress & entertainment factors should be highlighted by a minor league hockey team when formulating marketing strategies, promotion themes, and game presentations. Team promotions utilizing socio-motivational profiles should take into consideration the socio-demographic backgrounds of spectators. (p. 43)

It would seem natural to assume that in building a fan base for a collegiate hockey team, similar strategies should be used. Naturally, this is only one aspect of creating a viable collegiate team.

In building a successful collegiate team, it is obviously necessary to have enough players not only to establish a team but to replenish the roster continually to make up for losses to graduation and other forms of attrition. In fact, this is an ongoing problem for all college athletic programs, in that usually the maximum tenure of a player is four years. By contrast, a small-market minor-league team often has a guaranteed source of players due to its affiliation with a major-league organization. This enters into the marketing strategy, as the more well-known a given athletic program becomes, the more prospective student-athletes will be drawn to enroll at the university. While the primary focus of an educational institution is, of course, learning, it cannot be denied that a school’s athletic programs are often a major factor in a prospective student’s decision to apply to that school. Publicizing sports campaigning and promoting a given athletic program is one way to attract on an ongoing basis the student-athletes needed to make the program viable for the long term.

In the case of lacrosse, specifically in building and promoting collegiate programs outside the sport’s existing fan base in the US Northeast, marketing efforts should first focus on attracting enough students to form a viable team. These efforts can be focused both within the existing student body and externally in school promotional literature and websites. There just may be a number of students who originally came from the Northeast and are familiar with or have even played the game, perhaps on a high school team. This group could form the nucleus of a successful team and thus help launch the school’s program. The creation of a viable team should immediately be followed by promoting that team and informing the surrounding community of the opportunity to watch it play. Hopefully, interest will grow, increasing local knowledge of the game and in turn, attracting more students as potential players.

One interesting marketing angle related to hockey in warm-weather markets is that in some cities, the weather can be quite hot, even in fall or spring. A hockey team could advertise its games as a way to get out of the heat and enjoy an exciting experience in a nice, cool environment. This might be a real enticement as an entertainment alternative in a small city that does not have a major-league team.

Overall Strategies

Using the above observations, comprehensive strategies can be devised to increase the popularity of both collegiate hockey and collegiate lacrosse, though those strategies would be very different from one another. Boyle and Magnusson (2007) note that branding and building fan loyalty are crucial to the eventual success of a collegiate team (in any sport). They note that the success of the team (which can’t be controlled) makes this process faster.

Hockey

In the case of hockey, one must ask if the effort to establish teams in warm-weather cities will be worth the effort. The only data usable are the experiences of professional teams in these markets. In USA Today in 2002, Mike Dodd wrote an article that was highly critical of the National Hockey League’s (NHL) decision to create franchises in eight warm-weather cities. He noted that after a decade, “Seven of the eight are in the bottom half of the NHL in attendance, including five in the bottom seven” (2002). Additionally and perhaps most significantly of all, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks were dead last in attendance (out of thirty teams), despite being located in one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country (Dodd, 2002). Fan attendance at professional contests provides a rough though not infallible indicator of overall interest in a given sport. The popularity of a sport, in the case of establishing a viable college athletic program in that sport, depends both on overall interest in the sport (for building a fan base) and specifically student interest (for building and maintaining a team). Therefore, the relatively poor performance of NHL warm-weather teams in attracting spectators is a possible warning sign for those schools contemplating the creation of a hockey program.

The above being said, there are possible viable strategies for the creation of successful collegiate hockey teams. The abovementioned marketing tactic of appealing to fans in warm-weather cities could be used to attract a fan base. There is also the matter of novelty: most cities in the southern and western regions of the US do not have a hockey team. A local collegiate team could provide residents with their first chance to be spectators at a hockey game. In creating a team, prospective students could be lured by the opportunity to play collegiate hockey, but in a location with a mild climate rather than someplace like, say, New England or Minnesota.

That said, possibly the best place to build more non-Northeast collegiate programs would be in Western states that have climates that support winter sports activities. Colorado is already a major exception to the statement that hockey is popular only in the Northeast. (Alaska is another exception, but its small population, not to mention the relative dearth of colleges, make it not a viable target for expansion of collegiate hockey.) Colorado and possibly other mountainous and/or cold-climate states such as Washington or Utah could serve as bases for a gradual outward expansion of collegiate hockey. In the warm-weather states, it is still probably quite possible to build programs and fan bases, though an additional caveat is in order. In Forbes magazine, Karl Moore notes that many warm-weather cities are entertainment meccas, and thus, during the winter months, many attractions compete for prospective fans’ leisure time: “The consumers in these markets have many different options for their entertainment dollars and time, and any sports team need (sic) to convince them with a strong product” (Moore, 2012). He goes on to explain that a “strong product” is a team that wins. Obviously, a college thinking of fielding a hockey team can’t depend on it being an overall winner. The more germane point he makes is that in warm-weather cities, there are many things to do, even in the middle of winter. A hockey game (or playing hockey) might not be nearly as attractive if you can also go swimming, sailing, or hiking.

The opinion of this author draws is that the expansion of collegiate hockey teams into non-Northeastern markets is possible but should be done slowly and cautiously. It may be advisable to avoid warm-weather markets altogether and concentrate on areas such as the Rockies and the Pacific Northwest.

Lacrosse

Lacrosse enjoys several significant advantages for collegiate expansion that hockey lacks: a) existing facilities are easily adaptable for lacrosse play, which significantly lowers the cost of starting a program, b) the game is playable year-round in the warm-weather, populous cities of the American South and West, c) the market, rather than being possibly saturated as in the case of NHL hockey, barely exists outside the Northeast, and d) lacrosse offers a high degree of novelty for both prospective players and spectators.

Perhaps the most significant factor is the low cost of starting a lacrosse program. Since no expensive facilities would have to be financed or maintained, a program could concentrate on building a viable team gradually. Students could be attracted to the team from within, by on-campus publicity, and from without, possibly by “stealing” players from cold-weather-region colleges with existing teams. Additionally, lacrosse is an “up and coming” sport with potential for explosive growth. In Sports Business Daily, Rick Burton and Norm O’Reilly (2010) gave several reasons why lacrosse could be the next “big thing”:

Lacrosse has an original history and a devout following that is busting out of its original niche markets like Syracuse, Long Island and Baltimore. Lacrosse is generally a high-scoring game that is played and enjoyed by both men and women. Plus, it sets up easily on a football or soccer field. Lacrosse is a relatively easy game to learn and understand. Ball in the net equals one goal. Running, dodging, throwing, catching and shooting are frequent actions. Lacrosse can be played in a low-cost way. True, the full competition game requires a helmet/eye guard and some padding, but recreationally, other than the stick and a ball, the game can be played on any piece of grass with two makeshift nets. A decent game can be played with as few as six people, and two people can play a game of catch almost anywhere. Lacrosse has caught the attention of big-time sports apparel and equipment companies who are helping grow the game while extending their team businesses. Lacrosse is benefiting NCAA athletic departments as they deal with the complexities of sports sociology, specifically, gender equality because it provides a large-number participant team sport for women.

This passage illustrates why lacrosse is a sport with the potential for significant growth: it is simple to learn, easy to play, takes very little special equipment, and can be played on existing facilities. The most significant point that the authors make, though, may be that it is a team sport with built-in gender equality: while contact sports such as football may for a long time exclude women athletes (at least playing on the same teams as men), lacrosse can be enjoyed by female as well as male athletes; in fact, in areas of low player density, coed teams are often formed.

The sport’s potential appeal to female collegiate athletes suggests that colleges seeking to start lacrosse programs should concentrate on the sport’s potential appeal to women athletes. Lacrosse is not a “power” sport; skill and success at the game depend much more on speed, agility, and quick reactions than brute strength. Thus, though most traditional lacrosse programs in the Northeast field both men’s and women’s teams, there is no reason why a given college couldn’t create a coed team, particularly if player interest is slow to develop. The extension of lacrosse playing opportunities to women students could also be a springboard to compliance with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. The National Association of Collegiate Women Athletics Administrators (NACWAA) notes that one of the conditions of the “Three-Part Test” must be fulfilled for Title IX compliance. Of these, the most significant reason to create an equal-gender-opportunity lacrosse program may be the following: “2. The institution has a history and continuing practice of expanding participation opportunities responsive to the developing interests and abilities of the underrepresented sex” (NACWAA, n.d.). Expanding athletic opportunities for women may in and of itself be sufficient reason and incentive for a college to create a lacrosse program.

This author’s opinion is that the expansion of collegiate lacrosse outside the Northeast is a very viable possibility. The growing popularity of the sport, the ease of creating teams, its potential appeal in untapped markets, and its potential to offer opportunities to female collegiate athletes make expansion not only very worthwhile but also extremely likely.

Conclusions

The sport of lacrosse offers substantial opportunities to colleges wishing to build new athletic programs. The sport is in the process of breaking out of its traditional regional home and is acquiring widespread popularity all over the US. Several characteristics of the game, including, in particular, the low cost of facilities and equipment, make the expansion of lacrosse to the entire United States a distinct probability. Lacrosse will, in the very near future, become a significant part of many colleges’ athletic programs.

Hockey is more problematic in terms of expansion. Unlike lacrosse, it is neither popular nor easily played in the nation’s populous, warm-weather cities. The necessity for a specially equipped playing facility imposes a significant cost on a school wishing to build a team from scratch. For these reasons, this author does not foresee a significant expansion in collegiate hockey outside the Northeast.

References

Boyle, B. A., & Magnusson, P. (2007). Social identity and brand equity formation: A comparative study of collegiate sports fans. Journal of Sport Management, 21(4), 497.

Burton, R. & O’Reilly, N. (2010). Why lacrosse’s popularity is spreading across the U.S. Sports Business Journal. Retrieved from http://www.sportsbusinessdaily.com/Journal/Issues/2010/05/20100531/Opinion/Why-Lacrosses-Popularity-Is-Spreading-Across-The-US.aspx

Dodd, Mike (2002, April 11). Warm-weather cities no hotbeds of hockey support. USA Today. Retrieved from http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/sports/hockey/stories/2002-04-12-usat-focus-sunbelt.htm

National Association of Collegiate Women Athletics Administrators (NACWAA) (n.d.). Title X information. Retrieved from http://www.nacwaa.org/advocacy/title-ix/information

National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) (2013). Men’s lacrosse rules of the game. Retrieved from http://www.ncaa.org.

National Lacrosse League (2013). Teams. National Lacrosse League. Retrieved from http://www.nll.com/page/show/880191-teams-2014

Perry, K. (2013). Price tag for new UNO arena increases by $11.6 million. Omaha World-Herald. Retrieved from http://www.omaha.com/article/20130918/MAVS/130918617

USLacrosse (2011). Record participation in 2011. Retrieved from http://www.uslacrosse.org/TopNav/NewsandMedia/PressReleases/RecordParticipationin2011.aspx

US Soccer (2013). 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifying. Retrieved from http://www.ussoccer.com/tournaments/fifa-world-cup-qualifying/2014-fifa-world-cup-qualifying.aspx

Zhang, J. J., Pease, D. G., Lam, E. T., Bellerive, L. M., Pham, U. L., Williamson, D. P., ... & Wall, K. A. (2001). Sociomotivational factors affecting spectator attendance at minor league hockey games. Sport Marketing Quarterly, 10(1), 43-54.