There’s been a lot of talk regarding attendance at the NCAA Men’s Lacrosse Championship Weekend. Attendance is declining, but why? Is it because of location, enhanced viewing experience on television or ticket prices?
The likely answer includes a combination of several factors.
The Final Four was in Baltimore for the first time in three years, but the combined three-day attendance was more than 20,000 less than 2011 (98,786 in 2011 versus 78,234 in 2014). Baltimore is considered a hotbed for lacrosse, so that’s a startling decline.
Some could say that the Orioles being home during Championship Weekend hurt attendance. Personally, I don’t think that affected attendance much. Maybe there were some fans who didn’t want to fight traffic and decided to stay home for that reason, but for the most part, the Orioles are pulling from a different fan base.
People have suggested taking Championship Weekend out of NFL stadiums, but I believe things should remain status quo. However, some tweaks should be made regarding the current setup. There is no need for a complete overhaul to something that is still successful.
When Championship Weekend began being played in NFL stadiums in 2003, there was an allure and newness to it. That newness has seemed to wear off. That said, there were still more than 30,000 fans at this year’s Division I semifinals and 25,000 at the championship game. Think about that. That’s more than NBA and NHL arenas. The 30,428 at Saturday’s semifinals is more than the average attendance for 18 Major League Baseball teams.
Even with the decline in attendance, teams go from playing in front of hundreds or (maybe) a couple thousand fans to an NFL stadium which features an almost-full lower bowl. There are still 30,000 reasons to keep Championship Weekend in NFL stadiums.
I believe there are a core group of fans that will come regardless. They are lax junkies. The issue becomes luring the casual lacrosse fans back, and even casual sports fans. That’s where the questions mentioned at the beginning comes into play.
An overlooked reason for decline in attendance is parity across the country. There has been so much parity that stronger lacrosse is being played at more locations. Look at the national quarterfinals and you could envision those as Final Fours. Fans could have gone to the quarterfinals at Hofstra or Delaware and seen four quality teams play for one third of the price. Even during the regular season, a lacrosse fan in Rhode Island could have seen Bryant against Drexel in early March, two teams that wound up in the national quarterfinals and one win from a Final Four.
Let’s go back to freshness of playing on the big stage of an NFL stadium. For the Division II and III championship games on Sunday, the energy was incredible in M&T Bank Stadium. There was an buzz among the crowd and each school’s supporters far greater than the Division I contests.
Despite the Division I attendances shrinking, the Division II/III championships have actually increased since the last time the championships were in Baltimore. Even with all the parity across Division I college lacrosse, those “underdog” teams have usually fallen short of the Final Four. Anytime you see a team make the semifinals for the first time (like UMass in 2006 and Delaware in 2007), their schools usually come out in full force. It would have been awesome to see Albany make it this year for that very reason. The Great Danes and their allure would have likely single-handedly increased this year’s attendance by at least 5,000.
Meanwhile, for schools who are there every season (or almost every season), it almost feels like just another game. Notre Dame was staging a comeback in Monday’s title game, but in the final five minutes, you could almost hear a pin drop in the stadium. Why? It’s a one-goal game in the national championship game. I think that goes back to the lack of newness.
So what are solutions? That’s not an easy answer, but here are some suggestions.
1) First and foremost, keep the championships in NFL stadiums. Move it to someplace like PPL Park in Chester, Pa. with a capacity of 18,500 and you’d be foregoing not only 12,000 tickets, but also concessions and merchandise sales. It’s one thing to make it a hot ticket, but to shut-out that many fans, you’d only be driving them away from your sport.
2) Why not try different locations? Championship weekend has solely been in Baltimore, Philadelphia or Foxboro, but why not try Charlotte, North Carolina or Denver, Colorado? Bank of America Stadium, home of the Carolina Panthers, would be a logical choice being within a short ride from places like Duke and UNC and within driving distance from lacrosse hotbeds like Baltimore and Long Island. Charlotte is also the home for ESPNU. I would be curious to see how well attended it would be; I feel like there is great potential in Charlotte. Denver would be a risk. If the Pioneers advance to the Final Four, it would be gold, but if they don’t, you’re forcing those from the East coast to take a flight which could lower attendance even more. I like the fact that next year’s quarterfinals are in Denver. That will be a good test run.
3) Ticket prices are always a hot topic because financially, you have to weigh how many more fans you think you’d draw for every dollar ticket prices lowered. I’m sure having the stadium for the weekend isn’t cheap, coupled with power, staffing and more, so there is need to have ticket prices more expensive than fans would like. There is a happy medium, but an analysis needs to be done to figure out if tickets were dropped a certain amount, how many more people would show up. The best way to do this is probably to survey fans, which is at least a start.
I’m sure there’s several things I’m missing. This is just scratching the surface. In the end, there’s no perfect solution. Some things will need to be tried and risks need to be taken, but I believe the potential is there to get attendance back to where it used to be (and more). By going to a smaller stadium, you’re essentially admitting defeat.
For those who attend every year, I’m sure they feel like me, that nothing beats being there live. The television enhancements are great, but doesn’t beat witnessing the excitement and drama that the lacrosse championships bring.
For extra reading, there was an interesting article in Bloomberg about the same topic. Some opinions are similar to mine while some are very different. Here’s the link.