By Chris Goldberg
Lacrosse continues to be the fastest growing sport in the country.
Last weekend, more than 5,000 people got another chance to witness the sport’s amazing growth as Philadelphia hosted the US Lacrosse National Convention for the fifth straight year.
Coaches, players and officials from around, the globe descended upon the Convention Center to participate in a three-day event that kicked off Friday with a keynote speech from former U.S. Olympic gold medalist Mike Eruzione.
The main purpose of the event, which is run by the nation’s governing board, U.S. Lacrosse, is to provide education, training and networking for coaches and officials as well as players at all levels.
“This is the largest educational opportunity for coaches and officials,” said Colleen Aungst, Public Relations Coordinator of US Lacrosse. “Every year the sport grows and we have more and more sessions and we bring in more speakers and vendors.”
Data from the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) indicates that lacrosse has the fastest growth rate of any high school sport over the last ten years.
Since 2001, the number of athletes participating in lacrosse in the United States has increased by 68 percent. In 2001, participants at all levels of play numbered 253,931. In 2006, that figure had risen to 426,022.
Specifically, the number of youths aged 15 and under, participating in lacrosse rose, dramatically, from 40,000 in 1999 to 220,000 in 2006.
According to a U.S. Lacrosse study, as the number of teams playing the sport of lacrosse has increased, so has the level of play. More and more top athletes at high schools are choosing to play lacrosse at the high school level, as well as at the collegiate level. No sport has grown faster in the NCAA than lacrosse, and the study reports that the sport appears poised for a new wave of growth. In fact, 29 new varsity lacrosse programs have just been announced for 2007 and 2008.
U.S. Lacrosse reports that in 2006 there were 220,779 youths (15 and under) playing organized lacrosse and that 169,625 (96,777 boys and 65,244 girls) were playing at the high school level. There were 26,651 student-athletes playing at the collegiate level and 8,649 at the club level.
These numbers figure to rise again when the newest report is released in March, according to Aungst. In the Philadelphia area, there are 14,000 lacrosse players and 11,700 are members of US Lacrosse.
So popular is lacrosse, that the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association of American’s 2007 State of the Industry survey rated lacrosse as the top sport in terms of sales growth for the year. The survey rated lacrosse to have a 31 percent increase in sales, ahead of soccer (20 percent), which experienced a similar phenomenon the 1990’s.
“It’s an infectious sport,” said Philadelphia Wings defender Kyle Sweeney, a Springfield (Delco) product who attended the convention. “The network, the community, everyone gets along.
“It’s a fun sport to be a part of. The other part, that you can’t hide, is that it’s got the combination of athleticism and is a fast-paced sport.
“For boys, it’s a contact sport. And it’s something you don’t have to be actually playing (on a field) to play. You can’t tackle each other in a street, but kids can always walk around with their stick. It’s unique. You can throw the ball against the wall anywhere. Personally, I used to go running with my stick.
“It’s like a cult, kids literally get addicted to it.”
Another member of the Wings, transition player John Christmas, agreed with Sweeney.
“It was inevitable, the sport is a fun sport,” said Christmas, a Lower Merion High graduate. “It’s exciting, and it was a matter of time until it caught on.”
“The youth level is booming, and you see all these vendors here and companies trying to capitalize on the growth. It’s a good thing. It’s moving to inner cities and as you get those athletes, it’s going to get better. When the next generation of athlete arrives, the game will take a step up athletically.”
Christmas said boys’ lacrosse has caught on because of the sport’s speed and physical nature.
“It’s more physical, it’s fast paced and it encompasses every sport out there,” he said. “It takes football, soccer, basketball and hockey. It’s more fun than sitting in the outfield or on the bench.”
Speaking to the growth of boys’ lacrosse in the Philadelphia area, Christmas believes it will be helped by the move of teams being governed beginning next year by the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA).
“I think with them going PIAA, that’s going to be good for the sport,” he said. “It’s going to continue to get bigger at the youth level and the high school level.”
One of the speakers Saturday was Michael Molster, an assistant coach for Maryland high school girls’ power South River High. Molster gave a seminar on coaching girls’ goalies at the scholastic level and also has coached boys’ lacrosse at Saverna Park and Chesapeake high schools.
Molster said the sport continues to grow for many reasons – the attraction of being a field sport, the access to playing fields and the enforcement of Title IX standards.
“The sport can be high-scoring and that is what the media likes,” Molster said. “There isn’t a lot of starting and stopping, like baseball.
“And it’s a field sport. Now that I am coaching girls, I see that they are deviating toward it. Girls’ soccer players and, on the boys’ side, football players, deviate toward it because it is a true field sport.
“The other thing is that colleges can use their multi-purpose fields they already have for boys’ and girls’ lacrosse. They don’t have to build special fields. And with Title IX, growth has been quick on the college level for girls, and that means openings for scholarships. That feeds the club teams.”
Molster saw the tremendous blitz of interest in lacrosse in the hotbed of the Baltimore/Maryland area back in the 1970s. Now he sees it growing all throughout the country.
“I have friends that live in Georgia and South Carolina and we see it starts in the private schools because of the money issues and then it spreads to the public schools,” he said. “It’s a big snowball, and it’s starting to get media attention, with it being on ESPN.
“People see it is a fast sport. It’s all coinciding and it all works together to build the sport. And as lacrosse people move, they start lacrosse elsewhere.
“A friend of mine moved to Utah and helped starte the program at BYU. US Lacrosse has an arm that helps foster colleges to play club level and than slowly convert. People see it is a good sport and them, boom, it keeps growing.”
Bridget Algeo contributed to this article.