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How The West Was Won (by lacrosse)

Thanks to the addition of varsity status for women’s lacrosse at Arizona State, a Pac-12 sponsored women’s lacrosse conference is now a reality.  Division I Women’s Lacrosse has been planting the varsity seed up and down the west coast for more than 15 years, and finally these seeds have sprouted into the ultimate accomplishment, a Power-5 conference sponsorship.

Unfortunately, the men’s game has not had comparable success in rooting varsity programs on the nations west coast.  While Division I Men’s Lacrosse has seen unprecedented growth in the last 10 years, that growth has been confined to the east coast and mid-west.  The challenges for DI Men’s Lacrosse growth on the west coast are well documented.  There are the challenges associated with gender equity and adding men’s lacrosse at schools with football programs.  There are the challenges associated with funding such programs, as many schools are not willing to take the plunge without endowing a majority of a programs costs or soliciting a significant lead donor.  And finally, specific to west coast schools, there is the challenge of geography.

It’s hard to sell a varsity program to Presidents, Trustees, ADs and even sometimes recruits when every away game is a flight.  Of course it can be done, and is done with teams across many other sports.  But for lacrosse, a non-revenue sport that doesn't justify being chartered everywhere, it’s not an easy sell.  It’s not UMass Lowell deciding to go DI when every school in the America East is a bus ride away.  It means increased cost for travel and increased time away from class for the athletes.

What it comes down to is a hypothetical varsity west coast men's lacrosse program needs someone to play, however schools are faced with a daunting ‘geographic gap’ in the countries fly over states.  The below map displays the location of every new varsity men’s and women’s lacrosse program across all divisions since 2011:



While many colleges have added the sport in recent years, lacrosse in general, and especially the men’s game, has struggled to move the dial in athletic departments west of the Mississippi.  Colorado is men’s lacrosse’s western outpost, but the state is still surrounded by barren lacrosse-less regions.  

It has become clear that the men’s game will not grow on the west coast by mid-west varsity programs being added and overtime making their way to the pacific.  Men’s Lacrosse needs a west coast school or schools to act as a catalyst, a trailblazer, to be lacrosse’s own Lewis and Clark.  So which school will that be? Who is most likely to be men’s lacrosse’s own Lewis and Clark?  Since history often repeats itself let’s look at the history of Division I Women’s Lacrosse west coast growth:

DI Women's Lacrosse West Coast Varsity Programs
School
First Varsity Year
Arizona State
2017
Cal
1999
Fresno St
2009
Oregon
2005
San Diego St
2012
USC
2013
St. Mary’s
2000
Stanford
1997
UC Davis
1997

The four ‘founding mothers’ of west coast DI Women’s Lacrosse are Cal, Stanford, UC Davis, and St. Mary’s.  These schools have a long history of women’s lacrosse, with their successful and well organized club teams transitioning to varsity status during the mid to late 90’s.   One can also look at west coast DI Field Hockey teams, another prominently east coast sport, and see some similarities to women’s lacrosse’s west coast growth:

DI Field Hockey West Coast Varsity Programs
School
First Varsity Year
Cal
1976
Pacific
1977
Stanford
1974
UC Davis
2009

Both Cal and Stanford were catalysts for west coast sponsorship of field hockey and women’s lacrosse.  Does this mean that these two schools will someday play a role in varsity men’s lacrosse growth on the west coast?  One could argue that it is more likely than not that they will, but when that would happen is anyone's guess.  Of the two Stanford may be the best positioned and most likely west coast school to add varsity men’s lacrosse.  As a public institution Cal has challenges not faced by private schools like Stanford.  It wasn’t too long ago that Cal’s budget woes were so significant that they tried cutting multiple sports.  Stanford, on the other hand, is one of the wealthiest universities in the world, and has an endowment ($21 billion) five times the size of Cal's.  Both teams have successful MCLA teams and undoubtedly alumni willing to support a varsity move however the key would be those alumni garnering administrative support.

It's also possible that it may not even be a Pac-12 school that makes the first jump, it could be a small private school like a Pacific or St. Mary's who's resources are not hampered by football.  Or it could be a school that is not on anyone's radar.  If Arizona State Ice Hockey has taught us anything, it's that a school will ultimately sponsor a sport, no matter how outside the box, if there is a donor willing to cover the costs.  But regardless if it’s Cal or Stanford or another western school that takes this significant first step for DI Men's Lacrosse, here’s hoping that the wild west is opened up sometime in the near future.

1 comments:

Anonymous said...

What about one of the bigger schools without football to be the pioneer, like Pacific or Fullerton?