Last weekend, in Baltimore, it looked as if an NFL crowd got lost and turned up at the NCAA men's lacrosse championship. On Saturday, M&T Bank Stadium hummed with the energy of a record 46,923 fans for the semifinal matchups, and another 43,890 braved the rain to watch Syracuse beat Navy in the championship game on Monday. ESPN camera crews roamed the sidelines, Coca-Cola sponsored a "fan zone," and Patriots coach Bill Belichick delivered a pregame pep talk (to Navy before its semifinal win over Princeton). Big crowds, corporate sponsorship, a Super Bowl-winning coach gracing the Final Four: Five centuries after Native Americans invented the sport's predecessor, a brutal game called baggataway, lacrosse is having a heyday.
Imagine: Lax sticks have lately turned up on Friends, in movies such as American Pie and on Polo Ralph Lauren sportswear. How far we've come. Gary Gait, who led Syracuse to three national titles from 1988 to '90, remembers crowds being "90 percent people tied to the game, rather than fans. The popularity has gone up dramatically." Over half a million watched the NCAA finals on ESPN last year—up 50% from 2002—and the number of nationally televised lacrosse games has jumped from three in 2002 to 23 this year. There are now more than 300,000 players nationwide, almost twice as many as 10 years ago, and two pro leagues are thriving. (In the event of an NHL lockout next season, the National Lacrosse League is ready to fill the void, playing games in NHL cities.) Mavericks owner Mark Cuban says he's looking to help bring a team to Dallas; Wayne Gretzky already has a team in Phoenix.
A pro franchise in Arizona proves lacrosse is no longer just an Eastern prep school pastime. Once Westerners knew little of the game; to them, "lax" was an airport. But as players from East Coast schools moved westward, they started club teams and encouraged their kids to play. In April, Torrey Pines High of Carmel Valley, Calif., became the first Western team to defeat a nationally ranked Eastern school when it beat Garden City of Long Island. Says Torrey Pines coach Jody Sill-strop, whose program has grown from 40 players to 85 since 1994, "In the beginning we had football players who wanted to try it. Then it became a hip thing to do. Now our football coach is recruiting players off the lacrosse team."
Players of all ages and both genders are signing up. The game is relatively simple to learn and doesn't require brute size, and equipment advances such as titanium sticks have made it easier to play. "It's as physical as football and has the finesse of soccer and the coordination and quickness of hockey," says Ohio State head coach Joe Breschi. Then, as if sensing those latter two sports aren't necessarily the best parallels for fan growth, he quickly adds, "Plus, it's high-scoring."
There was plenty of offense on display in Baltimore, where Navy chased its first national title in any sport since 1964. The Midshipmen, who took the field for the semifinal carrying an American flag brought back from Afghanistan, were clearly the crowd favorites, but Syracuse was too strong. In the most exciting championship game in 15 years, the Orange overcame a one-goal deficit in the last five minutes to win 14-13 on a goal from the school's alltime leading scorer, attackman Michael Powell. Afterward Powell, hair matted with sweat, cheeks smeared with eye black, was questioned on the field by an ESPN reporter. The scene seemed strangely familiar: a star player being interviewed on national TV as a giant stadium slowly drained of fans. Monday Night Lacrosse. To a growing number of people, that has a nice ring to it.