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Lax101: The Growth of Lacrosse

Lacrosse is one of the oldest sports in human history and the oldest team sport in North American history, originating back in 1100 A.D. The sport was created by the Native Americans, in particular the Haudenosaunee, which is now modern-day New York and along the US/Canadian border with Ontario and Quebec.

In Canada, Montreal Lacrosse Club is credited as the first organized Canadian team to play with their own rules, with rules codified in 1867 by Dr. William George Beers. The sport first reached American universities in 1877, when New York University fielded the first ever collegiate men’s lacrosse roster. The sport then saw itself at the high school level in 1882 at Philips Academy, Philips Exeter Academy, and the Lawrenceville School. The first ever recorded women’s lacrosse game was in 1890 in Scotland. We would not see a female team in the United States until 1926.

Lacrosse has had multiple iterations of professional leagues, with the National Lacrosse Association which operated from 1968-1969 in the US and Canada playing box lacrosse. We had the original National Lacrosse League (1974-75), turning into the Eagle Pro Box Lacrosse League in 1986 which is now the current NLL. We also saw Major League Lacrosse (MLL) in the early 21st century play field lacrosse across North America. In 2019, the Premier Lacrosse League (PLL) developed as a competitor in the field lacrosse landscape and eventually took over the MLL leaving two primary professional leagues, alongside the NLL. In Canada, The Western Lacrosse Association (WLA) and Major Series Lacrosse (MSL) have been around since 1932 and 1887 respectively. These leagues represent the top level of senior lacrosse in Canada playing in the summer months.

Lacrosse over the course of the past 20 years has been one of, if not the fastest and largest growing sports, not only in America, but worldwide. Data from World Lacrosse shows there are around 1.1 million registered lacrosse athletes worldwide, over 1,500 collegiate teams worldwide, over 35 professional leagues globally, 916 college teams associated with the NCAA, and around 2.5 million people playing recreationally in the United States. In the last decade alone, 40 new member federations have emerged in World Lacrosse, bringing the number of countries with organized lacrosse to 85 (and counting) and representing nearly 90% growth. In 20 years, World Lacrosse membership has blossomed by more than 430% – from 16 members at the start of 2003 to 85 today.

College lacrosse ranks 6th most popular NCAA sport for men, 7th for women, with around 29,000 athletes combined. Within the last two decades, the number of NCAA lacrosse teams has seen a 99% growth, which is the fastest among all sports in that timeframe. While NCAA lacrosse encompasses just field lacrosse, opportunities for Americans to play real box lacrosse have developed under USA Lacrosse and USBOXLA with the National Collegiate Box Series (NCBS). The NCBS, starting in 2018, is open to players who are high school seniors up to fifth year collegiate seniors with leagues in Colorado, Ohio, Connecticut, Upstate New York, and California. Notable alumni from the NCBS includes Trevor Baptiste, Jack Hannah, and Jake Govett

“Lacrosse is a game, it’s an appealing game, it has great attraction and interest for young people, as the Native Americans would say ‘there’s magic in the stick’.” said World Lacrosse CEO, Jim Scherr, on the growth of lacrosse over the years.

The last two decades have seen an explosion in the popularity of lacrosse around the world. It has grown from four founding nations to a total of 85 member nations. The game’s immense growth can be credited to its attractiveness to young people and the ambassadorship of the game in the United States. This has helped spread the sport to the western United States, where kids are taught how to play a game that is normally associated with the east coast. This growth has been facilitated by coaching, equipment grants, and programming from USA Lacrosse.

“The National Lacrosse League (NLL) and the Premier Lacrosse League (PLL) are working to grow the fan base through branding, marketing, and team and individual promotion.” – Jim Scherr

Scherr believes that lacrosse will continue to be the fastest growing team sport in North America. He stated that the speed of growth took a hit during COVID, as most team sports did, but within the last two years it has seen positive recovery. Scherr also believes that with the growth of women’s lacrosse in particular, that this will only help lacrosse as a whole keep growing both from a player interest and commercialization perspective. The first ever Women’s Box Lacrosse Championship will be held in 2024 alongside the men’s tournament. Women also play field lacrosse professionally under the Athlete’s Unlimited umbrella and have box opportunities with leagues like the Arena Lacrosse League and USBOXLA.

“Women’s collegiate lacrosse is thriving, which will be a major factor in the further growth of the sport. It is very fast paced which helps garner the audience and help bring in those who do not know too much about lacrosse. It all points to providing opportunity; women have the same interest in sports and lacrosse as men, you provide the opportunities and the numbers will be there” continued Scherr

What excites Scherr the most, is the possibility of lacrosse in the 2028 Los Angeles Olympic Games. World Lacrosse developed and announced that the Sixes discipline would be their hope to become the Olympic discipline of the sport as the game is short, fast-paced, and allows those developing nations more chances to compete with the higher ranked nation. The Sixes discipline allows those with smaller roster sizes and those with potential equipment/playing surface challenges more opportunities to play. A possible inclusion of lacrosse into the Olympic Games would bring global attention to the game and be incredibly beneficial. Scherr believes that should lacrosse get into the 2028 games, the Olympic exposure would “skyrocket” the games popularity worldwide.

Scherr states that Sixes is the most realistic way to get lacrosse into the Olympics. “It’s a numbers game, and Sixes has the least amount of guys needed. It’s a faster pace and shorter format, it will be able to draw both a television and digital audience. It is very hard to get a new team sport in the Olympics, but we believe this is the best way.”

Lacrosse is growing at a rapid rate both in North America and worldwide. As one of the oldest sports in human history, and the oldest team sport in North American history, it is to no shock. With youth leagues, to high school, to collegiate, to professional leagues, lacrosse offers both a route for college, as well as a legitimate profession in today’s world. With hopes of joining the 2028 Olympic Games, this is nowhere near the end for the growth of lacrosse.