ROCK HILL — Each year at the Intercollegiate Womens Lacrosse Coaches Associations annual meeting, coaches of new college programs queue for a brief turn at the microphone to introduce themselves to the group. Lately, the line just keeps getting longer.
In 2011, it was John Sungs turn to take the podium. After two years of effort and recruiting, Sung is guiding Winthrop University through its maiden womens lacrosse season. Its the second program hes jump-started in the past five years.
Womens lacrosse is experiencing a rush on par with natural gas fracking or the price of gold. In just the last two years, 55 programs were started in NCAA Divisions I through III, according to USLacrosse.org. The Growth Blog, a site that closely tracks the spread and popularity of the sport, lists another 27 slated to begin play in 2014.
Lacrosse, originally invented and played by Native Americans, is one of the fastest-growing sports in the country. According to a U.S. Lacrosse participation survey, 680,000 players were on organized teams in 2011, an increase of 60,000 in just one year. More than half of those players were 15 or younger. The National Federation of High School Athletic Associations (NFHS) also reported a 133 percent increase in lacrosse programs nationwide from 2001 to 2011.
But is growth at the youth level the main catalyst behind colleges adding the sport at a prolific rate, even as budget concerns haunt campuses nationwide? The answer is no.
Womens lacrosse teams have allowed NCAA institutions such as Winthrop to accomplish several things. The sport has helped college athletic programs move closer to full Title IX compliance; its enabled schools to gain entry into nontraditional recruiting grounds; and perhaps most critically, womens lacrosse is that rarest of gems in college athletics: a revenue generator.
1 Title IX compliance
Winthrop athletic director Tom Hickman saw all of those positives when conducting feasibility studies in the late 2000s. One aspect particularly stood out: Primarily due to Title IX, we needed to add another womens sport, he explained, adding that his school briefly considered womens swimming.
Title IX is something that Hickman is constantly studying, juggling and balancing. The federal legislation works to ensure gender equity, and each school has to manage compliance largely on its own. College athletic participation numbers need to reflect the institutions student body; based on its makeup, Winthrop needs around 67 percent of its student-athletes to be female; the school currently sits at 52 percent.
One of the things you can do if you havent gotten there yet is show a history of creating opportunities, said Hickman, whose program has 10 sports for women and eight for men.
Sungs team helps inch Winthrops numbers in the direction of that elusive 67 percent, and also shows good faith effort being made toward fulfilling Title IX requirements. By adding a sport every 5-10 years, the school can be in line with Title IX, while maintaining a responsible athletic budget and reasonable growth. Hickman mentioned Winthrop will have to add another sport soon. Womens swimming may yet get its chance at the school in the near future.
2 Recruiting turf
Adding lacrosse has provided an additional boost to colleges and universities: opening up a new part of the country to the schools recruiters, both athletic and academic. The sports traditional hotbed is in the northeast and the mid-Atlantic, areas from which Winthrop doesnt typically attract much enrollment.
Were at the forefront of the spread of lacrosse in the south, said Kathryn Holten, Winthrops vice president for university advancement and enrollment management. Looking at the numbers when we were proposing to add lacrosse, we realized this could be 25 to 30 students who would otherwise not come to Winthrop.
The Eagles historic first roster includes 14 players from Maryland and six from New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Connecticut. Winthrops counselors working in those areas constantly fielded questions at high schools and college fairs about whether the school had a lacrosse team. That interest helped strengthen the case for adding the sport.
Holten pointed out that the first question for any sport being considered is how do the athletes support the academic mission of the university?
In lacrosses case, the answer was very well.
Theyre just really high academic achievers, Holten said of lacrosse players. Everybody wants them.
Danie Caro, the coach at Quinnipiac University who has started programs at three different schools, said womens lacrosse players were students that admissions counselors would be pursuing whether they played sports or not.
Sungs group backed up those assertions. The team had a cumulative 3.0 grade point average after the fall semester, pretty solid considering 20 of the teams 25 members were true freshmen experiencing their first months of college.
When budgets and Title IX get entangled, college athletics can get messy. But womens lacrosse has blossomed during an era of contraction for many other sports. It doesnt cost much to operate, making it a sparkly option in a dim-looking landscape.
Winthrops womens lacrosse budget not including salaries is between $80,000 and $90,000, which sounds like a startlingly high figure. But the schools feasibility study for womens lacrosse estimated that the sport would bring in about $350,000 annually, mainly from out-of-state tuition and additional support from the roughly $135 million NCAA grant-in-aid fund. Thats money doled out by the NCAA to member schools dependent on the number of scholarships offered, which Hickman estimated could be worth nearly $40,000 for Winthrop when the final figures are crunched.
Schools can fund a team that hopefully brings some economic impact back into the school, Sung explained. What it costs to run a program, versus what the tuition revenue is gonna be, is definitely something. Its an investment; it can actually make the school a little bit of money.
The out-of-state tuition, more than $12,000 per semester at Winthrop, is crucial, especially with most of Sungs team hailing from north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Plus, the majority of womens lacrosse players tend to come from middle- or upper-class economic situations. Caro pointed out that many players are simply interested in the opportunity to play but dont necessarily need a scholarship. Womens lacrosse programs get a maximum of 12 full grant aids; those scholarships are carved up among the team members. Its very rare to see a full ride in womens lacrosse, unlike for example, basketball, a head-count sport where nearly every player gets a scholarship.
Womens lacrosse players wear very little gear, far less than in the mens version of the game, contributing to cost-effectiveness. Plus, Winthrop didnt have to build a new facility, deciding instead to use its soccer stadium. The creation of a Big South womens lacrosse conference with seven teams competing this year furthered the feasibility, since the team could play games in neighboring states rather than planning a pricey, nationwide schedule.
A chance to dance
Reflecting the spread of womens lacrosse, the NCAA increased the national championship tournament field from 16 to 26 teams in 2012. Hickman was on the board that made that call, giving every conference, including the Big South, an automatic bid to the Big Dance.
Caro said, Its nice for an administrator to add a sport where they know they have access to postseason opportunity, and Hickman is banking on Sung taking advantage of that opportunity. Three seasons after starting Division III Adrian Colleges program in 2008, Sung led the Bulldogs to a No. 2 final national ranking, and the expansion of the NCAA tournament field means his fledgling Eagles could conceivably reach the postseason as soon as this spring.
NCAA Division I womens lacrosse surpassed the 100-program mark this year for the first time, as the sport spills out of Maryland and New York and into the rest of the country. The proliferation is showing no signs of letting up, and with two start-ups already under his belt, Sung constantly fields calls from athletic directors looking for coaches to launch their programs.
It seems like in the NCAA if you want to be a college lacrosse coach, there are a lot of jobs, Sung said Monday, laughing. This is the boom for lacrosse.
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032 Twitter: @BretJust1T