Utah appears to be on the way to becoming the Power Five conference school west of the Mississippi River to add men’s lacrosse at the varsity level. As we wrote last week, that could lead to more Western expansion in the sport and influence the ever-changing world of broadcast media deals in college sports.
The #GrowTheGame campaign has been a success for US Lacrosse. While dozens of Division I athletic programs across the nation may seem ripe to add the sport, there isn’t likely to be a mass outbreak of new Power Five teams anytime soon.
Sure, more programs will follow the lead of Utah, and Michigan and Marquette before it, jumping from the Men’s Collegiate Lacrosse Association club level to the NCAA in the coming years. Yet, the reality of the situation for many club programs includes challenges that make the transition nearly impossible.
“The easy answer is usually money,” said Ken Lovic, the coach of Georgia Tech’s club team.
The financial challenges of adding a sport that isn’t likely to produce revenue on its own are too much for many athletic departments, but other roadblocks exist as well. More precisely, they exist even for programs with cash to spare or donors who want to fund a team.
Administrators can’t just add new Division I sports, even if the budget exists. Title IX compliance is always a factor for schools considering adding or cutting sports. It’s a much more prevalent consideration than anyone outside the college sports industry might realize.
Here’s a look at some potential men’s lacrosse schools and why they may or may not be in position to make the move to NCAA Division I:
One clue to just how hard it is to launch a Division I men’s program is the fact the East Coast is the prime lacrosse hotbed, but the ACC has just five teams in a 15-school conference.
Georgia Tech seems to make sense on many levels to give the ACC an even six. The Yellow Jackets have a successful club program, and the sport is growing in popularity in the region with a popular pro team in Atlanta. The school’s student body is more than 60 percent male, which means there’s more Title IX flexibility than most schools. The ACC played its tournament in Georgia this spring, despite not having a team in the state, a sure sign Georgia Tech is primed to start playing…
Not exactly. Lovic said while his team enjoys a solid relationship with the athletic department, the financial situation at Georgia Tech doesn’t allow it. The Yellow Jackets seem to be on a constant search for greater fundraising for their existing varsity sports and are still in the process of paying off fired coaches, especially in men’s basketball.
The majority male student body also cuts both ways. While GT could add a men’s team and still comply with Title IX, the school doesn’t need a men’s lacrosse team to attract male students.
“A school like Tech doesn’t need the admissions help,” Lovic said. “It’s hard enough to get in already.”
Virginia Tech and Boston College each reside in areas where lacrosse is hugely popular, but face serious Title IX issues if they ever wanted to add men’s programs. The Hokies and Eagles, along with Louisville, field women’s teams whose large rosters balance out the football programs in terms of Title IX compliance.
“With such a well established football program and many other male varsity programs adding another male varsity sport, especially one with a large roster size, is simply not possible,” Virginia Tech club coach Tim O’Brien said. “That’s not to say I don’t think a move for Virginia Tech wouldn’t be interesting, it’s simply not possible right now.”
A dark horse could be Florida State, which — if the money is there — could add both men’s and women’s lacrosse at the same time. The sport has taken off in the Sunshine State with multiple small school powerhouses, but only Jacksonville offers the men’s game at the Division I level.
Utah may get the ball rolling in the Pac-12 as the West Coast becomes more of a fertile recruiting ground. Arizona State is adding women’s lacrosse in 2018, joining Cal, Stanford, USC, Colorado and Oregon. The existing women’s programs could make it difficult to for any of those schools add a men’s team and stay within Title IX regulations. Even with the game exploding in Denver, where the Major League Lacrosse team is popular and the Denver Pioneers won an NCAA title, the Colorado Buffaloes — situated in nearby Boulder — might not be in position to add a men’s team.
Arizona State has one of the best MCLA programs in the country and could possibly manage the Title IX situation by adding both sports at roughly the same time. ASU athletic director Mark Brand told TodaysU.com the school had no plans to add men’s lacrosse, but Utah’s news shows that can change in a hurry.
Something that can motivate a university to make a decision that isn’t technically financially sound is the belief it is serving a higher calling. BYU and Liberty tend to spare little expense in their athletic departments. The desire to attract students and promote their affiliated churches is strong.
The Cougars and Flames also happen to have outstanding club programs. Liberty, in Lynchburg, Virginia, is just down the road from some of the most tradition rich programs in both Division I and Division III. BYU may want to join rival Utah and could enjoy natural regional rivalries with Denver and Air Force. Attempts to contact officials at both schools went unanswered.
Before Utah, the most recent Division I program to add men’s lacrosse was Hampton. Reports out of Baltimore indicate Morgan State could soon follow. Like the church-affiliated schools, historically black colleges and universities have reasons to add the sport that go beyond the athletic department’s bottom line.
Increasing diversity in the sport and creating more Division I scholarship opportunities for African American student athletes are important goals that served Hampton’s mission. They also created a great deal of exposure for the school. It wouldn’t come as a shock to find that Coppin State or North Carolina Central had at least started studying the feasibility of launching a program.
THE FOR-PROFIT SCHOOL
The most unique case in college sports is Grand Canyon University. GCU is the only for-profit school participating in Division I. Continued expansion of the Phoenix campus with new dormitories and improved athletic facilities shows the school is trying to attract more traditional students and offer a more authentic college experience.
The Antelopes joined the WAC in most sports and hired former Phoenix Suns star Dan Majerle to lead the men’s basketball program. They have a highly competitive MCLA program, but an NCAA lacrosse team could be one more way to attract younger students who want a substantial campus life.