Though school officials won’t confirm a plan is in the works, there is too much happening around Utah lacrosse to not believe the Utes are preparing for a move that would allow the program to compete at the NCAA Division I level.
The next question is if it could be the start of a major expansion for the sport in the western United States.
Some background on the Utah situation: The Utes are currently members the Men’s Collegiate Lacrosse Association, a highly organized and super competitive group of club teams from across the country. Teams in the MCLA aren’t your typical college club or intramural squads, it’s just a small step below varsity and attracts outstanding talent. But it’s not the same as being an officially sanctioned NCAA sport.
In recent years Michigan and Marquette made the move from MCLA to NCAA Division I and Westminster in Utah has made a successful transition to NCAA Division II. This week, Lax Sports Network reported Utah will follow suit, citing multiple sources.
Further, the state of Utah is on the verge of sanctioning lacrosse at the high school level and the Utes hired Brian Holman, an assistant at NCAA champion North Carolina, as their new head coach.
Most followers of the sport see it all as a firm indication that Utah will jump to the NCAA, continuing the westward growth sparked by former Princeton coach Bill Tierney’s move to Denver, which resulted in a national championship for the aptly named Pioneers.
Utah’s move makes sense on a variety of levels. The sport is growing rapidly in the region and it could spark a natural rivalry with Denver and the Air Force Academy. But the Utes, who missed the postseason last year, are far from the most successful MCLA program in the West.
In many ways, it’s surprising rival BYU didn’t make the move first. The Cougars are one of the best programs in the MCLA, winning four national titles since 1997 and BYU never seems to lack for money or desire to do anything that may further the school’s mission of exposing as many people as possible to the Mormon church.
It would hardly be a shock if the Cougars announce a similar move anytime in the near future, but perhaps we should look at the Pac-12 and wonder of the Utes’ move could just be the start of the conference eventually sanctioning the sport.
Culturally, it is a good fit at schools such as Stanford, UCLA and Southern Cal. Additionally, Arizona and Arizona State have outstanding MCLA programs that could make a fairly easy transition.
A source inside the Arizona State club wouldn’t say a move was in the works, but hinted there have at least been discussions with officials in the Sun Devils athletic department.
Growth of lacrosse, particularly in the Pac-12, is potentially a big deal even if you aren’t a fan of the sport. Television contracts and the growth of broadcast institutions such as the Pac-12 Network are huge factors as more potential shakeups loom on the college sports landscape.
With streaming and mobile options continuing to evolve the major conferences are more than ever in the business of creating content as much as sponsoring sports. Lacrosse expansion fits both bills, giving a league such as the Pac-12 games to sell to its TV partners and more incentive for cable and satellite providers to get the Pac-12 Network on in big East Coast markets such as New York/New Jersey and Washington D.C./Baltimore.
It’s likely no coincidence the Big Ten, the league that pioneered the idea of a conference TV network, has begun sanctioning lacrosse.
If BYU and other Pac-12 schools are prepared to follow Utah, the Utes relatively quiet move is potentially a very big deal for all of college sports.