Lacrosse Remains Growing Niche Sport

A recent Lax Power article shows the exponential growth rate of lacrosse at the prep level. Lacrosse is growing faster, based on number of participants, than all other high school sports. Over the past 15 years, participation in high school lacrosse has gone up 159.3% for boys and 161.7% for girls. Lax Power provides data for high school sports offered (sponsorship) and the number of players (participants) for each prep sport.

The question facing lacrosse is whether the rapid growth of high school lacrosse will translate into rapid growth at the collegiate level. Over time, lacrosse could capture national sports interest to rival collegiate football, basketball, or even baseball. With the advent of liability risks, brain trauma, and operational costs for football, many lacrosse fans speculate that the speed, contact, and scoring in lacrosse makes it a ideal replacement for football, especially at the high school level.

Of course, this potential change will not occur anytime soon. While short term participation fell 1% 2014-2015 for high school football, net participation actually increased over the past 15 years by 7% and remains the highest participation sport for boys. At universities, soaring athletic budgets and title IX restrictions inhibit expansion options. Currently, there are only 61 NCAA-sanctioned Division I men's lacrosse teams, 46 Division II men's lacrosse teams and 189 Division III men's lacrosse teams. There are also 92 Division I women's lacrosse teams, 67 Division II women's lacrosse teams, and 216 Division III women's lacrosse teams.

The reality is that lacrosse will remain a popular niche sport for quite some time at both the high school and collegiate levels. Boys and girls prep lacrosse is not in the top 10 sports for either high school boys or girls. The most frequently offered sport for prep boys is basketball (18,072 teams) while football has the highest level of participation with 1,083,600 players. The most popular school sport offering for girls is basketball with 17,653 participating schools while track and field has the highest girls participation with 478,700 athletes.

For HS boys lacrosse, 2,677 schools offered lacrosse with 108,500 participants - basically 10% of the number of high school football players. For girls lacrosse, 2,446 high schools offer girls lacrosse and 84,800 girls play the sport- only 17% of the number of participants compared to the most popular girl's team sport - track and field. To put the numbers in perspective, twice as many boys are wrestling than playing lacrosse. More girls are on spirit squads (cheerleading) than playing lacrosse. Interestingly, from a DU perspective, high school hockey is much more of a niche even than lacrosse with only 33% of Lacrosse's level of participation. Of course a major reason for that is high school age hockey players with potential often choose to play club hockey instead of school sanctioned, varsity hockey.

Soccer and track & field, both top five participant sport for high school boys and girls, has not transformed college sports - especially from a spectator standpoint. The closest practical comparison to lacrosse is soccer in the US. Popular at the elementary and high school levels for many years, it remains a second tier sport at most universities. While soccer has shown high participation levels and regional growth at the professional level, it is still not close to eclipsing the top four professional spectator sports in the US - football, basketball, baseball and hockey. Lacrosse is on much the same journey.

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