SBJ/February 27 - March 5, 2006/SBJ In Depth

NCAA title games head to pro venues

The NCAA men’s lacrosse championships most likely won’t return to collegiate venues given the financial success that the event has experienced the past three years at NFL facilities in Baltimore and Philadelphia.

The men’s lacrosse championships drew record
crowds to Lincoln Financial Field in 2005.
Lincoln Financial Field, home to the Philadelphia Eagles, will host the Division I, II and III men’s title games May 27-29. The same stadium in 2005 attracted an NCAA-record 177,574 spectators for the three-day event, encompassing the Division I semifinals and the three championship games. Each divisional title game attracted record attendance, topped off by the 44,920 people attending the Division I championship between Johns Hopkins and Duke.

Ticket sales for this year’s championships are about 7,000 ahead of last year at this point before the event, and there could be more than 50,000 attending the Division I title game, said John Williams, director of lacrosse championships and the liaison between the NCAA and the local organizing committee.

“It will be real tough to go back to college campuses at this point … even with the cost of [renting] stadiums going up,” Williams said.

The NCAA took a chance on moving the lacrosse championships in 2003 to M&T Bank Stadium, home to the Baltimore Ravens, Williams said. The previous year’s Division I title game drew about 20,000 fans to on-campus Rutgers Stadium in Piscataway, N.J., so the move wasn’t strictly related to the event outgrowing its collegiate environment, Williams said.

Pro football stadiums, however, offer modern amenities that aging college facilities in the Northeast are hard-pressed to match, including luxury suites and indoor clubs, huge video screens and full-time field maintenance crews and ticketing staffs, Williams said.

In fact, when the Naval Academy found out it was competing against M&T Bank Stadium and Gillette Stadium for the 2007 and 2008 lacrosse championships, the military school dropped out of the bidding, Williams said.

The first-class playing surface played a big role in Philadelphia landing the event for two consecutive years, said Larry Needle, executive director for the Philadelphia Sports Congress, a nonprofit group that joined the University of Pennsylvania and the Eagles to bid jointly for the event.

The 2003 and 2004 Division I title games drew record crowds of 37,944 and 43,898, respectively, at the Ravens’ venue. The Division I event has grown in the past three years to become third only to football and men’s basketball in terms of attendance for a college championship game.

This year’s lacrosse title game could outdraw the 45,000 anticipated to attend the men’s basketball title game at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, Williams said.

The championships return to M&T Bank Stadium in 2007, and the event moves to Gillette Stadium in 2008, where the New England Patriots play. Washington Redskins and FedEx Field owner Dan Snyder has expressed interest in bidding for the 2009 championships, Williams said.

The 2005 event was a moneymaker for Penn and the Eagles, the stadium operator, event officials confirmed without detailing specific numbers. Revenue streams come from ticket sales, concessions, suite rentals, sponsorships and selling space outside the facility to alumni groups.

“It was a nice piece of change, but it took a lot of work,” said Earl Cleghorn, Penn’s associate athletic director.

The NCAA keeps 85 to 90 percent of ticket sales, pays the Eagles about $650,000 to rent Lincoln Financial Field and considers the venture a break-even proposition for the organization taking into account the first- and second-round games at college sites, Williams said.

This year’s ticket prices range from $25 in the end zones for groups of 20 or more to $60 for club seats, extremely reasonable, considering those costs cover admission for five games in three days, he said.

The lower bowl’s 39,000 seats are sold out, said Mark Donovan, the Eagles’ senior vice president of business operations. Last year, the team didn’t start selling tickets in the upper bowl until the weekend of the event, he said.

The Philadelphia partnership formed after Eagles President Joe Banner, a former lacrosse player at Denison University, and Penn officials discussed how they could get the event into the team’s new facility. The Linc was under construction when the group presented its case to NCAA officials in Indianapolis.

“It was a real compliment that we were able to secure the event before hosting our own events at the stadium,” Donovan said.

Cleghorn compiled the bid package after attending the 2003 event at M&T Bank Stadium and remembers getting excited about the prospect of bringing the championships a bit outside the sport’s Maryland-D.C. hotbed.

“We thought our facility in Philadelphia was just as nice, if not nicer, and a little more modern,” Cleghorn said. “We knew New York [lacrosse fans] would rather come to Philadelphia, and we weren’t sure about Baltimore people, but they came.”

Maryland and Delaware residents accounted for 19 percent of people attending the 2005 championships, the second-highest percentage of fans traveling from any one region of the country behind Pennsylvania’s 26 percent, said Lee Stevens, a veteran lacrosse coach completing his second year as tournament director.

Packing them in
The NCAA Division I men’s lacrosse championship trails only football and basketball as the most-attended championship game in college sports.

Venue (city)
2005 Lincoln Financial Field (Philadelphia)
2004 M&T Bank Stadium (Baltimore)
2003 M&T Bank Stadium
2002 Rutgers Stadium (Piscataway, N.J.)
2001 Rutgers Stadium
2000 Byrd Stadium (University of Maryland, College Park, Md.)
1999 Byrd Stadium
Sources: NCAA, participating schools' Web sites
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