Jarnecke charts course for NCAA tourney
Few NCAA championships attract crowds as large as lacrosse. More than 117,000 packed M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore over three days last year for the Division I and II championships, and the Division I semifinals have been known to draw as many as 50,000 or more. The man behind the lacrosse championships is Jeff Jarnecke, an associate director at the NCAA since 2005. He recently discussed the growth of the lacrosse championship, and what the event's future holds, with staff writer Michael Smith.
Duke players celebrate winning the 2010 Division I championship.
■ With attendance now solidly in the 40,000 to 50,000 range for each day of your Division I final four, where does lacrosse rank among the NCAA's best-attended events?
JARNECKE: Well, you've got the men's College World Series at over 300,000 over a much longer period of time (10 days) and certainly the men's basketball Final Four does very well. But as a three-day weekend, the lacrosse championships are right up there. Those numbers compare favorably with our top events for the association.
■ How does the attendance and tickets break down?
■ What about the competing schools?
JARNECKE: We hold back 750 tickets for each school to specifically create their own blocks. Some return some of the tickets, while others request more tickets. … And there's also a pretty good walk-up crowd that, the last two years, has been trending up. You're dealing with a holiday weekend (Memorial Day), so what we're trying to do is build this into an event that's about more than just the games and make it an experience and a great way to celebrate the holiday weekend.
■ How are ticket sales for this year's championship trending?
JARNECKE: Slightly ahead of last year, so we're very encouraged. We're in a better position for sales overall, so maybe there will be less of a walk-up.
■ Attendance in the early rounds, however, has been a challenge. How do you increase those numbers?
JARNECKE: We're looking at a number of different strategies. The preliminary rounds are played at the home site of the top eight seeds on campus and we're considering predetermined sites where four teams would travel and play doubleheaders. We'd have to be very strategic about where we placed those predetermined sites and the four teams we sent there, but we'd look for areas that are hotbeds for the sport and could draw well. We're discussing this with the coaches association now. It would be a way to take the sport to other areas, help grow the game and at the same time help develop the strong and powerful brand of NCAA lacrosse.
■ At what point do you start taking a hard look at moving the championship out of the traditional rotation of Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston?
JARNECKE: The good thing is that there's a lot of interest from groups looking to host the championships, but I'd say we're at least three to five years away from moving the finals site. I think we'd rather look at some other sites maybe for the quarterfinal round to see how they do there first. We think there are opportunities at places like Columbus, Ohio; South Bend; Denver — areas that might be somewhat nontraditional, but could draw well. In the quarterfinals, we could look to go into facilities that are 15,000 to 30,000, like we're doing next year in PPL Park.
■ Is the strategy behind keeping the men's and women's final fours separate going to stay in place?
JARNECKE: I think so, at this point. The two committees (men's and women's) have discussed it and it's going to be an interesting year with the women going to Stony Brook for the first time. We had record attendance for last year's championship (at nearly 10,000) and ticket sales have been stronger than last year. … By putting the championships together, you would have some efficiencies, but we think there's enough of a different audience to keep them the way they are.
■ Lacrosse is pushing more to the West and the South. How important is it to the college game to have some nontraditional teams make a run?
JARNECKE: It's always exciting for the sport when you have a new team in there. It grows the attention around it, it can help grow the fan base, it becomes a new conversation in media outlets.
■ What kind of response have you seen from the NCAA's corporate champions and partners to the lacrosse championship?
JARNECKE: It's been tremendous. We might have a title sponsor for the fan fest for the first time. We're working on plans and a layout that's much larger than what we've had the last number of years. We're also talking about a new retail initiative as well and that would put merchandise and equipment in a mega-tent. That's something we haven't tried before.