2028 Olympics and a New Professional League Have Put Men’s Lacrosse on the Map

06/07/2022

Men's lacrosse is one of the world's fastest-growing sports, and this growth doesn't seem likely to slow down any time soon.

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Image by Bill Brine

By Ben Wilson

To most people in the UK, the sport of lacrosse connotes private girls’ schools, funny netted sticks and that one scene from Wild Child. It’s got a reputation for elitism, and at many universities it occupies a space in the periphery, drawing much less interest than larger field sports like rugby, football or hockey. While women’s lacrosse is more widely known in the UK due to its popularity in high schools, the men’s game is largely limited to universities and men’s leagues centred in cities such as Manchester, London, and surrounding areas. In fact, having played for four years at university, it has become clear to me that most people don’t even realise that the men’s and women’s games are as vastly different as they are. However, while men’s lacrosse may have a way to go before it is filling out stadiums in the UK, it is currently blossoming into the fastest-growing sport in the world thanks to a new professional league and its prospective entry into the 2028 Olympics.

Men’s lacrosse differs from women’s in two, fairly fundamental, ways; its rules and equipment. For someone watching the two sports side by side, the most obvious difference is the rule on contact. While women’s lacrosse operates in a slightly grey area of ‘semi-contact’, where the force applied must be mutual between attacker and defender, men’s is full contact. Much like ice hockey, you are able to ‘body check’ anyone on the ball, but in lacrosse you are also able to hit anyone within five metres of the ball when it’s on the floor. In lacrosse you are also able to ‘stick-check’, meaning you can use your stick to hit a player carrying the ball as long as you show intent to hit their stick. This is an especially technical part of the game, particularly for ‘long poles’ (the three straight defenders with longer sticks), whose aim is to strip attacking players of the ball and stop them from making progress towards the goal. As a result of its full-contact nature, the equipment used by men’s lacrosse players is very different to women’s. Sticks have a much deeper net or ‘pocket’ so as to account for the increased physicality, and players wear elbow pads, gloves and a helmet similar to those worn in American football. This makes the skill set quite different between the two forms, however they both have their merits, and I hope that women’s lacrosse can enjoy the same growth men’s has in recent years.

"Most people don't realise how vastly different men's and women's lacrosse actually are."

In 2018 the Premier Lacrosse League (PLL) was founded by future hall-of-famer Paul Rabil and his brother - former Silicon Valley businessman Mike Rabil. This league has not only revolutionised the way that lacrosse is played, marketed and viewed but is also the first professional lacrosse league to provide its athletes with a livable salary, healthcare and league equity. Prior to the PLL, Major League Lacrosse (MLL) was the sport’s established professional body, but the new league’s player-first mentality and rapidly growing fanbase quickly led to the merging of the leagues in 2020. Now under the branding of the PLL, a handful of MLL players were selected in an expansion draft, and reigning MLL champions the Boston Cannons were the only team to transfer across, now known as ‘Cannons Lacrosse Club’. They are one of eight PLL teams, each with a 25-man roster, and each created by the league’s founders with their own identity and brand. At present, the teams have no affiliation with specific cities or areas as they do in most professional sports leagues, although the league does use a touring model to take its games around the US during the regular season. However, many fans believe that as the sport grows and establishes fanbases in these areas, we could see the teams become their own separate entities in the future.

The PLL’s strategy for growth has proven successful, putting their online presence at the forefront and open-sourcing highlights to make for a player-focused media model which leaves room for athletes to grow their own brands. The league has also partnered with several huge names in sport: its games were first aired on NBC Sports and are now signed over to ESPN, its apparel (from leisurewear to team-kits) was provided by Adidas initially and now by Champion, and it boasts a series of high-profile sponsors too, from Ticketmaster to Gatorade. Further to this, with the league’s unparalleled explosion into the world of North American professional sports, a documentary is set to premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival providing an inside look at the trials and tribulations of founding a league of this nature. What’s more, acting as executive producer to this documentary is NBA legend LeBron James, whose name is hoped to bring a few more eyes to the sport.

"Lacrosse carries huge spiritual and cultural significance to the ancestors of indigenous peoples."

Dubbed ‘the fastest game on two feet’, lacrosse has been growing in popularity for decades before the emergence of the PLL, but this process has been much slower in countries outside of North America. Something many non-Americans don’t know is that the sport originated with the indigenous people of North America, dating back as early as the twelfth century, making it the oldest organised sport in the continent. Native American communities played the game in huge numbers, across vast areas of land over several days, as both a spiritual ceremony for the Creator and a symbol of warfare. To them, it was known as ‘the Creator’s Game’ or ‘The Medicine Game’, and to this day the sport carries huge spiritual and cultural significance to the ancestors of these indigenous peoples. The PLL has, since its foundation, made it a priority to represent this Native American history as best it can, championing its indigenous players and creating initiatives to support their communities, such as more recent efforts “to raise awareness and drive education around the multiple, tragic discoveries of unmarked graves at the sites of former Indigenous residential and boarding schools''. It is paramount that this acknowledgement and celebration of the sport’s rich Native American history is continued as the sport continues to grow.

In the seventeenth century lacrosse was popularised by European colonists, namely French Jesuit missionaries, who reduced the violence, created a more defined rulebook and downsized the teams and playing fields. This is where the sport earned the name by which it is now known, derived from ‘la crosse’ or ‘the stick’ in French. By contrast, Women’s lacrosse was introduced much later, emerging in late nineteenth-century Scotland, which explains its increased popularity in the UK.

A recent point of controversy concerning lacrosse’s Native American heritage was the Iroquois Nationals’ exclusion from the 2022 World Games. The Iroquois represent the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, which is made up of six First Nations. These nations, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora, were the creators of the sport but despite this were initially denied entry to the World Games. They are formally recognised by World Lacrosse, and consistently place among the top runners at World Lacrosse Championships, and so it seems the only reason for their exclusion was that governing bodies were denying their sovereignty. Thankfully, efforts by international lacrosse organisations meant that the Haudenosaunee will now compete in July, after the Irish national team took the decision to drop out of the games allowing the First Nations team to take their place. Given that the World Games are organised, in part, by the International Olympic Committee I sincerely hope that they will permit these indigenous nations to compete in 2028 if we are to see lacrosse appear once more.

"The IOC has suggested that lacrosse may be making an appearance in Los Angeles in 2028."

So with its rich history and exciting new league, lacrosse is evidently growing in North America, but what about the rest of the world? Well, after decades of pushing for the sport to re-enter the summer Olympics (having appeared twice in 1904 and 1908), the International Olympic Committee has suggested that lacrosse may be making an appearance in Los Angeles in 2028. There are certain barriers the sport must overcome first, however, such as the disparity between the men’s and women’s games and the significantly lower uptake in countries outside of North America. In order to combat this, efforts by the PLL and World Lacrosse to expand the sport into underrepresented countries are underway.

What’s more, a new ‘sixes’ format is gathering momentum to make the sport less specialised, even faster-paced, and to bring the men’s and women’s games closer together. It is expected that this format is likely to be what we see in the Olympics. However, many lacrosse fans have mixed feelings about this new look for the sport, as it takes away several key elements of the usual ten-man game, such as the ‘face-off’ position by which every restart occurs, and the ‘long poles’ previously mentioned. However, in my opinion, the more eyes on lacrosse the better, and there’s nothing to say that sixes won’t simply become its own entity without taking away from the game’s regular format. Much like rugby sevens has done for rugby, I hope that sixes bring new eyes to lacrosse so that it can continue to grow in both formats.

Without a doubt, this is a sport you should not take your eyes off - I think it’s a safe bet to say it’ll become much more widely known in years to come. With the way that the PLL has grown lacrosse in the last three years, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it played professionally all over the world within our lifetimes. Watch this space!

If you are interested in learning more about lacrosse, or even giving it a go, check out @yorklax on Instagram or ‘The University of York Lacrosse Club’ on Facebook, and the Premier Lacrosse League’s social media pages.