It was posed nearly as a light-hearted, throw-in question. During a conference call earlier this month to discuss the Pac-12’s new media deal, a reporter asked Director of Athletics Bob Bowlsby whether the (vast) influx of new money would lead Stanford to consider adding a 36th varsity sports team. His response suggested greater openness to the idea than one might expect—despite struggles with finances over the past few years, he wasn’t entirely against the idea. If anything, it sounded like something he’d at least like to explore.
“We’d have to think about it to think about what we might add. No plans for expansion, but it’s not out of the question. We’re more than meeting our gender equity requirements. We’d be open-minded about it,” he said.
The third sentence about “gender equity” is code for “Stanford is meeting its Title IX obligations.” So if Bowlsby and co. get serious about adding another team, allow me to propose a candidate: men’s lacrosse.
It is not the most obvious choice. The sport is largely concentrated on the East Coast, and there is no Division I lacrosse team west of Colorado. Elevating the sport to varsity status would be a risk, but it’s one that should be considered.
While Stanford has a club team—and a very good one, at that—lacrosse is one of the few sports the Athletic Department sponsors that has a women’s squad but lacks a male counterpart. This works in the men’s favor; for example, the playing field is already taken care of—despite slightly different field dimensions for the men’s and women’s game, Cagan Stadium is an entirely appropriate venue for the men’s team to use. Beyond that, though, the success of the women’s team—which just wrapped up its best year to date—gives a rubric for the men to follow. For example, with few exceptions, the squad is made up almost entirely of players from Maryland, New Jersey, Virginia and other eastern states. The recruiting focus is appropriately national, and one future consequence of the new media deal that Bowlsby was most excited by was the chance to continue to spread the Stanford brand across the country. With lacrosse, it’d be a symbiotic relationship.
And indeed, the talent pools are increasing at dramatic rates. The number of high schoolers playing the sport has doubled in the past 10 years, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. While this is still an East Coast phenomenon, it is no longer exclusive to that region—participation has risen dramatically on the West Coast, too. Appropriately, more universities are adding lacrosse programs.
But not on the Pacific Coast. At least not yet. While the women can compete in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation with other Pac-10 schools like Cal and Oregon, the men would not have a western conference they could join. The Air Force Academy and the University of Denver—the westernmost Division I programs—compete in the Eastern College Athletic Conference with schools as far east as Loyola in Maryland. It’s a costly expenditure.
That said, the status quo may not last long. Stanford would not be the only western school exploring the option of adding men’s lacrosse, as USC told LaxMagazine.com that it is considering adding the sport, too. A few more universities would be needed for a West Coast-based conference, but the roots and developing interests are there. As lacrosse continues to establish a foothold in youth leagues across the West, it is only a matter of time before varsity teams at the collegiate level begin to pop up, too.
Therein lies perhaps the most compelling argument for Stanford, which sees itself as a trendsetter in a number of fields. Lacrosse’s growth is difficult to ignore, so why not jump ahead of the pack? The University’s clout as both the top athletic and academic school in Division I is tremendous, and by creating a hub for lacrosse on the West Coast, Bowlsby and other administrators would be making a statement that says, “We think this sport is for real, come join us as we further cement its place in collegiate athletics.” Recruits who would not have otherwise had a western option would suddenly be presented with one, and, between the success of the women’s team and installation of a men’s squad, Stanford could very well become the face of lacrosse on the West Coast.
Ultimately, the cost of transportation in the early years of the men’s team may be prohibitive for a sport that isn’t likely to earn Stanford much money overall. But the monetary angle could be worked out via a normative perspective—if the University is truly seen as an innovator in West Coast lacrosse, there are likely ways to profit from it. That’s the vital consideration, and given the explosion of lacrosse nationwide and Stanford’s chance to place a stake in a large part of that market, the decision to add a varsity men’s program would be prescient.
True story: Wyndam Makowsky has never watched a lacrosse game start-to-finish in his entire life. Surprised? Email him at makowsky “at” stanford.edu.