September 29, 2011

Michigan AD Brandon: Lacrosse A 'Sport Of The Future'

by Corey McLaughlin | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | Related: UM's First DI Schedule


Lacrosse has a fan in Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon, who decided to add men's and women's lacrosse to the Wolverines' varsity lineup. "Lacrosse's trend lines in every way we could measure were impressive," Brandon told LMO.

© Michigan Media Relations

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – For years, when asked what it would take for Michigan to have a Division I men's lacrosse program, John Paul, the club coach working to reach that goal, would say an athletic director that believed in the sport enough to elevate it to varsity status.

Dave Brandon, who was named Michigan's athletic director in January 2010, believes. His more than optimistic outlook on the future of lacrosse oozed with nearly every word he spoke when he sat down Tuesday for a Q&A in his Ann Arbor office.

"There is this big boom that's going to be out there related to this sport," Brandon said among other responses, as students and cars passed outside his window, overlooking the corner of busy State Street and East Hoover Avenue.

The fact that Brandon has become enamored with the actual game of lacrosse is not unique – people are turned onto the game seemingly every day. But the fact Brandon, first and foremost a businessman with no previous ties or roots to lacrosse, saw enough potential in the game to add two varsity sports in a tough economic climate is somewhat historic.

He is the former CEO of Domino's Pizza and once made an appearance as a judge on the "The Apprentice," sitting on the same side of the board room table as Donald Trump. Brandon is also a former Michigan football player who took a pay cut to take over as the university's AD and wasn't going to make the commitment to add two sports without knowing for sure it was worthwhile and sustainable.

Paul met with Brandon within days of Brandon's arrival on campus, and Paul presented a 20-page document titled, "University of Michigan Men's Lacrosse: NCAA Division I Varsity Proposal." Afterward, Brandon further researched trends, demographics and growth potential of the sport. He concluded lacrosse was "a sport of the future."

In May, after a group dubbed the "Project Lacrosse Founders Club" raised between $5-6 million in five months to start up the programs, Brandon held a press conference and announced the addition of men's and women's lacrosse to Michigan's varsity lineup, giving the school 29 varsity teams.

For now, the lacrosse program's offices are housed in a double-wide trailer, albeit a comfy, impressive one, in a parking lot near Michigan's softball field. But plans are in the works to have a standalone indoor-outdoor lacrosse facility built and finished in Ann Arbor in three to four years, Paul said. The vision is to have both indoor and outdoor stadiums (yes, an indoor stadium) built in conjunction with space that would house coaches' offices, locker rooms, meeting rooms and the like.

"We're not going to add lacrosse and put them in a tent," Brandon said. Judging from the rest of Michigan's athletic facilities, namely the $26.1 million football practice complex finished in 2009, this lacrosse building would be much more than a tent. More from a wide-ranging interview:

Lacrosse people are looking at Michigan adding men's and women's lacrosse as a big deal, being the first BCS school to add the men's sport since Notre Dame in 1981...

It's a big deal to us, too. It's a high head-count sport. We're adding both men's and women's so we're taking on a pretty large financial obligation. We understand that. There's a pretty significant facilities need, which is another financial obligation. It's a very big deal to us. It's something we looked at long and hard at for a while.

When John Paul came to you with the proposal right after you started as AD, what were you thinking?

JP's made a few proposals over the years, so that's just one of them. There was no question that from the minute I met JP he was on a mission and had a passion for getting his program to the DI level. But truthfully, as much as I admire and appreciate that, that isn't going to carry the day. What carried the day was the analysis. Some of that was included in his proposition, but some of that was just work that we went off and did to really get a sense for where is this sport in terms of the youth market, where is it in terms of high schools, where is it regionally, geographically, where is it on television.

The more we dug into it, the more we believed that this is just a sport of the future. You could make a case that some sports are a sport of the past. They're shrinking in importance; they're shrinking in the numbers of programs. That doesn't make them bad or that doesn't mean we don't want to offer them, it just means that they're not great trend lines to me. Lacrosse's trend lines in every way we could measure were impressive and made us believe that this is a place where we could grow and be a part of something that would over time be very big.

In what ways?

The impression is that it's an East Coast sport, but I spent a lot of time looking at what's going on in California, and looking at programs that were popping up in other places than just the East Coast and I became convinced that it was no longer a regional phenomenon. It was more of a national sport. I think in today's world with all these sports channels that crave content, any sport that's great on television is going to get a lot better opportunities going forward than a sport that doesn't translate well on television. I happen to believe and there's a fair bit of evidence to support it, that lacrosse works really well on television. It's fast; there's a lot of scoring, a lot of strategy, but there's also enough contact and aggressive play to make it something that people really enjoy watching. All of that led me to believe that there was going to continue to be growth. Then you talk to high school football coaches who are whining because they're losing guys to lacrosse. And you look at the size of crowds.

It all felt to me like this is a sport that's going to grow and we can be a part of that growth, and viewership and revenue and where we take our brand and where we can feature our student-athletes ... it all felt to me like a sensible thing to do. Not just because we had a coach that wanted it to happen, but because it was the right thing to do.

Once you decided it was a sport worth adding. What needed to happen?

JP had done a nice job of cultivating a donor base to help keep the club program going, but one of the things that I concluded was that if we were going to jump into this in the manner in which was going to be required, and not announce that we were going to start in five years, and give ourselves times to gear up for it, that we were going to need a show of support from donors. The goal that we came up was 10x what he would normally raise in the year for his club sport. One of the tests of this was donor support. That was another reason we felt it was something we could do. We created a Founders Group. We said if you want to be part of the initial investment that affords us the ability to segway into both of these programs, here's the goal, help us. In the matter of five months we raised between $5-6 million.

We had people step up with seven-figure gifts. We had people step up with triple-figure gifts. We had a lot of people gave in 10, 15, 25,000 increments. That's how you get to the kind of number we set out there as a goal. Primarily, these were people that had a specific interest in lacrosse, former members of the club team here, parents of former members of the club team, parents of the current members of the club team. In some cases, they were just people who love lacrosse and wanted Michigan to do this for a long time.


Brandon said longtime club coach John Paul was the only candidate to be Michigan's first varsity head coach. Those who spread rumors of UM's interest in big-time DI coaches were "just embarrassing themselves with inaccuracy, since none of it ever happened," Brandon said.

© Tony Ding

Why JP as coach? And what about rumors linking big-time Division I coaches like Dave Pietramala to the job?

How do you look at man, who for 13 years, built a club program, brought three consecutive national championships, untold numbers of conference championships, recruited high-caliber players who not only did great on the field, but were also terrific student-athletes, who grew up in this town, built this program, put us in a position where we could cultivate this donor base. You're going to do all that and you're going to look at the guy who was instrumental in making it all happen and say, "Gee, I'm going to go out and do a coaching search?"

There was no coaching search. There were no interviews with anybody else. JP was the coach from Day One. I wouldn't have had it any other way. All these rumors, whoever is propagating that stuff, is just embarrassing themselves with inaccuracy, since none of it ever happened. None of it even came close to happening. I don't know who those people are. I can tell you that I did not interview one person, face-to-face, by phone. I did not interview anybody for that job because JP was going to get that job.

Now, JP is in the same boat as every other coach here. You gotta perform. But also the time horizon is going to be an extended one simply because we're starting from scratch.

Why did the original plan of going varsity for 2012-2013 get accelerated to this season?

We looked at both, and it was a little bit of a jump ball. There were trade-offs with some of our fundraising efforts. There were tradeoffs with were going to be that much better waiting a year? We made the decision that we'd be better off getting it going and suffering through the start up pains that were going to be there no matter when we pulled the rip cord. That was going to be a better approach as opposed to waiting a long time and tip toeing in. We got our league affiliation [ECAC] and we starting moving things as quickly as we could.

In the spring, you'll play Ohio State in a game paired with your spring football game. Is that something you would alternate back-and-forth every year with them? (Since 2008, Ohio State has held a similar event at Ohio Stadium to coincide with its spring football game.)

That's up to them. I'm not sure if they've got a tought on that. I think it would be a great tradition to play them here for a spring game scrimmage and showcase the program.

What can you say about plans for a lacrosse only facility for the men's and women's programs?

Walk around this athletic campus and you can see how we do our facilities. We're not going to add lacrosse and put them in a tent. We're going to do it the Michigan way, and build it to last. We're looking at a couple options and they have real estate implications. Architects are going to work. We're not prepared to talk about anything specifically, but we're going to put these student-athletes in the same environment we try to put all our student-athletes in, in terms of competitive facilities, facilities where we can recruit aggressively, and facilities that are in keeping with our sense of our self.

Virginia coach Dom Starsia said that Michigan men's going varsity is "probably the biggest news in our sport perhaps since the final four concept," because it could open eyes to other colleges and universities and athletic directors about the sport. Have you gotten feedback from other ADs?

I've had some feedback. We're blessed here with having the resources that afford us the ability, and the donor base, to do this. I don't know that everybody does, but there are a number who do and I would suggest that if they are looking at the same trends we were looking at and if they're thinking about the future, I would expect that there would be other program's added. I would be surprised if they weren't. But I didn't do this to lead a parade. I did this because we want to be leaders and best in everything that we do, and we want to innovate and we want to grow. This decision is innovative and unique. It's going to afford us the ability to grow and we wouldn't go into this sport if we didn't plan on doing everything we could do to be the leaders and best.

Do you have any personal connections the sport?

None. It wasn't played in my high school. I never really watched the sport until three or four years ago when I went to my first lacrosse game. I was intrigued by it. I tried to imagine if that game would have been a hot game when I was growing up, how fascinating it would have been and how interested I would have been in it, because the combination of speed and eye-hand coordination and strength and toughness to me is attractive to any guy who is athletic and wants to compete at a high level. It's a fun game to watch, but I think it would be a fun game to play, too.

What was some of the research you did on the sport?

I had a chance to talk to a friend who is affiliated with a big retail shop that has a sporting goods section. They have like a six-foot section in their stores of lacrosse equipment. I said would you mind pulling the sales information for the last five years on lacrosse? This is just retail sales of sticks and balls and gloves and all that. This is a general merchandise place that has a sports department. They came back to me with sales that were increasing like 250 percent per year. Every place I looked, whether it was what are the kids buying, what are the kids doing, where are programs being added, what's going on at the high school level, the camps, everything I looked at said there is this big boom that's going to be out there related to this sport. That's what we want to be a part of.

It's been growing fast at the youth and high school level, but the number of DI men's teams has stayed relatively the same...

You know, it's scary to add sports. You have athletic programs being subsidized and they're cutting. I understand that, I really do. But sometimes you have to take the blinders off and say, "You have to invest in the future at the same time you're investing in the present." To me, this is an investment in the future.


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