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January 31, 2014

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His Space: The Denver Experiment

by Bill Tanton | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

This column appears in the February 2014 issue of Lacrosse Magazine. Join US Lacrosse today to start your subscription!

Some people might have found it odd that US Lacrosse chose to host the 2014 Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) World Championship in Denver. Five years ago, the prevailing notion was you could not hold a major lacrosse championship that far from the game's heartland in the East?

But that was five years ago.

It was then that a career marketing man and one-time Penn State lacrosse player named Bill Schoonmaker joined US Lacrosse as chief operating officer. The president and CEO, Steve Stenersen, asked the new man if he would favor bringing the world championship to Denver.

"Absolutely," Schoonmaker replied.

Since then, Stenersen, Schoonmaker and many other US Lacrosse employees have beaten a path between the organization's headquarters in Baltimore and Denver, laying plans for one of the biggest events in lacrosse history — and a $4 million investment by the sport's national governing body.

"We decided it was time to plant the flag of lacrosse in the West," Schoonmaker said. In five months, we will find out if the decision was a stroke of genius or too ambitious. I now realize Denver was a fine choice. So much has changed in the last five years.

My confidence was strengthened by a recent conversation with Ryan Wade, a 2013 inductee into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame. Wade was a three-time All-American at North Carolina and MVP of the world championship in Baltimore in 1998, the last time it was held in the U.S.

"It's amazing how much the game has changed in just a few years," Wade said. "When I played, Denver was just a place out west. Nobody thought about lacrosse out there. Now Bill Tierney's University of Denver team is one of the best in the country every year. They even have a successful pro lacrosse team out there."

The Denver Outlaws led Major League Lacrosse in home attendance last summer, averaging 9,466 fans per game. A July 4 game coupled with a fireworks show attracted 31,019 fans. (The biggest single-day crowd at the 2013 NCAA men's championships in Philadelphia was 28,444.)

The Colorado Mammoth led the National Lacrosse League in home attendance last winter, averaging 15,671 fans.

The Vail Lacrosse Shootout, a Colorado summer post-collegiate club tournament, has thrived for 42 years in Colorado.

US Lacrosse keeps a close eye on our members around the country as well as player participation. Don't worry about lacrosse interest in Colorado. There were 7,415 boys and 2,250 girls playing lacrosse in the state in 2013.

Chapter membership? Colorado has 12,310 members. Comparatively, Greater Baltimore has 6,614. Long Island has 13,984.

So there are plenty of people playing and watching lacrosse in Colorado who will want to take in the action as a record 38 teams converge July 10-19 at Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City. You'll also find thriving US Lacrosse chapters in Utah and Northern California. Easterners are planning vacations around the event.

In the last world championship four years ago in Manchester, England (where it will return in 2018), the gold-medal game between the U.S. and Canada drew 4,651 fans. The largest crowd in FIL history was 10,793, when the Wade-led U.S. team staved off Canada in overtime at Homewood.

Capacity at Dick's Sporting Goods Park is 18,000. The venue hosts some of the biggest youth and adult sports events. I'm starting to think we'll set a new attendance record there.

Quite a change of heart, huh?


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