Stop The Growth!
Hello. My name is Kasey Burst and I am the Head Men's Lacrosse Coach for the University of Dubuque, in Dubuque, IA. I'd like to start this article by saying a couple things: First off, this is my first article. Like most coaches I would say my opinions are strong when it comes to the sport I love, but sitting here, putting pen to paper, I am humbled. If anyone actually takes time out of their day to read or listen to any of my rantings of life as a coach, insight I have stumbled upon over my career, or just my thoughts on Lacrosse in general, it means a great deal to me, even if you don't agree with me (especially if you don't agree with me). Secondly, before you take out the pitchforks and torches at my first and feeble attempt to be marginally disruptive with my controversial title, know that I am first and foremost an absolute purist when it comes to this sport, and have always wanted the best for this beautiful game.
So, where do I go from here? What do I mean by 'Stop the Growth?' But, as a purist, isn't the goal to grow the game? We are all victims to one degree or another of a "give it to me now" mindset in America these days. As a card carrying millennial, I've had a front row seat to the gradual shift towards instant gratification in my lifetime. I had a cell phone that looked like a walkie talkie in 8th grade, that was for "emergencies only," and could barely fit in my back pack. By the time I was a Junior in college, I had a blackberry. The next year, I got my first smartphone. Kids growing up these days, its all they know. They won't know what it's like to have to use academic search engines to look up case studies on a subject of interest. They will never have to wait for the old dial up internet to boot up before they can begin their research. All the answers they need are only seconds away. Again, living in 2024, we are all victims of it now, as our attention spans get shorter, and our patience grows thinner.
What does any of this have to do with Lacrosse? Most people would disagree with this metaphor. They would say, "how does this relate to the college game? The game is growing at a snail's pace at the college level."
I think for the casual fan, it appears that way, but only really at the level that everyone sees every weekend on television, DI. We haven't seen a ton of growth in the last few decades. And what little growth there has been, hasnt been the 'sexy' schools guys are craving. No offense to the Bonnies, Spiders, Vikings, and this year's newcomer, the Gaels of Iona, but most people are waiting for the next Utah. Where are the SEC schools? When are those big, illustrious Power 5 powerhouses gonna add lacrosse with their ridiculous endowments, massive alumni bases, and coveted TV contracts?
I know we all love to imagine a world in which we are watching a USC vs Texas Lacrosse National Championship game on ESPN. I think it would be awesome as well. But does anyone stop and think about if the game will suffer? Is there even enough DI talent in this country to support such growth? Some say yes, others no. Even though the growth of HS lacrosse is rapidly expanding, the amount of boys playing HS lacrosse is still only about a tenth of HS football players in the US. As much as I would love to deep dive into this, that is an article for another time.
I'm talking about a different type of growth. I see this game growing rapidly in a different direction. Look at the amount of Division II, Division III, and NAIA schools that have added lacrosse in the last 10 years. Since I graduated from HS in 2006, over 100 Division III schools have added lacrosse. And sadly, not all of those schools still have teams. We all know about the one's that make the news like the schools like Whittier, and now Cabrini. Though they are not Division III, Lindenwood is the latest to be added to this growing, sad list. But out here in the Midwest, there is an epidemic of schools shutting down programs. Schools like Monmouth College, Fontbonne, and North Central University. These schools might not make headlines on Inside Lacrosse, but the issue continues to persist in these non-traditional areas. This article is meant to explore why this trend persists, and examine solutions. So its simple really. As the title plainly states, we need to stop the growth.
So why do so many small private schools continue to add men's and women's lacrosse in non-traditional areas? Are there really enough HS players out there that can help fill these rosters? I have a few takes on this topic. Keep in mind, though some of these points are supported by some quick google research (I am a millennial as previously stated) they are mostly just one ole lax bum's opinion. I, for one, do believe that there are enough boys in the US to fill out these rosters. Just do the math. There are roughly 115,000 boys playing HS Lacrosse in America these days. There are 2 things I consider when I think about this stat. One, there are more than enough players to go around. If there are roughly 400 NCAA Divisional teams in play, if everyone brought in 10 players a class (barring any start up program), that's about 4,000 athletes. If you assume that roughly a quater of that 115,000 are HS seniors, that's around 30,000 players. That's more than enough when you consider the percentages of HS athletes that play in college, NAIA, and MCLA and club teams as well. Secondly, I know most boys want to play DI and DII lacrosse. But, when there are 76 DI teams, 80 DII teams, and 240+ DIII teams, that tells me that if I go to any ole recruiting tournament or showcase, and I watch a random prospect out on the field playing, the odds are that he is a Division III caliber player. It's just basic probability. So if this all makes sense logically, why is there so much turmoil at this level? Why can't teams support healthy rosters, and as a result shutting down?
There are so many ways to tackle this next question. You could argue that it's not just Division III that suffers. Everyone is aware of the Lindenwood debacle currently, but they haven't been the first. Division I has seen the likes of Boston College, Butler, Michigan State, and NC State all discontinue varsity programs throughout the decades. Obviously, every school is different but they all have similar challenges, just on different levels; Money. At the end of the day, to start any sport, you have to invest (I want to return to this a little later). It's no secret that we are living through challenging times in higher end. Costs are increasing, the pool of applicants considering a 4 year education is dropping, and without athletics, some school would not survive. In fact, there will be more unfortunate closures coming soon. I think this is one area that cannot be overlooked. Sometimes its not Lacrosse's fault. Ever since COVID-19, and this impending enrollment cliff coming in the next 2-4 years, it is a scary time to be a Small, Private Institution. Some schools won't survive and their athletic departments will be casualties as well. This is important to note.
But what about schools with healthy enrollment that are just discontinuing Lacrosse? What do they have against our sport?
Again, it all comes back to money. If the school is thriving, but losing money in certain areas, all departments are examined. Programs get cut all the time, whether academic or athletic, if they aren't profitable. This is the major problem that I have noticed out here in the Midwest, especially in the women's game. The women are dealing with the exact opposite problem than the men are. Conversely, for women's lacrosse, it would appear that there is too much supply, and not enough demand. 126 DI, 115 DII, and 296 DIII programs yield roughly 534 NCAA Divisional Women's Lacrosse Programs, while its reported that only around 98,000 girls are playing HS lacrosse in the US. When considering that only about 7%-12% of players on average want to continue playing at the next level, that doesn't leave huge recruiting pools for this sport, and that is not including NAIA, MCLA, and club programs. We once had 4 Division III Women's programs in Iowa, Cornell College, Loras, Wartburg, and University of Dubuque. We are now down to 1. Teams cannot support healthy rosters necessary to compete. Small recruiting classes combined with borrowing athletes from other programs just to field a team year after year, is far from a sustainable product, let alone a winning one.
And in preparation for more pitchforks, this is not an indictment of the women's game, but the proverbial point that I have now arrived at. Whether men's or women's lacrosse, small private schools in non-traditional areas will always be at a disadvantage. But at the end of the day, the support that this sport needs to be successful, is just not there. This is obviously my biased opinion, but the entire reason I wanted to write this article. I wanted to not only advocate for the hardworking coaches in this harsh environment, but also condemn any entity or administration that uses the sport I love solely as a "tool." A "tool" to boost enrollment, or a "tool" to fulfill Title IX requirements, or a "tool" to recruit a target demographic, whatever it may be. And I get it. 4-year universities are a business. Decisions need to be made that will help the business continue to operate. But I am not a businessman. No coach is, unless he coaches on the side. Coaches deal with people. Their whole purpose revolves solely around the idea of developing the 'person' or the 'player.' Human elements dealt with on a daily basis make business in this case seem cold, and indifferent. And when it's just about 'business,' or just about 'heads in beds,' I can't promise that your program will fold completely, but you'll never have any true, meaningful success. The question becomes why? Why add Lacrosse? As the old adage goes, you have to spend money to make money. In this case you should want to add lacrosse because it is an amazing team sport. It is a great spectator sport. It can be played in any weather conditions unlike other spectator sports, or indoor court sports. It is our Continent's oldest team sport. It can attract diverse walks of life, bring in great students and citizens to your campus, hold rosters up to 40-50 men or 20-30 women, and if supported, cultivated, and invested in, it can also check those other boxes (title IX, breakthrough in different markets/different states, etc). But all of these perks don't happen overnight. Like I said, it needs to be taken seriously by those administrators who decided to bring our sport to their campus, if they don't want it to fail. It is unfair to use a blanket statement about admin, because there are some that are incredibly supportive. But I have also seen the flip side of that coin, especially out here in America's Heartland. It's obvious to me that there are a good many Athletic Directors out there that, like most of us, feel the pressure of their job bearing down on them. Board of Directors and cabinet members breathing down their necks, about budgets/enrollment/retention/etc. What sports should we add? What demographics should we target? It's also clear an obvious that a quick google search can tell a novice AD all he/she thinks he/she needs to know: "what's this here? Ahhhh....Lacrosse? Fastest growing sport in America? rapid expansion at the youth level? popular in some of the most prestigious northeastern prep and post grad schools? lacrosse players in HS tend to have great grade point averages and higher test scores? there is women's lacrosse too? I can fulfill my gender equity and title IX requirements as well? We already have a football field or soccer complex. Doesn't require a ton of overhead infrastructure? Where do I sign up???" Obviously this is a very crude and hyperbolic inner monologue running through the mind of my hypothetical college AD here. And its not just lacrosse either but sports like, women's wrestling, men's volleyball, hockey, bowling, and E-sports that are all more recent additions to Division III sponsored varsity programs and could be subject to the same type of strategic plan. But I don't think it's that far-fetched. Especially out here in Iowa.
Iowa is a very strange land when it comes to the sport of Lacrosse. Before I say anything else, I want to say that I love the state of Iowa. I grew up in Upstate, NY, the mecca of the sport (yes i said it), and went to school in western Maryland, arguably (but not really though) the two most important states for the sport of Lacrosse. I moved to Iowa in 2014, at the age of 26. I have lived here close to a decade now, and have fallen in love with the city of Dubuque, and its surrounding area. I met my wife here, we got married, bought a house, and had our first child here in 2021. My mom, moved out here as well, and lives about 10 minutes away from us. We have everything we could ever want or need right here in our beautiful, little slice of midwestern heaven along side the mighty Mississippi River. This biggest gripe I have for this state is its crass treatment of the sport of Lacrosse. Everything about this state in regards to the Sport of Lacrosse is backwards. Most places build something up at the ground level, support its growth, and don't think to create an environment where the top level can compete on one of the game's highest stages, until the foundation has been well established and most importantly, self-sustaining. Not Iowa! No out here, we crassly decided to sponsor the sport at the college level in a good number of schools while doing nothing really to help grow the game at the youth level. To say that Iowa is the worst state in the country when it comes to Lacrosse played at the Youth and HS level would be a bit harsh. But in my completely unfounded and unofficial state ranks of HS lacrosse in the US, I would say Iowa is easily in the bottom 10. The only states that probably have less HS age boys and girls playing the sport are probably the Dakotas, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Alaska/Hawaii. Like I said before, take this all with a grain of salt, but my career has taken me all over the country to help see and teach the sport in many 'non-traditional areas,' so I have a decent grasp of where the sport is played, and where it isn't. And unfortunately Iowa is the latter. No doubt that the game is picking up steam here, but to my knowledge there are only 4 actual HS teams playing here (West Des Moines, Waukee, Ankeny, and possibly Ames though I could be wrong). We have a small club in Dubuque, and there is another small club in the Cedar Rapids/Quad Cities area. Our HS league is so small we cannot sponsor the sport and have to play in the Nebraska league (to be fair they really need each other because NE wouldn't have enough teams on their own to fill their state requirements either). Conversely, at the Division III, Division II, and NAIA level, Iowa at one point had 15 men's and women's teams competing, not including club teams at Iowa and Iowa State (had being the operative word). That number has since dropped to 10 current teams in the state (Clarke, St Ambrose, Mount Mercy, William Penn, and Cornell for women's and Clarke, St Ambrose, William Penn, UD and Cornell for the men). Even still, this number of teams cannot be supported by instate talent alone, not even close. I do not like to throw the word "exploitation" around lightly, but it is hard for me to find an alternative word to describe what is going on here. I mean there are so many hot beds that for the longest time could have supported a lot of highly anticipated Division III teams that don't, and we do just the opposite. For example, Texas has so much talent. Southwestern University has a great program, but in a sea of other amazing DIII institutions like Mary Hardin Baylor and Trinity, it would be cool to see what those teams could do at the college level (not to mention the big DI teams down there as well). Minnesota is another great state full of a healthy instate base of talent, and some of the best DIII schools in the country (McAlister, St Johns, St Olafs, Carlton, and Bethel) but not a lot of schools that sponsor the sport. California might be the biggest instate waste at the small school level. Whittier for decades was the great western gem of the game, but with so many top tier high school and a bevy of great DIII programs like Redlands, Pomona-Pitzer, Claremont Mudd Scripps, Chapman, and some of the UC schools as well, poor Whittier was deemed to an eternal life on the road for so long. That probably was one of the reasons for their eventual doom. It's tough for small private schools to have to get on a plane just to compete, every single game. I feel strongly that a lot of these schools on this list could compete on a national level, and not take decades to do so. But it's a sad commentary on decision making leaving true fans of the sport to always wonder "if only."
So stop the growth? Not really. Stop in insipid adding of programs, where the coaches are underpaid, their staff is unsatisfactory, and the budgetary support is minimal compared to other tier 1 sports. All college coaches will tell you first and foremost, that we didn't get into this profession for the money in the first place. But when the sport you coach expects to have the largest male roster on campus, behind football, and staffing is inadequate, and your budget for equipment, recruiting, and travel gets the most penny pinching of any other program on campus, the product you put on the field will be bad. And then a cycle of coaches either leaving the profession, or moving on to greener pastures, will set off a chain reaction. The AD will hire someone less qualified for less money year after year until the program eventually shuts down. Once the juice isn't worth the squeeze, Lacrosse seems to be an easy scapegoat these days I'm afraid. I should mention that this is absolutely not my experience for the school that I work for. But I can't say that hasn't been the case once before, and the evidence is continuing to mount year after year. So.... stop the growth? If someone told you to start something, do it wrong and just discontinue it 5-10 years later would you do it? Or would you never do it in the first place. When it comes to the college level, for any sport, if you aren't going to do it right, then don't do it at all.
But to answer this question, no... do not stop the growth. Grow the game at the youth level, and build it up. This is the hardest and most time consuming solution, but it's the only right answer. If the Small Private Schools in the State of Iowa insist on continuing to add men's and women's teams in the years to come, then the growth of youth and HS plays needs to develop. Full transparency, I have 0 instate players on my team on a roster nearly touching 50 players. That's a problem. Maybe you should recruit more IA players then KB. Maybe I should, but at the same time, I have my own juice to squeeze. If I have more success recruiting players from MN and IL, that's where my efforts go. Cornell College and William Penn have been able to successfully recruit players from instate and that is great. And, I have had players from IA play for me in the past. But if you combined all the Iowa guys that have ever played for me, Clarke, William Penn, and Cornell, maybe you have a full roster of Iowa players for one season. It's not sustainable. When examining other teams and their rosters, it's cool to see what a good lacrosse state can yield to and instate DIII team. One great example is Albion. Albion is a perennial powerhouse in the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association. They have never finished worse than 2nd place in league. And their roster is comprised of almost all Michigan HS players. Same with Transylvania down in Kentucky. Same with Illinois Wesleyan in Bloomington-Normal. If you are located in a good lacrosse state, and can get the best players in that state, you can have a winning team. One reason why the SUNYAC conference in NY has been such a power in Division III for a long time. Don't get me wrong, there are good players in the state of Iowa, just not enough of them. The thing I love about Iowa is that it is mostly rural. I am most definitely a county mouse. I like fishing alone. I like being outside. and I don't like traffic. It's one of the many things about this state that suits my lifestyle. But this is big hinderance for the sport of lacrosse.
Lacrosse is very pocketed in the US. Obviously it's very deeply rooted and saturated in the northeast and mid-Atlantic. But everywhere westward that it is expanding is where the people are, major metropolitan areas and their surrounding suburbs. Makes sense right? So when people talk about Illinois lacrosse, what they really mean is Chicago. Outside of a couple other small pockets in central and western Illinois, you won't find the sport anywhere else in the state. Same goes for Missouri (St Louis/KC), Minnesota (the Twin Cities), and the west coast as well. Go back to my bad state list. What were the worst lacrosse states in the country? All the one's with no people in them! Iowa again, is mostly rural. There are not a lot of big cities. Des Moines is your biggest metro area, with roughly 250-300,000 people, and that's where most of the kids are playing the sport. So how do we grow the sport in other less densely populated, more rural areas? That is the question that needs to be answered, and it is more difficult than you think.
In an effort to get more insight on what it would take to increase the popularity of the sport in the area, I reached out to a friend of mine, Jeff. Jeff is and athletic director for a public school district in Southeast Iowa. I wanted to know what it would take to get lacrosse integrated on a state level. Bordering states such as Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois have all graduated from club to officially sanction sports within their respective HS associations. How far away is Iowa from getting to this point? Well, I heard a rumor a long time ago that in order to get officially sanctioned in Iowa, at least 30% of all public schools had to offer the sport. Jeff could neither confirm nor deny this claim, but for arguments sake, let's pretend that is a true statement. 30% of Iowa public schools would be roughly 107, a far cry from the 4 that currently offer the sport. And it is also important to know that those 4 mentioned (West Des Moines, Ankeny, Ames, and Waukee) are also Co-Ops. WDM pulls from neighboring Indianola, Valley, and Dowling Catholic, in order to get enough participation. Other schools may operate in similar fashion, but this is why until recently, WDM has been the main powerhouse in the state (2 states actually. They have won state championships vs the teams on the Nebraska side).
Jeff mentioned CO-OPS. He offered some smaller teams at his own school that pulled from neighboring towns, and smaller schools to fill out rosters, such as women's wrestling, and tennis. So could this be a break in the case? Would Iowa really need 107 HS teams in order to play or could they get away with, let's say...only 80 teams (just spit balling) that pull from a total of 107 different High Schools. If anyone from the state of Iowa happens to stumble across this and has any insight on it, please let me know. Like previously stated, Iowa is mostly small, rural communities strewn about the state. If teams could be strung together through co-ops, there wouldn't be so much pressure on larger districts to have to carry the burden of housing the entire roster. Jeff mentioned his HS graduates on average 150 students a year, making it about 500 total student population, which is a 3A school, with some sports competing in 4A (5A is the largest). Districts are just not as big here as other states, so the idea of co-ops gives me hope. Other sports do it all the time in order to be able to compete, Lacrosse should be no exception.
The next barrier would be education. Jeff explained if he proposed to his district the idea of adding lacrosse that half of the district would ask "what is Lacrosse?" and the other half would ask "why?" Many people in Iowa still have no clue what the sport even is, let alone how to play it. This starts at the grass roots level. Jeff explained that at the HS level PE classes, the curriculum is more focused on performance and remaining active, less on actual teaching of sport. This curriculum runs 7th through 12th grade. He mentioned that they don't even really play sports like baseball in HS PE classes anymore, as most kids at that age are either already participating in athletics, or aren't and that isn't the main focus. The introduction of different sports and game play is more at the elementary level. It would be here that a child may learn lacrosse and the basic fundamentals. But now the key is to have the ability to expand your offering. If I am a 8-year-old that just learned of lacrosse in PE and it appeals to me more than soccer or baseball, the first thing I might do is ask my parents if there was anywhere I could sign up for a team. And unless you live in one of 3 areas in the state, this would probably be either a dead end, or a minimum 90-120 minute drive to the nearest town with a population of participants (might even have to cross state lines). It could work for a while but in these times of belt tightening economic distress, a parent might say to little Johnny, "I'm sorry honey, but it's just too much to keep driving that far away. Here are the sports that we have here in town you can play. pick one." Again, it's sad, but not too far-fetched. Another tough opponent to the education of the sport is not only the lack of it, but the barriers to provide it. I'm not suggesting that every child under the age of 12 is going to learn about lacrosse in their elementary PE class and just has nowhere to play. They might not teach it all. For those of us that want to teach it, there are other barriers to spreading information. Public schools don't like outside clubs and organizations advertising on their turf. Jeff mentioned their district is more lenient and outside clubs can advertise to their student body pending an approval process from the superintendent. Where I live in Dubuque, the schools are much stricter. No flyers or brochures are allowed in the school. So even in a larger community like Dubuque, IA where there are offerings to play youth and HS level lacrosse, how would anyone participate if they don't know it offered, let alone supported?
So what's the final barrier to add a new sanctioned sport at the HS level? Jeff's answer was simple. Good ole fashioned participation, or lack thereof. He mentioned that participation in sport is on the decline in general across the state. In his school district he said roughly 100 kids comprise most of the sport teams. You get a kid that's an all-state football, basketball, baseball, and track and field athlete, because he has to be. If those kids aren't 4 sport athletes, their schools don't have the numbers or talent to compete. It's as simple as that. Numbers are declining. Districts are getting smaller, as well as families. Even sports you wouldn't think like girls' basketball. Jeff said, as soon as they added girls wrestling, there was an immediate decline in girls' basketball players. That was Jeff's main argument. You only have a certain amount of kids that are active in sports, and they are spread thin. If you add another sport, you pull away from other teams, that's just kind of how it works. So maybe it makes sense to be more protective like the Dubuque schools. They don't want to lose any of their athletes to another sport, putting more strain on that program.
This is all very interesting and when you really think about it, all fairly obvious as well. This could be a tough state to really create an environment in which lacrosse thrives. If traditional sports like basketball and football are on the decline in participation, how is a new sport ever going to flourish? Does lacrosse really even have a chance? And oddly enough, I believe it does. I have seen it before. Every time I drive through the state through small town, after small town, I always see 3 things. I see a church, a gas station, and a baseball field. America's pastime, I know. But if it is such a way of life out in the heartland, why can't it be the same way with other sports? I know Upstate NY and Iowa have its differences, but there are a lot of similarities as well. Strung along in between the cities of Syracuse and Albany, Rochester, and Buffalo, there are smaller rural communities that had lacrosse teams. I played for a class C school, which at the time was for the smallest school districts (they have a class D now). We would play schools like Homer, South Jefferson, Jordan Elbridge, Whitesboro, Tully, and New Hartford. These were all small, mostly rural towns. So again, I don't know what the common denominator is other than tradition. Baseball is to Iowa, as Lacrosse is to New York. But I think to say that a state that has a smaller population, no massive cities, and is too rural for Lacrosse to succeed is a cope out. I played all those teams in HS and lost to some. There were some amazing players that came from small rural towns. Arguably the greatest lacrosse family of all time, the Powells came from Carthage, NY, far from a metropolis. I spent time in Northern NY while in grad school and it was the same way. Small towns with rich Lacrosse history. Towns like Canton and Potsdam, both under 10,000 in population. I believe Lacrosse can succeed here. There just needs to be the right passion for the game.
The one good thing about all the college programs in Iowa, despite the lack of instate players, is that we do provide a platform. Similar to Marquette in Wisconsin, and Utah in, well Utah, the local youth and HS levels increased as a result of those DI teams adding. We don't have the same resources as those schools, for sure, but we can still do our part. I myself have worked with the local Dubuque Bulldogs in the past as well as the Iowa Mavericks, the first HS club travel team in the state. I have coached instructional camps in Ankeny, IA. I have held prospect days and free clinics on our campus to help increase education of the sport here in town. I have donated sticks and equipment. I have spoken at ILAX coaches' clinics, parent meetings and club coaches zoom talks. Then COVID happened. After COVID I had a kid, and everything changed. My time shifted from driving to Des Moines twice a week in the summer to spending time being a Dad to her. But as she grows older, I would love to live in a world where she could play right here locally, and not in the quad cities, or Madison, WI. I know I can do more to help grow the game here. And I know I will have to moving forward as she grows up, because someone will have to. It takes a lot of time and dedication to grow a sport. This whole time this article time and time again criticizes a lot of things. One could say that I am not very kind to my home state. One could also call me a hypocrite for chastising Higher ED on one hand, while simultaneously benefiting professionally from the same decision making that I am calling out. And I understand that. I want to say to everyone that despite being critical of the decision making of IA small private colleges, and being equally critical of the level of lacrosse being played at the HS level in Iowa, I need readers to understand that there are good AD's and administrators in some of these colleges and universities, and there are so many hard working coaches, parents, and supporters of the sport in Iowa that are dedicated to raising the level of the sport in the Hawkeye State. Be on the lookout in the next 2-4 years. There will be some great players coming out of Iowa making big impacts on college rosters. Hopefully, I can get some of them!