ESPN's McAnaney, College Coaches Advocate Later Lacrosse Start
Siena and Hobart played in snowy conditions Saturday in Geneva, N.Y. (Kevin Colton)
Six days into the college men's lacrosse season, Loyola and Virginia staged an epic game that no one saw, unless they were among the announced 1,465 fans who chose to spend their Thursday night in the teeth-chattering cold Feb. 6 at Klöckner Stadium.
Even if you paid for Virginia's all-access webcast, you may have missed (due to a choppy feed) Loyola's incredible comeback (the Greyhounds erased an eight-goal deficit in the fourth quarter and went up by one with 13 seconds left), Ryan Tucker's improbable equalizer (officials ruled he tied the game for Virginia with 0.01 seconds remaining) or James Pannell's overtime clincher that gave the Cavaliers a 13-12 victory.
Afterward, former Virginia All-American goalie Adam Ghitelman tweeted congratulations to his alma mater, calling it the "best lacrosse game ever played on Twitter."
But why would diehard lacrosse fans be forced to digest this instant classic in 140-character updates? Why was an overtime thriller Sunday night at the Carrier Dome — where Syracuse beat Albany 17-16 despite another dazzling display from the Thompsons — viewable only by a regional Time Warner Cable audience or fans willing to pay $7 for a 24-hour pass to Syracuse's digital network?
"We're wasting time here with the sport as far as growing it. These games are outrageously good, and there's no place to put them," ESPN lacrosse announcer Eamon McAnaney said Monday in an interview after he took to Twitter with his opinions Sunday. "It's not just TV. I was watching the Virginia-Drexel game on my phone, and there's no one there. The field's surrounded by snow. Same thing with Hofstra-Marquette. I understand this year's a little outrageous as far as how much snow the Northeast has gotten, but it's supposed to be a spring sport."
Conference realignment and the need to beef up schedules for NCAA tournament consideration are among factors in the winterization of college lacrosse. Coaches prefer to spread games out weekly, rather than be susceptible to short turnarounds. With the season's endpoint seemingly locked on Memorial Day, that means quality games played in front of sparse crowds in February, when most sports networks' lineups are saturated with college basketball.
"You're missing a huge opportunity to generate interest in the sport when you're playing all of these games, and they might as well be played in Siberia," McAnaney said. "If the college coaches are interested in generating more fan interest and generating more fans — whether it be on TV or on campus — they're not doing themselves any favors by jamming all of these games into February."
Anecdotally, at least, the college coaches agree.
"We don't have nice indoor facilities like some Big Ten schools and other places closer to us," Albany coach Scott Marr told LaxMagazine.com as the Great Danes prepared for their opener at Syracuse. "Sure, we can play our sport in the cold, but it really kills our crowds. And sometimes you have to stop running them at practice and do some teaching. More of our kids are getting hurt this time of year, with tight muscles and hamstrings. [This trend] has got to stop."
At least 24 games were rescheduled or relocated last week due to harsh winter conditions up and down the East Coast.
"They should force lacrosse coaches to take a college class in climate [science] and meteorology," Maryland coach John Tillman joked.
Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala said he would prefer that games begin no earlier than the last weekend in February.
"I'm not a fan of where we are right now. I'm not a fan of where we are with recruiting, and I'm not a fan of our calendar," Pietramala said after the Blue Jays' 15-8 win Saturday over Towson. "I would love to see practice begin Feb. 1 and the first game begin either the last weekend in February or the first weekend in March. And I'd like to see the final four moved back. I'd like to see it not on Memorial Day. I'd like to see it moved back a month."
McAnaney said delaying the start of the season and playing lacrosse into June would increase TV exposure for the college game, when there are "more spots available on the grid," and make for a better viewing experience.
"I loved Memorial Day as much as anything when I was a kid growing up," said McAnaney, who grew up in New York and played lacrosse at Notre Dame. "But that idea of loading up the family van, and that's your only chance to see those four great teams, has come and gone. The attendance is dipping. There's no reason not to push it back."
ESPN will air 29 games (plus two women's games) in 2014, not including webcasts or regional broadcasts picked up by ESPN3/Watch ESPN. That's down from 46 in 2013. Twenty-five of the 29 games include Johns Hopkins and/or an ACC team. ESPN has TV contracts with both institutions.
CBS Sports will air 11 games (plus one women's game) in 2014, but none before the March 9 tilt between Duke and Loyola.
NBC Sports only occasionally produces lacrosse broadcasts. The network aired the Moe's Southwest Grill Lacrosse Classic doubleheader Sunday featuring Notre Dame-Jacksonville and UMass-Ohio State, but does not currently have any additional games scheduled.
Asked if he thought the momentum for lacrosse on TV had halted, McAnaney replied, "I think it's steadied. I think it's plateaued." He then qualified his comments.
"If you're a hardcore lacrosse fan now, you're frustrated," he said. "Once we get to March, that will go away."