Murph's Turf: As lacrosse expands, status quo persists

A press release issued by US Lacrosse last week was chock full of numbers that the sport’s governing body could proudly tout. Among the statistical eye-catchers:

• 722,205 players, a record number, competed on organized lacrosse teams in 2012.

• The growth rate was 5.5%, marking the ninth straight year of at least 5% growth.

• Lacrosse continues to be the fastest-growing sport at the high school level, with 750 schools adding boys’ teams and 638 adding girls’ teams from 2007 to 2012.

• Lacrosse is also the fastest-growing NCAA sport, with 30 new varsity programs added in 2012 alone.

• Since 2001, the number of players participating on organized teams has increased 184%.

That kind of staggering growth rate, one that even a Ponzi schemer might have trouble generating, is not only supported by the statistics but is also welcome by anyone who believes the sport needs one other figure to increase precipitously at the high school level in Fairfield County.

The number of quality teams.

For too long now, FCIAC lacrosse has resembled the wealth distribution scale in a despotic African country: A privileged few hoarding nearly all the resources. The parity that has come to define nearly all other American sports has yet to find lacrosse, stymied by a navigation system stuck on recalculating route.

Consider these stats:

• Since 1977, there have been 36 FCIAC boys lacrosse championships and only five teams (Wilton, Darien, New Canaan, Greenwich, Ridgefield) have won a title. Wilton, Darien and New Canaan have 33 of those championships among them.

• Since 1993, there have been 20 FCIAC girls lacrosse championships and just four teams (Wilton, Darien, Greenwich, New Canaan) have won a title. Darien and Wilton have 17 of those championships between them.

With a few exceptions, those conference teams have also dominated at the highest divisions of the state tournament. The only outliers are the Cheshire (two championships) and Fairfield Prep (four) boys teams, although since many of Prep’s players are from FCIAC towns, its titles are more of a statistical trend than an aberration.

Too wide a chasm between haves and have-nots results in games that are decided by halftime, leaving coaches from the superior teams having to instruct their players to do something not germane to their lacrosse DNA: Refrain from scoring. As a result of the disparity, the top FCIAC boys and girls teams must widen their regular-season schedules to include contests against prep schools or quality opponents from New York state, Long Island or New Jersey.

For a while now, the increasing popularity of lacrosse has portended a future in which the perennially elite teams are joined by the noveau-talented, transforming FCIAC and Connecticut lacrosse into more of an equal opportunity landscape. But except for the Ridgefield and Fairfield Prep boys teams, which have established themselves as annual title threats, the old guard hasn’t found others deserving of membership status.

Perhaps the injection of parity that would make the sport more interesting is still in progress. Perhaps the latest participation numbers mean that more towns are developing strong youth programs that will serve as feeder systems for improved high school teams. Perhaps the FCIAC and the rest of the state will one day have the competitive balance that makes for upstart teams and compelling seasons.

Or maybe lacrosse will continue to grow only in select suburban towns with high per-capita incomes, reinforcing its reputation as something of an elitist, blue-blooded pursuit played with passion at many of the nation’s premier colleges and discussed with gusto in Wall Street offices. Maybe it will never resonate in inner cities and working-class towns, remaining an eccentric oddity and not a legitimate choice in those places.

Read that US Lacrosse press release and the numbers and the growth jump out impressively. But it’s how widely those figures are distributed that will truly benefit the sport.