MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Pop quiz: Can you name the fastest-growing sport in the United States?
The answer is lacrosse. And the rate of its growth has been remarkable, especially here in Minnesota.
The University of Minnesota hasn’t added a men’s sport in decades. But with the game exploding in popularity, could lacrosse be next?
You get a new respect for the dedication of college athletes, when they’re at the University dome by 5:30 a.m. for a 6 a.m. practice.
And these guys aren’t even on scholarship.
“We’re trying to do everything that the other D-1 teams are doing,” coach Rich Limpert said. “We’re just doing it on our own.”
Welcome to the world of Gophers men’s lacrosse. It’s not a D-I sport at Minnesota, but it’s acting like one for a reason.
Limpert has been the head coach the last five years. In his day job, he’s an industrial business development manager. Here on campus, he’s developed the Gophers into a national contender — they’re currently ranked 18th.
But Limpert has his eyes on something even bigger: Division-I status. A rise reflective of the growth of the sport both here in Minnesota, and nationally.
“It grew so fast, or it’s growing so fast,” Limpert said, “that it went from being off the map, to directly in the middle of the radar.”
Lacrosse has been the fastest-growing sport in the country for more than a decade now. The number of players across all levels has grown more than 300 percent since 2001.
And nowhere in the country is it growing faster than Minnesota, where the number of boys high school teams has gone from 11 club teams in 1999 to 82, fully-sanctioned by the Minnesota State High School League, this year.
That nationwide growth at the youth and high school levels has spurred rapid expansion in the college ranks, too — it’s the fastest-growing sport in both men’s and women’s by a large margin.
But that growth has come mostly at the D-III and D-II levels, and to a certain extent, women’s D-I. It has been exceptionally rare for D-I men’s teams, especially those in the mold of Minnesota.
Since 2009, only 14 schools have added D-I men’s lacrosse teams — it’ll be 15 by 2019 — but only at seven schools with football. In fact, since Notre Dame added men’s lacrosse in 1981, only one BCS school has added a men’s team — Michigan, in 2012.
“There aren’t as many D-I opportunities at the NCAA level as we have players for,” Limpert said. “And they’re good players.”
Limpert would like to see that change. He’s been pushing to get Minnesota into position to be ready to make the jump. And he’s spoken with Michigan’s coach a number of times about the path they took, hoping to follow a similar blueprint.
“The process is long and it takes, really, a village,” Limpert said. “Fundraising, organization… and essentially get to the point where you’re actively working and operating like an NCAA Division I team. Then hopefully, (the) budget works out on the University side, they recognize the team, and they’re able to fund it. Now, there’s a lot more to it. As I’ve been involved in this, trying to figure out how we can do this, as a state, as a University, there are a lot of moving parts.”
Such as Title IX compliance. To balance the scholarships, Minnesota’s women’s club team would need to make the jump too. Limpert says that’s no problem — after all, they went to the national title game last season.
But the big one, as you might expect, is money.
Michigan needed to raise $5 million to fund its men’s and women’s programs. It also needed to build a dedicated lacrosse facility.
But athletic director Dave Brandon looked at the growth data and determined the school would benefit — even though it’s a non-revenue sport — saying it would strengthen Michigan’s brand and take the maize and blue to parts of the country it hadn’t typically gone.
“There’s just a lot that has to happen,” Limpert said. “And it’s expensive.”
One advantage? The Big Ten started sponsoring men’s and women’s lacrosse in 2014 — putting Minnesota perhaps in a better position than most to jump in.
“It certainly opens the discussion,” Limpert said.
But lacrosse isn’t the only club sport with its eyes on moving up. Notably, men’s soccer has long sought to join the Minnesota women’s program — and they already have a stadium.
But they, too, would likely need to find a companion women’s sport for Title IX.
Limpert says Minnesota could be ready in as soon as five years. It has the interest. It has the homegrown talent.
But it doesn’t have the facilities. And most importantly, it doesn’t have the money.
Athletic Director Mark Coyle said Minnesota is “not in a position to add additional programs” and doesn’t plan to “in the near-term,” pointing out it already has the fourth-most in the Big Ten.
He declined an interview request, saying the question of adding programs is one of the most common he is asked, but in a statement said that he does want the department “to be reflective of trends at the high school level to ensure we are providing academic and athletic opportunities that fit with the interests of our future students, especially those growing up in Minnesota. We are always evaluating our programs and the mix of sports we offer.”
To Limpert, that sounds like lacrosse as the next logical step. And he says when the University is ready, his team will be too.
“There’s a lot of people out here that care about this sport, and we can make it happen together. We just need a path,” he said. “As we keep growing this, it’ll be undeniable at some point. And action will have to take place. It’ll happen.”