Chapter 14 Race to the Bottom

That Thing Again

A kindly warning here: if you are an OLA administrator, a club official, a referee, or anyone else involved in the organization of OLA minor lacrosse, you are not going to like this post.  Now, you might be the exception to the rule, and that is something for you to decide, but that decisions hinges on your ability to self-assess.  Interestingly enough, I believe the best way for you to self-assess your role is to take a look at others in similar roles and honestly consider what you see for yourself.

Like Neo in The Matrix, whether you take the blue pill, or the red pill is up to you; the blue pill is the status quo, the red pill is the rabbit hole.  But the choice is still yours.

In the Volunteer, I hope I have made it perfectly clear how much volunteering contributes to the sport of lacrosse in Ontario.  Volunteering is the backbone of Ontario lacrosse, let’s leave no doubt about that.  When the pool of volunteers shrinks, the programming shrinks, the player pool shrinks, the referee pool shrinks, and things sort of collapse in on themselves.  How many minor clubs have experienced this phenomenon? There are people out there who have watched it happen before their very eyes.  Many of them so disgusted, they left lacrosse forever.

There will always be a turnover in lacrosse whether that means parents, players, referees, volunteers, etc.  It is any sport’s ability to absorb the inevitable turnover and still maintain a healthy growth curve that is important.  The math is fairly straight forward – attract ‘new’ more than you lose ‘old’ and you will grow.  Such fairly straight forward math is also a bit simplistic: the costs associated with sport, but especially lacrosse, demand a particular sustainable growth rate to be healthy.  For example:

Lacrosse in Ontario cannot depend on ancillary sources of promotion like hockey does with the Maple Leafs or Senators, like soccer does with TFC, or baseball does with the Blue Jays.  Big league sports are on TV all the time, and I believe this exposure elevates these sports in the minds of parents when considering what sport their child might want to play this year.  Therefore, lacrosse clubs must develop and pay for promotional programs out of their own budgets and the costs associated with promotion are always going up.  If club income from registration, sponsorships, etc., does not maintain the cost of promotion, then the promotional ability shrinks, the effectiveness of the promotional effort shrinks, less parents in the community know about the sport, and club membership begins to shrink as the old leave, but are not replaced by new. Among this membership, of course, is the pool of volunteers.

The costs associated with the sport are not always measured in dollars and cents either.  They could refer to the quantity or quality of volunteers, sport programming, sponsorship, referees, coaches, etc.  For instance, a club could have the best promotional campaign going on in the province but is unable to sustain the volunteers needed for quality programming, so the Peanut and Paperweight programs are put at risk.  In other words, maintenance of a healthy, sustainable growth rate is critical to a minor lacrosse club.

Game the Growth

As we saw in the previous post, there appears to be a downward trend in lacrosse registrations and, while some clubs were reporting healthy gains, most are not.  This may not seem too to concerning for those OLA administrators – their sum total response to this alleged crisis is a 3-on-3 version of lacrosse and allowing kids to play in any house league.  This response by the OLA should be a concern for local clubs or anyone else interested in the lacrosse big picture.  If the downward trend continues there are a few other things that can be done that seem to be inline with the OLA’s answer thus far:

The first thing to do is ignore the problem.  This can be done by assigning reasons for the trend that always end up with a happy future under the right conditions.  Here are a couple:

  • The popularity of lacrosse is subject to natural forces that proceed in cycles as evidence by the history of lacrosse. It used to be very popular once, declined, but got popular again.  Lacrosse has always been this way, it’s inevitable.  We are only in a downward cycle.  It will get better.
  • Its because of baseball. The Blue Jays made the playoffs and kids are flocking to baseball.  One day the Rock will win a championship and kids will flock to lacrosse again.

These reasons turn into excuses when we realize that correlation doesn’t equal causation; that the same natural or historical forces working on lacrosse don’t appear to affect all the other big league sports; or that when the Blue Jays won the World Series back in the early 90’s, lacrosse still experienced significant growth and there was no such a thing as the Toronto Rock back then.

If ignoring the problem or excuse-making isn’t a suitable response, the next best thing is to try treating the symptoms.  This could range from ramping up team spirit within the volunteer cadre – this works at club, zone, and OLA levels – turn that frown upside down; to inventing new ways for the sport to be played, such as 3-on-3; to allowing kids to play in any house league they wish.

You would be right to suggest I am being deeply sarcastic, but it is not without good reason.  Ignoring the problem or treating the symptoms may help one personally withstand the thoughts of the inevitable, at least for as long as one is involved with the sport or until their kid graduates.  There is always turnover in lacrosse after all, so long as it doesn’t happen on my watch…

The Bottom

Lacrosse in Ontario will never go away, and the OLA will always be present, in one form or another.  That is also inevitable.  The game itself has deep roots in indigenous culture so there will always be lacrosse in indigenous communities, especially Iroquoian communities.  The same sort of spiritual connection with the game will also keep it alive in a few select centres, mostly those with historical ties to the game.  For centres that do not outright collapse, they will contract or merge with other clubs because of financial constraints, or because of the volunteer base can no longer sustain the local programs.  Large areas of Ontario will go without OLA lacrosse, but may retain some form of house league or high schools may hang on to the field game so long as there are enough kids to put teams together.

When the minor system bottoms out, every single league above will be affected.  Less players means less teams.  Junior leagues will shrink, combine, or fold outright.  Senior teams operating on shoestring budgets, depending on precarious player pools, will see the star players go where the money is.  The quality of the play suffers, fans stay away.  More teams fold, until there are only a few junior and senior teams playing to empty rinks.  This will become a permanent condition.  Lacrosse will go from a niche sport to an artefact.  The national summer artefact.

Of course, I am making a worse case scenario and time will tell, but it has all happened before more than once.

The real point is to raise the question: what percentage of this bottoming-out story can lacrosse afford before it actually becomes too late?  Another couple hundred kids dropping out?  A few more minor clubs folding?  The Major Series thinning out by a couple of clubs?  What is the sustainable level of loss for Ontario lacrosse?  What level of loss must be endured before there is a community wide effort to change the course before it’s too late?

Maybe getting lacrosse in the Olympics is the trick.  After all, look at the wild success of roller hockey, which was included as a demonstration sport in 1992.  All we need to do is hang on until 2028.

The Leadership Problem

I believe that to get out of this jam, lacrosse needs to first become aware of the problem in the same way that rehab only works for a junkie who gains enough self-awareness to see themselves as they truly are.  By the time the problem becomes known, the addict has already invested years in the enabling behavior they rely on to achieve consistent, if somewhat sad, results.  The more the resistant to self-awareness the junkie is, the longer and more damaging the addiction becomes.  When the problem becomes chronic, it is that much harder to solve and likely places the addict – lacrosse – on the precipice.

As we have seen already, the response from the OLA is ever so typical: they are maintaining a steady income from rep teams, they’ve addressed the shortfalls in rec lacrosse, oh well.  If there is discussion of the more serious aspects of a decline in the sport, there doesn’t appear to be any wide-spread information about it.  I made an enquiry about the registration numbers, to both the OLA and CLA, but still have yet to hear back.  I wonder why.

Perhaps it is only select persons that are included in the discussion, presuming there is such a discussion in the first place.  I certainly hope part of this mysterious roundtable includes equipment retailers since both rep and rec players require equipment. I wonder what a sustainable level of loss is for lacrosse-focused businesses since fewer players means less equipment sold, fewer jerseys required, interest in the new product wanes, etc.  I imagine that a steady drop in business would have the effect of eliminating manufacturers and retailers who operate with thin margins, some of which have provided financial supports to the sport for decades.

It may well be that there is no dialogue as there is no serious problem perceived at the provincial level.  Certainly, there must be some discussion at the zone level, seeing how all zones are down registration numbers as are most clubs.  However, I can see that other than some chatter from a few clubs, zones would be unconcerned – they are more like the happy, cheer-leading wing of the OLA.  They are primarily responsible for rep lacrosse after all, and rec lacrosse is the purview of the local club.  So, if there is a loss, and the greatest losses are in the recreational programs, local clubs are on the hook.

It goes without saying that when a local club stacks it’s board with parents of rep players, the business of the board becomes very focused.  More often than not, it is the rec programs that begin to suffer as a result of this new focus.  I am not blaming “rep parents” as anyone is capable of recognizing and acting on the full scope of a club’s services.   The main problem with rep parents is that they have much different expectations attached to their child’s participation in the club and this is due to the extra investment that comes along with enrolling a player in the rep program.  This focus on return from investment tends to put the focus on rep programs and teams.  Rep parents relate to each other, their energy is directed towards ensuring a good rep program, and there really isn’t anything wrong with that.

The manifestation of this focus tends to result in a culture where rep is the ultimate goal of the club and this can’t help but take away from the rec program, especially where there are no strong advocates for rec programming.  There is no measure for this of course, at least none that I am aware of, but I have seen this phenomenon with my own eyes, and I have heard about it often enough from others to confirm my experience.  There are exceptions to the rule of course, but, sadly, I have seen parents withdraw from volunteering when their kid was cut from the rep team.

With no strong advocate for rec lacrosse problems, is it no wonder that growth of the sport is in a backslide?  We can blame baseball all we want, but baseball generally comes with a strong rec component, as does hockey and soccer.  It seems the successful and popular sports have strong recreational programs and that fact should stand out to any lacrosse volunteer, especially those in large urban centres.

Why is there such a hyper-focus on rep lacrosse?  I believe there are two main reasons for this.  One is the hyper-focus of the internal OLA culture, which I would describe as elitism; and two, this hyper-focus is part of the feedback mechanism with the parents manning the local minor lacrosse boards.  Part of the feedback is determined by the nature of the volunteers – mostly rep parents – who go on to man the zone boards and eventually get elected to positions in the OLA.  There is no strong advocacy for rec lacrosse in the OLA because there is no strong advocacy for rec lacrosse with the good people who run the OLA.

If you are an OLA administrator, a club official, a referee, or anyone else involved in the organization of OLA minor lacrosse, and you are not a strong advocate for rec lacrosse, you just may be part of the problem.  But that is for you to decide…

Next:  Chapter 15 And the Beat Goes On…