Chapter 12 Second Rate Part II

The Decline

There is no doubt that for the past few years, lacrosse in Ontario has been in decline.  The specific measurement of this is participant registrations, which are down across all zones except Zone 8.  Zone 5 is showing growth as well, but that change is attributed to the arrival of two new minor associations from Quebec; otherwise, their numbers are down about 11%.  Whitby, once the flagship minor association, lost 200 registrations last year, and are less than half of what they used to be a short few years ago.

Whitby minor also illustrates a significant problem in the response to the decline.  That is, the loss of numbers in Whitby, like every other minor association, began more than a few years ago.  Small incremental changes never seem like much at the time, but they add up over the years.  As I was told by a very experienced minor lacrosse administrator many years ago: every year a minor association will lose a certain percentage of players, that is unavoidable; but they will also gain as many in new players and, if they do it right, will always gain more than they lose.  Ironically, this person once helped Whitby become the powerhouse it once was.

Note this graphic showing that current registration numbers in box are about half of what they were in 2011 and are closer to the registration numbers recorded in 1999 – two decades earlier!

It’s a shame the OLA doesn’t publicly publish their registrations numbers each year so everyone can get a good idea of what is going on.  Information such as this could be very useful in motivating people to work towards reversing this trend.  The OLA might also try to gather data from minor sport registrations across the province and make a comparative analysis.  Such analyses could go a long way toward pinpointing the weak points in their overall strategic direction.  It might also point out that ‘baseball’ is not the problem.  Nevertheless, I digress.

The point I am trying to make here, as I have made before elsewhere, is that the response to this decline has been long coming and, in some cases, too late.  If the losses keep ending up in the red as they have over the last 5 years, the next 5 years will see more than a few minor associations fold.  The ugly truth of this is that such declines are not unprecedented, it has happened before in the OLA.  However, this does not necessarily mean there is some natural forces at work, bending Ontario lacrosse to the winds of fickle sport preference.  If there is any lesson that is to be learned from back then, it’s that once a critical point is reached, the collapse will happen of its own volition.


So what does this all have to do with the cancelled tournament in Akwesasne?

At one time, not too long ago, girls’ box lacrosse was the fastest growing sector of lacrosse, or so people would say.  People connected with the girls’ leagues made this point with pride, and so they should have.  Girls’ had been playing box lacrosse for a long time, there was even a women’s league back in the day, but the modern version was organized and attracted players quickly, the OWBLL started up, and the rest is history.  By that I mean, girls’ and women’s box lacrosse experienced a surge in popularity, which then cooled somewhat, and then went into its own decline.  However, the decline in girls’ lacrosse started a little earlier than the boys.

If you examine the numbers of girls’ rep teams over a period of years you will see a decline following a few years of growth, with the decline most apparent last year.  However, the current number of rep teams are still above where they were 5 years ago, so where did this loss occur?  The decline in girls’ box lacrosse, as it is with boys, is in the recreational side – the house leagues.  Where once thriving girls house leagues offered lacrosse as a fun, low-competition recreational activity, now it’s play rep or don’t play at all.  The OLA still is getting their team fees, the revenues remain mostly the same from this sector of lacrosse; and there is always girls’ field lacrosse.

I will deal with the participation decline in Ontario lacrosse in the next blog post.  For now, I only wish to point out that girls’ lacrosse went from being the fastest growing sector of lacrosse to a prime example of how the current decline in lacrosse participation works.  The girls’ sector could have been the canary in the mine, but instead ended up as an afterthought.


The other aspect of female participation in Ontario lacrosse surrounds the number of female referees, which has remained relatively steady over the past few years, despite some lean years.  Since female referees represent a small percentage of all referees, maintenance of this participation rate is a good thing – right?

There are a few key things to note about OLA female referees (as of 2017):

–        Zone 6 accounts for almost half of all female referees

–        5 of the 8 Zones experienced a decline in female referees from the previous           year, 3 remained the same

–        Since at least 2006, there have been no (zero) board certified referees, but              this has changed over the past couple of years; there are a couple of board              certified referees.

What this shows is that the participation rate for female lacrosse referees is stagnant at best, and that advancement opportunities are not the same for women as they are for men.  Perhaps there is a concentrated effort to recruit female referees, but I believe that the same condition for female players, exists for female referees – they are an afterthought.  This is contrasted with Ontario Soccer, Ontario Hockey or Ontario Basketball, etc.

As part of Game On – Ontario’s Sport Plan – a policy was created called, ‘Advancing Opportunities for Women and Girls in Sport.’  In the mission statement, there are 4 goals:

REMOVE BARRIERS for women and girls to participate and develop in sport and physical activity, wherever and however they choose to participate;

PROVIDE EQUITABLE ACCESS for women and girls in sport and recreation programming, training, coaching, administration and governance;

PROMOTE A WELCOMING ENVIRONMENT for all women and girls to feel respected, confident and safe to participate in sport and physical activity;

Call on all Ontario organizations involved in delivering amateur sport and recreation to COLLABORATE AND FOCUS THEIR EFFORTS ON ACHIEVING EQUITY IN SPORT.

If you wish to understand what theme links all the factors that lead to the cancellation of the Akwesasne Girls Got Game tournament in 2017, you only need to understand how the OLA stacks up against those 4 goals above.   But wait, there’s more!

It wasn’t just that the tournament was cancelled and that was that, lessons learned.  No, it has taken on much more an interesting twist, which we will turn to next.

The Do-Nothing Method

The OWBLL is a member of the OLA and through that membership participates in a relationship of mutual obligation.  For example, teams pay for group insurance arranged by the OLA, or the OWBLL pays referees according to a schedule negotiated between the OLA and OLRA.  It is straight forward: both sides play by the rules in good faith and it all works out year after year.

I am sure that tournaments and games have been cancelled due to referee availability over the years, although I cannot recall any tournament being cancelled for that reason in recent times.  I don’t think anyone would disagree that what happened to the Akwesasne Women Warriors was extraordinary and very rare.

When a tournament is cancelled at essentially the last minute, there are very real financial implications for the organizers and participants.  From the get-go, compensation for these losses were on the table.  What hasn’t been on the table however, is a resolution, even though the OWBLL has approached the issue of compensation in good-faith.  At each turn, the OLA has placed demands on the nature of the compensation in order to reduce the amount – this is a reasonable tactic.  What is not a reasonable tactic however, is each time those demands are met, the OLA asks for more concessions, thus delaying the resolution period as the OWBLL considers another dwindling offer.  It’s almost like the OLA Board of Directors have already made a decision to not compensate, wait it out, and eventually the OWBLL will go away.  This is what it appears like, and even though appearances can be deceiving, the practical implications are plain to see: it has been almost 2 years and nothing has been settled.

The OWBLL kept bringing this issue up at Board of Governor meetings to no avail.  The OWBLL will make an enquiry, that enquiry will be taken back to the Board of Directors for consideration, only to the have all repeat again in 3 months.  I suppose one can be remiss for a certain period, but after almost 2 years and no resolution, it seems the OLA is bargaining in bad faith.  The OLA would never take a bad faith bargaining position with the Major Series or Senior B league.

The implications for a governing body to approach its membership with a de facto position of bad faith bargaining is not good. As the membership decreases and income becomes tighter, this negotiation positioning places an undue burden of financial stress on teams and individuals.  Butting up against a wall like this repeatedly must be frustrating and it likely has caused some good people to simply walk away from the game.  It is also bad for the business side of the OLA since membership loss equates to thinning revenues.  Perhaps this is all not as obvious as it ought to be.

Nevertheless, on top of the whole financial aspect of things, playing hardball with a league that is run on a shoestring budget doesn’t remove barriers, nor provides equitable access (to important things like referees), nor promotes a welcoming environment, and is definitely not collaborative.  In fact, looking at the stagnating condition of girls’ lacrosse and female referees, it isn’t surprising that the OWBLL faces the same attitudes from the OLA Board of Directors.  Girls and women bring in a fraction of the income that boys and men do, so I suppose the attention they do get for their issues is proportional that income.  What other explanation could their possibly be for such horrendous treatment that has been experienced by the OWBLL and the Akwesasne Women Warriors?

The Do-Something Approach

I remember watching the first women’s world hockey championships in 1990, with Team Canada in their pink uniforms.  I enjoyed the games even though both the US and Canada walked through the round-robin to the final and often do the same each year.  However, women’s hockey had reached a milestone at that point and the game has received much more attention in mass media since.  I haven’t followed women’s hockey too closely, but I do know that the sport has taken a strong foothold in our culture and is organized in such a way as to first, protect what they have gained and second, to re-invest in themselves.  Therefore, while girls and women’s lacrosse has started to decline, girls and women’s hockey is still growing.  It’s not just growing in players; it is growing with referees, coaches, organizers and other officials who dedicated their efforts towards the women’s game.

Of course, caution must be given to making comparisons between female hockey and female lacrosse, as is the same for the men.  Hockey operates on a much different scale than lacrosse, and has many more resources at its disposal.  Nevertheless, this does not mean that whatever hockey is doing doesn’t count; it can provide a useful organizational model for Ontario lacrosse.

Considering how female lacrosse is handled in Ontario, it might be worthwhile for them to re-organize into a single provincial entity like the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association whose mandate states, “Through a provincially unified, collective voice, the OWHA promotes, provides and develops opportunities for girls and women to play female hockey in Ontario.”  Having the female lacrosse leagues under one organizational umbrella may provide that sought-after environment described in Government of Ontario’s sporting policy.  It may also provide a much more focused environment for re-investment of financial resources and taking advantage of sponsorship and funding opportunities not currently available to them through the current arrangement with the OLA.

The OWHA is a member of Ontario Hockey Federation, the regional member of Hockey Canada.  In the same way, the OWBLL would remain a member of the OLA similar to how the Ontario Women’s Field Lacrosse is run.  The OWFL runs all girls and women’s field lacrosse in Ontario, and this includes Team Ontario teams for national championships.  Why minor girls’ box lacrosse is not run under the OWBLL is a mystery given that, at one time, it was.  If a situation arose like the Girls Got Game fiasco, the OWBLL would have more leverage to resolve disputes with the OLA.  For example, they could simply withhold team fee payments to the OLA until a mutually agreeable resolution was negotiated in good faith.  That sort of thing.

The idea of a single provincial organization for female box lacrosse has come and OWBLL needs to lead the way make this happen.  Their game needs to be reconstituted with the values and ideas they believe is best, organized in a modern and efficient way so that the competition makes sense to them.  Otherwise, the women’s league and all the girls’ leagues that feed it stay at status quo and that is an untenable position if the long term goal is growth.


Full disclosure: I am the spouse of the current OWBLL commissioner and have observed girls and women’s lacrosse for over a decade now, through her refereeing girls’ and women’s games, being an OWBLL builder, and through her tenure as commissioner.  I am also the OWBLL’s web administrator.

Next: Chapter 13 Rise and Fall