Net gains for a fringe sport

Lacrosse, a game with roots in native American culture, is sharpening its profile.

Tanned spectators, with sunglasses, baseball caps, and deeply freckled noses, crowd the metal bleachers at Georgetown's Harbin Field.

They are here to watch their local team, the Washington Bayhawks, take on the Rochester Rattlers. The Bayhawks? The Rattlers? They're professional sports teams, albeit ones without much in the way of name recognition. As one spectator aptly puts it: "You've got your major sports and your minor sports. I think lacrosse is what you'd call a minor sport."

She's probably right. But the game with native-American roots – played by transporting a ball across a field and into a goal using net-capped sticks – is sharpening its profile.

In one example of how lacrosse has reached beyond its traditionally East Coast base, an early-July match in Denver drew 19,793 spectators and set a Major League Lacrosse (MLL) attendance record. The Denver Outlaws joined the six-year-old, 10-team league just last year.

At this particular Bayhawks game there are fewer than 2,000 fans. But what they lack in numbers they make up for in enthusiasm as apparent as their suntans and sporty attire. (The sartorial choices on display this afternoon tend toward the preppy: There's an abundance of brightly colored polo shirts, not to mention one rather bold pair of madras-print slip-on sneakers.)

According to MLL Commissioner David Gross, lacrosse fans are a demographic coveted by marketers and sponsors – the average income of a season-ticket holder is $99,000.

On this sultry Saturday, while concession stands selling ice cream and lemonade do brisk trade, some spectators try their hand at half-time challenges. During one, a boy inside a plastic enclosure grabs at money being blown around him by an industrial leaf-blower, his hands hobbled by lacrosse gloves.

Young fans, standing level with the playing field, hang over the low wall that separates them from the players. It's a kind of intimacy you don't find at the "major sports" events played in coliseum-sized arenas. MLL is deliberate about accessibility. "We really want to try to bring the fans as close to the game as possible," says Commissioner Gross.

Riley Larkin takes it all in from the highest rung of the home team's bleachers. He's a rising high school freshman from McKinney, Texas, in town visiting family with his father. Riley used to play baseball but took up lacrosse a few years ago. He is hooked. So is his father.

This professional game is the first either has attended.

Smiling slyly, through a mouth full of braces, Riley says one thing he likes about lacrosse is that "the contact is a lot more fun" than in other sports he's tried.

"Especially for kids his age, it's got an extreme-sports connotation," says Riley's father, Duane.

As a player and a spectator, they also like that there isn't much downtime – lacrosse has been called the fastest sport on two legs.

To illustrate this, son and father kindly point out that in the course of our brief conversation they've already missed one goal and two penalties.

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