Domestic Challenges

Seizing Opportunity: How to Grow Lacrosse in Canada

By Ross Ste-Croix

I am greatly humbled to have been asked to pen this article about the challenges that lie ahead for the game of lacrosse. Let me begin by reframing “challenges” as “opportunities.” The first thing that needs to be done when considering change is to view the change as positive movement forward. It is not, therefore, that lacrosse is threatened, but that there are opportunities available to be seized that will determine how the game grows and evolves over the next decade. I will outline four such opportunities below.

Opportunity number one: The game needs a brand

Lacrosse needs to determine what its brand is because, quite frankly, it doesn’t have one. I don’t make this comment lightly, and it isn’t meant to offend. It’s simply true. Don’t believe me? Walk down any street in Canada and ask 10 people what the Minto Cup is. The game of lacrosse has a deep and rich history that intertwines with the history of our country, but it lacks a brand. In 2022, if you want to stand out, you need a brand. And I’m not just talking about a cool new logo, or a new website, or some new merchandise. Things have changed dramatically in this area. Teenagers on YouTube have brands. There are literally kids that sit in their homes and talk about the most trivial things in society and make tons of cash. They have no training, no expertise and, really, no business making a penny, but they do, and it’s because they have successfully branded themselves. To do so, you need to find a niche and convince people of two things: the first being that they need what you are selling; and the second being that your name is synonymous with that product. Think Kleenex.

Hockey has a brand. It’s Canada. They have managed to brand themselves as the epitome of what it means to be Canadian. So, lacrosse can talk about how it is Canada’s national sport until the cows come home, and the fact that it’s true doesn’t matter, that brand is taken. It’s time to move on. Soccer has a brand. It is the sport that unites the world. Yeah. Hockey took Canada, and soccer took the world. What does that leave? Community.

We have just spent over two years cooped up, masked up, and afraid to get too close to one another. During that time, our sense of community all but disappeared. Now that we have emerged from our hibernation, people are looking for the sense of community that they lost. They want to come together again. They have fallen into new routines that brought them closer to their families and they are keen to keep that closeness going while they re-enter their communities. There is a branding void when it comes to a sport that is seen as synonymous with community, but the opportunity to be the sport that comes in to fill that void is limited. It is critical that lacrosse take the steps necessary to entrench itself in the hearts and minds of consumers as the sport that represents community before another sport does it first.

Opportunity number two: Infrastructure

If you build it, they will come. I realize quoting a Kevin Costner movie may not land with all of you, but regardless of the source, the statement holds. Walk around a neighborhood anywhere in Canada. Every park has a basketball hoop or two. Every street has half a dozen houses with one above their garage. In that same neighborhood, you’ll find soccer fields, tennis courts, baseball diamonds, and pop-up hockey rinks in the winter. Heck, some neighborhoods even have cricket pitches and beach volleyball courts. In my forty years, I have lived in nine different neighborhoods, across four major Canadian cities, and not once have I come across a single community space that was set up for kids to show up and play lacrosse.

I work in accessibility and one of the points we stress over and over when meeting with people is that you cannot expect people to engage with your product or service if they cannot access it. Access is the foundation of any transaction. If you have a doorstep and no ramp at the entrance to your store, you have denied access to anyone in a wheelchair from engaging with you. If you run community events and don’t provide a way for clients to access those events in a low-stimulus environment, you are denying access to individuals with anxiety, many on the Autism spectrum, and individuals who experience seizures. In the same way, if you want to entrench your sport into the fabric of Canadian society, you need to give children access to play.

Children are only limited in what they will discover by the access we give them to explore. If parks across the country had lacrosse nets, children would engage with them. They’d ask their parents what those funny-shaped nets were for and, let’s be honest, many of those parents would be forced to consult the almighty Google, but they’d learn, and they’d teach their children, and some of those families would dig a little deeper and find out what equipment they’d need for their children to play. And people with kids talk to other people with kids. Breaching the “parent network” is the hard part. Once you’ve done that, you can sit back and let them do the rest of the work for you. Slowly, small groups of children playing lacrosse will pop up. Then, other kids will see them playing and want to try the game out for themselves, and things will snowball from there.

Opportunity number three: The school system

Yes, I know this isn’t a new concept for lacrosse, or for any sport for that matter, but it has never been accomplished effectively, and it remains the best way to effect wide-scale change in our communities.

When I was growing up, gym class was our favourite class, but the delivery mechanism was a joke. Normally, the gym teacher was completely disengaged and half-heartedly explained a sport for one class and then that was all we played for 6-8 weeks afterward. “Teaching” consisted of the teacher tossing a few basketballs or floor hockey sticks onto the court and leaving the students to their own devices to set up games in what amounted to an extended recess period. While I greatly value the benefits of free play, whole generations grew up with this as their only window into the world of sport. You’d rotate through volleyball, basketball, soccer, and floor hockey. Throw in the odd game of handball, and that was it. If you had a good teacher, you’d get a unit on badminton. Nowhere in that curriculum did lacrosse make an appearance.

Children spend most of their formative time in school and most of them are not being given an opportunity to learn about, or play, lacrosse in school. So where are they supposed to develop the passion for the game? Unless you live in one of the half dozen lacrosse hotbeds in the country, odds are you will never be exposed to the game at all. Now the obvious objection here will be: “What are we supposed to do about that? We don’t control the curriculum.” This is true, but we now have a new generation of teachers in our schools, and therein lies an opportunity to change the way physical education is taught in Canada.

In university, I majored in Kinesiology and took many of the same classes as the Physical Education students. Part of their curriculum was to take sport classes to learn how to teach sport once they became a PE teacher. There were courses on soccer, aquatics, ice hockey, and even field hockey. But there were no courses on how to teach rugby, cricket, or lacrosse. I worked at the university sports camp during those summers, and we were given a schedule each week of the sports we were supposed to play with the children. When we had softball on the schedule, we played softball. When we had soccer on the schedule, we played soccer. Same for floor hockey and basketball. However, when a sport we were unfamiliar with like rugby, cricket, or lacrosse came up, we went rogue and changed the schedule. There are over 70 sports that are practiced in this country at an elite level and only a handful of them are taught in schools. Teachers are not equipped to teach sports they are unfamiliar with, so the answer is not simply that we need to look at building lacrosse into the elementary and secondary school curriculum to build a sense of community, but that we need to influence the curriculum of the university PE programs as well.

Further to ensuring that we build a foundation for lacrosse education into the PE curriculum, we need to build a pathway for young athletes that discover a passion for the sport to develop and grow. Enter the academy model. There is a model in Ontario, running in both the Durham Region and in London, that has built high performance sport training into the school day for high school-aged children in a host of sports. The Academy for Student Athlete Development run by Abilities Centre brings together school boards with high performance coaches and integrated support teams to allow students to complete their studies in a world-class athletic facility that allows them to access sport-specific training within their existing school system. This model gives students access to coaching and training they otherwise never would be able to access in the sport of their choice, all within the confines of a regular school day. The academy program is scalable and only requires access to a community sports facility (most of which sit empty during the school day), qualified local staff to administer the program, and buy-in from a local school board and the local lacrosse club.

The message here is that years of sitting around meeting room tables complaining that lacrosse isn’t taught in schools and pitching 10-week training programs and donating free equipment to a handful of schools, isn’t moving the needle. To effect change, you need to change the system, both the system that is training our PE teachers, and the pathways we set up for athletes to develop and harness their potential. These pathways need to take into consideration the day-to-day lives and challenges that these athletes face and build solutions that make it easier for them to include lacrosse seamlessly into their lives, not require them to enter an intricate club system that requires their entire family to re-schedule their social lives.

Opportunity number four: Inclusion

The first three opportunities have all been focused on the how. How to build recognition through branding. How to give children and communities access to play the game. How to approach integrating lacrosse into the school system. The fourth opportunity looks at the who. Who should be playing lacrosse? The simple answer is everyone. If you tweak the question slightly and ask who can play lacrosse, the answer remains the same: everyone. However, if you take a step back and ask who has access to play lacrosse, the answer changes quite dramatically.

Currently, lacrosse is played almost exclusively by middle to upper class able-bodied white males. If you look around our country, you will notice that we have one of the most diverse populations in the world. Canada’s population hails from every corner of the globe, every socio-economic level, and a wide spectrum of ability. By catering almost exclusively to middle to upper class able-bodied white males, lacrosse is missing out on a huge swath of the population. To capitalize on the previous three opportunities listed in this article, lacrosse needs to broaden its target market. To brand itself as the community sport, lacrosse will need to become more representative of the communities we all live in. So, the question becomes, how can lacrosse become more inclusive? The answer could very well be found in a model developed in the United Kingdom.

Mixed Ability Sport was born in Bradford, England in 2013 and welcomes individuals of all abilities to play sport on the same team. Unlike Special Olympics, or Paralympics, or rep leagues, the Mixed Ability model features individuals with physical disabilities, individuals with developmental disabilities, and “able-bodied” individuals playing side by side on the same team. As evidenced by the Oshawa Vikings Rugby Club that recently represented Canada at the International Mixed Ability Rugby Tournament in Cork, Ireland, a team may have a retired professional athlete playing alongside a 50-year-old first time athlete and an athlete with autism spectrum disorder. I know what you’re thinking – how do you play a full-contact sport like rugby with people of all abilities? Is that even safe? The answer is in how you approach the question in the first place. Who are you and I to tell a fully grown adult what is and is not safe for them to participate in? If we bar people with physical and developmental disabilities from playing certain sports, we are not as far removed from institutionalization as we like to believe.

Now the point here isn’t to say that there isn’t a place for segregated sport opportunities for individuals who prefer to compete against their peers of similar ability. Mixed Ability Sport is not meant to replace para sport or Special Olympics sport. It is a parallel pathway that allows everyone to choose how they want to interact with sport. And, for a sport like lacrosse, that is looking to grow and, to do so, must accept that a larger demographic of the population needs to be targeted, an investment in the Mixed Ability model presents a far more efficient path that investing in separate pathways for para lacrosse and Special Olympics lacrosse. An investment in Mixed Ability Sport would expose lacrosse clubs to the 20% of the population in Canada that live with a disability, not to mention all the “able-bodied” individuals out there who want to re-enter sport at the community level.

The path forward

The path forward will certainly not be without its bumps along the way, but there are opportunities out there to be capitalized on and the time to act is now. The window to claim the brand of the community sport will quickly be claimed by another sport. The Mixed Ability Sport movement is gaining momentum in Canada and lacrosse has an opportunity to be one of the pioneer sports to adopt the Mixed Ability model in Canada, another opportunity that will quickly be snapped up by other sports looking to capitalize on the opportunity to offer an inclusive and accessible entry into sport.

All this to say that I offer the opinion of one person, and a person that admittedly favours sport for the masses over elitist sport but, if you are reading this, I hope that you see the value in looking at the future of lacrosse from the perspective of what is best for the sport and for Canadians.

At the end of the day, the question you need to ask yourself is this: Is it more beneficial for lacrosse to focus on the handful of athletes who will make the NLL and be pseudo-famous for a few years, or to focus on the rich history of the game that has the power to bring communities together and instill the positive values of teamwork and inclusion in future generations to come?

About the Author

Ross grew up in Montreal, and is a graduate of McGill University (B.Ed. Kinesiology) and the University of Ottawa (MA Sport Administration). He has spent his career in the not-for-profit, sport, and government sectors, with a focus on sport and programming for individuals of all abilities. As the General Manager and Chief Operating Officer of Abilities Centre, he brings his experience as a leader in these sectors to ensure that Abilities Centre continues to have the staff, infrastructure, and resources it needs to continue to innovate and lead the way in providing opportunities for individuals of all abilities in Durham Region and beyond.