Blazing New Trails
MAJOR LEAGUE TEAM IGNITES ANOTHER LEVEL OF LACROSSE
written by MICHAEL J. PALLERINO | photos courtesy of ATLANTA BLAZE; GETTY IMAGES
THE GOALIE GRABS the ball and shuttles a lightening quick outlet pass to an attacker, who snares the pass mid-air and charges through the defensive zone. The play happens so quickly, there isn’t enough time for anybody to cover him. In the blink of an eye (yeah, it happens that fast), the attacker continues his uncontested assault — full throttle forward — toward the opposing goalie, and then… BAAAM. Score.
It’s the kind of play that professional lacrosse fans say hits at the heart of their love for the game. If you’re not familiar with America’s fastest growing sport, the action is intoxicating. On the day of this play in 2013, more than 4,000 fans staked their allegiances for the Boston Cannons or the Rochester Rattlers. Surprisingly, the game wasn’t hosted in the respective Northeast homes of these two Major League Lacrosse (MLL) teams. It was, in fact, Fifth Third Bank Stadium on the campus of Kennesaw State University (KSU).
Three years ago, professional lacrosse was making its first appearance in the Atlanta area. On the heels of the sport’s meteoric rise in popularity and participation, the match between the Cannons and Rattlers on neutral ground can be credited to a handful of dedicated enthusiasts who saw the vision for a professional team here. The groups included the administrations at KSU and Fifth Third Bank Stadium, the Atlanta Sports Council, the Cobb Sports Alliance and Liam Banks, founder of LB3 Lacrosse.
Also in attendance was MLL Commissioner David Gross, who was so taken by the passion and promise of the fans in attendance that he became one of the biggest champions for bringing a professional team to town. Now, pro lacrosse in Atlanta is here to say, but before the Atlanta Blaze take the fi eld as MLL’s ninth franchise for their home opener on April 23 against the Chesapeake Bayhawks, it’s important to revisit how and why it all happened.
Rewind another six years earlier to when the lacrosse scene had a much different vibe in Atlanta. While there were pockets of enthusiasts scattered in and around the metro area, the furor that defines today’s atmosphere hadn’t quite hit yet on the professional scale.
If you love the sport the way Banks does, that just didn’t sit well. The legendary lacrosse player had spent the past 10 years on the grassroots side, building the game locally. Before starting his Atlanta-based youth educational company LB3 Lacrosse, Banks’ longtime passion for the sport is well documented. As a collegiate player, he helped lead Syracuse University to four consecutive Final Four appearances, three Finals appearances and a National Championship in 2000 (he was the game’s MVP).
On the international level, Banks played for the 1999 Under 19 USA World Team, where he led the team in scoring en route to a gold medal (he was named to the All-World team). On the professional side, he played in the MLL for five seasons on three teams, finishing in the Top 10 in scoring four out of five years (he was named Bud Light’s Game MVP on five different occasions).
With a record like that, it’s no surprise the Blaze recruited him to spearhead the organization’s day-to-day operations, which along with the others, helped Atlanta host several NCAA Division I matches and two MLL Steinfeld Cup championships (MLL’s Super Bowl, for perspective). To note, last year’s MLL championship at Fifth Bank Stadium drew 8,674 people — a Steinfeld Cup record.
All together, the six major lacrosse events hosted at KSU averaged crowds of more than 6,000 people and delivered $2 million-plus in economic impact, said Holly Bass Quinlan, CEO of Cobb Travel and Tourism. “Sports are a very big part of our community and a significant driver that brings visitors here,” Quinlan said.
NEED FOR SPEED
Ask Banks, and he will second the notion that Atlanta is an emerging hotbed for lacrosse. The lightening fast, high scoring, contact sport is a strategic blend of hockey, soccer, football and basketball.
“Lacrosse brings the action hard for 60 minutes,” said Banks, who was announced as vice president for The Blaze in January. “It’s the fastest game on two feet. There is an incredible amount of skill, IQ and physicality in the game. People who come to a Blaze game are likely to come back because it is pure entertainment. The sport is a very family friendly event that caters to parents and children every step along the way.”
Banks’ last point rests at the center of the team’s marketing and participation efforts. Today, more than 15,000 kids play lacrosse in Georgia, with Atlanta serving as the hub of activity for LAX (as the sport is known for short) players throughout the Southeast.
At a national glance, over the past five years, the sport has added 804,000 players, according to the “2015 U.S. Trends in Team Sports” study by Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA). The numbers make it the third fastest growing participation sport in the country, behind only gymnastics and ice hockey, SFIA reports.
“Between the amount of players playing, the growth rate in Georgia and the sport’s fans, we feel it is going to be a perfect fit,” Banks said. “Lacrosse is the fastest growing sport in the country and we’re helping add to that. It feels great to know we can cater to all different age groups, and provide a game and environment that is fun for people of all ages.”
Along with traditional marketing efforts such as television, radio and billboards, the Blaze is creating a “street team” consisting of players who will visit local elementary and middle schools to further introduce lacrosse to the masses. “The challenge in Year One will be to educate people on the game,” Banks said. “Lacrosse is new to some people, and all we ask is that you come out and see it one time — to see some of the best athletes in the world compete.”
YOUR LAX ADDICTION STARTS NOW
In addition to bringing in pros, the Blaze plans to foster beginning players with the Blaze Training Academy, Blaze Summer Camps, coaching clinics and tournaments. The training academies launched last month at three different locations throughout metro Atlanta — KSU, Greater Atlanta Christian School and in Peachtree City — for a six-month program.
“When kids play lacrosse, they become addicted,” Banks said. “The No. 1 comment we hear from parents is, ‘I wish this sport was around when I was a kid.’ There are more coaches being developed each year, which has been a large part of the sport’s growth. We are hoping that MLL [here] will not only help give kids exposure, but get them hooked for life, too.”
David Corson, a veteran lax player who played at The Peddie School in Hightstown, N.J., and collegiately in the early ’80s at the University of Denver (last year’s national championship winner), said that many young spring athletes are moving away from baseball and softball, and into the fast-pace stride that lacrosse offers.
For some perspective on the state’s lacrosse scene, US Lacrosse, the sport’s governing body for youth and high school lacrosse, encompasses 68 local chapters covering 45 states. Georgia is No. 11 in terms of size and active members.
“Every major high school or private school in the Atlanta area has lacrosse teams, and it is getting harder to make a team every season,” said Corson, who along with serving as head coach of the North Gwinnett High School Boys Lacrosse Club Team is a board member of both the North Georgia Lacrosse and Old Guy Lacrosse leagues, the latter group proving how passion for the sport extends beyond players’ school years. “Getting kids to start young is so important. They will play together as they grow. Repetition breeds excellence.” That repetition —in both participation and fandom — is what the Blaze is hoping to help deliver to Atlanta, and why the team’s majority owner, builder and developer Peter Trematerra, sought to bring a team here three years ago. “It all came together when the MLL Championships showed there was a demand,” Banks said. “Since our announcement [last August], the team has exploded and we are beyond ecstatic to be part of this amazing experience.”
Season tickets for the inaugural season are currently on sale, as well as tickets to the home opener.Call 855-44-BLAZE or visit atlantablaze.com/game-schedule to purchase.