Lacrosse Has Untapped Potential as TV Sport, ESPN Producer Says


ESPN now has a SkyCam and robotic camera inside the goal to offer better perspectives of the game.

It was Friday of NCAA championship weekend, and four teams were preparing to compete in the women’s final four at Gillette Stadium. Lacrosse fans on social media griped that the game should have aired on ESPN2, where the NCAA softball tournament was on, instead of the online streaming platform ESPN3.

How can lacrosse gain appeal without being showcased to the rest of the country? What better time to have women’s lacrosse appear on ESPN than during championship weekend?

The problem, however, is that for as much as lacrosse fans would devour the sport on television, it does not carry the ratings to compare to softball — or many other college sports for that matter.

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The women’s lacrosse championship game between Maryland and Boston College drew 88,000 viewers on TV and streaming. The average NCAA softball tournament game averaged 458,000 viewers, according to Awful Announcing. Viewership even for the men’s lacrosse semifinals and final had an average (260,000) below that of softball. It’s a discrepancy that offers a glimpse at why lacrosse does not show on major networks as often as other sports.

But John Vassallo, a senior coordinating producer for ESPN, argues that we shouldn’t view the sport’s ratings with the same lens.

“The lacrosse championship is not rating on par with major college football, the finals of the men’s College World Series, the Women’s College World Series,” said Vassallo, who has worked on ESPN’s championship weekend broadcasts since 2001. “But commensurate with its evolution as a sport, it’s right there.”

Vassallo said he doesn’t like to compare lacrosse to football or baseball in terms of the television experience because the sport is still developing — on both the collegiate and professional levels. Even he admitted his crew is still trying to figure out how to best display the game on ESPN platforms.

Although he’s seen lacrosse grow tremendously in the past 15 years, both on the field and on television, there are pitfalls producers have to work through.

“If you were asking me if the sport was involved and arrived, I’d love to say yes,” Vassallo said. “But I’d never say we’ve arrived, because I’m always thinking about what can make it more telegenic. … Unless your cameras are low and intimate, the ball can look like a Tic Tac. I still think it faces some challenges that ice hockey faces. The senior American sports have gotten the template down and it works. I still think lacrosse is in its infancy in terms of where we are with it.”

Vassallo has seen the numbers of cameras used at championship weekend grew from six in 2001 to 12 this season. ESPN now has a SkyCam and robotic camera inside the goal to offer better perspectives of the game.

Vassallo also said the sport could benefit from having a specific night of the week dedicated to primetime viewing. How does Wednesday night lacrosse sound?

The market for lacrosse will continue to grow, and the MLL could play a big role in that process. “A more popular and growing professional product will help bring college along in its wake, like vice versa has been done,” Vassallo said.

Lacrosse might not be a great TV sport yet, but Vassallo said he believes it will be as it continues to grow.

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