By 2025, the United States will field an estimated 2.6 million lacrosse players. The sport, as ancient as any on North American soil, has changed dramatically from its Native American origins but retains a focus on endurance and speed. It's the fastest growing team game, on the precipice of a major surge in public interest.
This week in Beaverton, OR, Nike hosted the finest young lacrosse athletes in the country. The inaugural event, titled The Ride, follows the brand's influential The Opening—a showcase of the nation's top high school football prospects that has become the premier camp in terms of college football recruit rankings. With The Ride, Nike establishes a new focus on lacrosse athlete training and, like in football, grounds the sport with a comprehensive training regime that ranks athleticism.
"With American football, the SPARQ rating is huge," said Matt James, SPARQ Performance Head Coach. "We had one in men's lacrosse, still do, and were able to test the guys in four core skills—the 20 yard dash, the 30 yard—5, 5, 10—stick shuffle, vertical jump (for height to explosive power), and rotational power ball throw (for shot on goal power)."
The four tests, measured together, give the athlete's their SPARQ rating. It's an assessment that makes sense of performance and helps individuals become better athletes. Following the SPARQ test, James and his team led the athlete's through a series of drills designed to improve quickness and explosive strength. Athletes, of course, function through movement. Those that move better, play better.
"The more we can get this type of training into the game of the lacrosse and build better athletes," said James, "that will build better lacrosse players. If you start at a young age, that is going to be huge for the sport and carry it to a whole other level."
Alongside James, professional lacrosse players Kyle Harrison, Jeremy Thompson, and Matt Seibald were on hand to merge athletic and skills training. "At this experience, it's the top talent," said Seibald, reflecting on the different between The Ride and the camps he runs throughout the nation. "So, you are able to give a more college-like experience with the pace of practice and the knowledge we're giving."
After intense training on day one, The Ride shifted to game play on day two. Using SPARQ results, the athlete's on both boys and girls side were broken into teams—Huarache and Vapor—to showcase their talents on Nike's Ronaldo Field. In front of a large audience of Portland-area youth players, Team Huarache won by a tally of 13-11. Local player John Duffy, of Lincoln, OR, impressed, proving that the spread of lacrosse to the West is already contributing to a spread of top flight talent.
"It's exploding," said Seibald, a member of Cornell's 2009 NCAA Championship team, on the growth of the sport. "When I started 20 years ago, lacrosse was pretty much an East Coast sport. I've now done camps in Nebraska, nobody ever thought the game would become popular there. You're seeing an explosion of interest because there are some MLL and Division 1 teams out West, but there is also just a ton of opportunity from California through Texas and Florida. Kids are now traveling and playing year round. It's a lifestyle. You are not just showing up to play, you are buying into it and living the lacrosse life."
Authenticity is key. And, if you are confused by Nike's seemingly sudden interest in the sport, don't be—the brand has slowly built a strong lineup of hardwoods, including pads and shafts to complement the cleats that have been standard in the game for years. At an international level, Nike has sponsored the Iroquois Nationals since 2006. And, at this year's NCAA Final Four, three of the competing schools wore swoosh-branded uniforms.
"I hope it continues," said Seibald on the future of The Ride, "It is an awesome opportunity, again, to stay true to the game and stay focused on teaching it the right way and spreading what we believe in—speed."
Nick Schonberger is a graduate of the Winterthur Program in Early American Culture at the University of Delaware.