ESPN Attacks on Lax

ESPN is blowing up  its college lacrosse coverage, with plans to carry 40 regular-season men’s NCAA Division I games as well as all 15 postseason contests. As part of ESPN’s expanded commitment to the sport, Bristol has inked New Balance’s Warrior Lacrosse brand as the exclusive sporting goods sponsor of its 2010 lax schedule.

Per terms of the deal, Warrior Lacrosse will receive full integration in 25 regular season ESPNU telecasts and the entire run of tourney games. The manufacturer of athletic apparel and footwear is also the title sponsor of the inaugural late-season ESPNU Warrior Classic Invitational, a doubleheader set for Saturday, April 24.

Warrior president Dave Morrow said the company “jumped at the opportunity” to team up with ESPNU, noting that the net’s lax coverage “is making the sport accessible to more players and fans than ever.”

This year’s schedule has been beefed up 33 percent from the 30 regular season lacrosse games ESPNU carried during the 2009 campaign. The network also will produce four additional high-def telecasts, bringing its total HD load to 16 contests.

Sean Bratches, evp of sales and marketing, ESPN, said the company’s bet on lacrosse is a function of the sport’s burgeoning popularity with younger audiences. “When we look to the future, when we look at areas that offer growth opportunities, we see lacrosse,” Bratches said. “The sport has started injecting itself into the DNA of our corporate culture.”

There’s probably no ESPN exec better suited for the task of helping lacrosse find a wider audience. In 2008, Bratches was inducted into the RIT Athletics Hall of Fame, in recognition of his prowess as a midfielder for the Div. III school’s lacrosse team.

Bratches said the growth of lacrosse on the high school level makes a convincing argument for expanding ESPNU’s NCAA coverage. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, participation in high school lacrosse has doubled in the last decade, as 153,525 students were active in JV and varsity programs during the 2008-09 academic year. In 2000-01, there were just 74,225 players on high school lax rosters.

As more young people pick up the stick, ratings for the 18-34 demo are on the rise. ESPN’s coverage of the 2009 Syracuse-Cornell National Championship notched 106,166 household impressions among 18-34s, a 30 percent lift over the ’08 title game.

“Lacrosse has been a real catalyst for ESPNU,” said Bratches, noting that the net now reaches 68.2 million homes. “We’re going to continue to focus on ways to embrace the sport, so we can grow through it and it can grow through us.”