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US Lacrosse has not been immune to the unprecedented challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the national governing body continues to work to grow and strengthen the sport for its return. The bevy of services and resources that US Lacrosse provides for the lacrosse community is only possible with strong membership numbers.

“It’s essential fuel for our nonprofit’s mission,” CEO Steve Stenersen said. “We provide a supporting national infrastructure of administration, educational resources and sport development programs, direct service grants, injury research, rule development, national teams and communication platforms.”

US Lacrosse membership accounts for nearly 70 percent of its operating budget. Membership numbers in January and February were the strongest they have been in nearly a decade as a result of a new, more personal approach deploying regional managers in communities over the past 18 months. But when the pandemic hit, those numbers fell sharply with the cancellation of spring games. US Lacrosse is trying to sustain its most important initiatives and continue to provide services to members with a reduced operating budget and staff and a projected revenue shortfall of $7-8 million.

Memberships haven’t been renewed because players aren’t playing, but US Lacrosse membership means more than a participation fee, an insurance policy or a magazine subscription.

“There’s so much more beyond participation at an individual and specific level,” said Ed Calkins, chair of the US Lacrosse board. “Those dollars go into funding an enormous number of mission-critical initiatives that are still going to happen — even in this environment, even with an impaired budget — but it’s a difference between playing defense versus playing offense.”

US Lacrosse cut 11 positions from its staff, furloughed 20 others and instituted a tiered compensation reduction plan. “Our staff is incredibly passionate about our mission and they’re the backbone,” Stenersen said. “That workforce reduction, in addition to the revenue reduction, is going to severely impact our ability to execute for the foreseeable future.”

Member dues have enabled US Lacrosse to invest $275 million in the growth of the sport since its inception in 1998.

“What we’ve been doing since the disruption from the pandemic in the first month is what we’ve always done,” said Ann Kitt Carpenetti, vice president of lacrosse operations. “We develop content and curriculum, resources primarily for coaches. We produced webinars for officials. And we started to develop content for youth players — things they can do at home. Now that we’re starting to move back onto the field in a gradual way, we’re ramping up our content that is aimed at helping coaches coach in a COVID era.”

US Lacrosse’s Lax at Home portal provided a guide for skill development and playing alternatives during the pandemic. It was one of many technology-based initiatives and new educational resources for members. “There are real opportunities for us to learn and evolve the lacrosse experience on the field for the better,” Stenersen said. “Not just because of the virus, but because it’s better to engage kids and keep them engaged in the sport for longer periods of time and to focus on their skill development in a more effective way.”

TryLax  is one of US Lacrosse’s most popular offerings. It allows kids to discover the sport before paying the full registration for a league. In most cases, they walk away with a stick and one-year US Lacrosse membership — not to mention a fun and engaging 90-minute clinic put on by US Lacrosse-trained coaches and players — for just $35. Little Rock Lacrosse in Arkansas ran a TryLax clinic in January that resulted in nearly 100 percent of participants then signing up to play this spring.

TryLax is just one part of US Lacrosse’s robust grant platform. US Lacrosse awarded 869 grants totaling $2.38 million during the 2019-20 grant cycle that ended in mid-March.

Jim Donovan’s hometown Lyndhurst (N.J.) High School received a First Stick Program grant to help start a boys’ lacrosse team. “They have gear for 25 kids, which probably saves us $11,000,” said Donovan, who is also president of the North Jersey Junior Lacrosse League. “That equipment is going to be good for three years.”

Those first-quarter grants will be the last awarded until at least 2021 unless revenues increase dramatically. U.S. national team activities are largely on hold as well.  

The US Lacrosse Sports Science and Safety Committee continues to focus on improving safety. Its latest recommendations will mandate commotio cordis chest protectors for all goalies starting in the 2021 season. The group also is following a study on the effectiveness of optional headgear for female players in Florida, part of US Lacrosse’s substantial investment in injury prevention. “We’re the only lacrosse-specific organization that dedicates funding to that purpose for lacrosse,” Carpenetti said. “It’s a significant impact.”

The committee advised US Lacrosse as it released a set of return-to-play recommendations in May, an encouraging step forward as lacrosse organizations nationwide look to get the sport back on its feet. Intermountain Lacrosse in Utah looked to US Lacrosse for guidance as they began non-contact instruction May 18, then started small-sided games the first week of June. Nearly 80 percent of the players returned. They play 7v7 games with no faceoffs or draws.

“We made a decision that we were going to do everything in our power to give kids a chance at a positive lacrosse experience,” IMLAX board vice chair Bob Caldwell said. “It may not be a full season. It may not be a full high school event. It may not be a full youth event. But it would be a positive lacrosse experience.”

IMLAX has used an app from 42Chat to screen all participants for COVID-19 symptoms. He advises other leagues to take the proper steps before restarting: Know state and local regulations, make sure there are accessible fields and an action plan for all fields to be used and communicate with your families.

“There were parents and children who were trepidatious of course,” Caldwell said. “When they saw we had a plan in place, when they saw we had technology easy to use in place and when they saw we were actually requiring people to execute the plan, it began to run smoother.”

Tournament operators also are eager to return to play. HoganLax called more than 230 teams to gauge interest and found more than 200 looking to play this summer. NXT CEO Joel Zuercher said the company’s first event at the end of June has been cleared in Indiana for now.  Those opportunities could help prevent financial ruin. “We could go six months to eight months with no revenue, no income,” said Matt Hogan, the CEO of HoganLax. “That’s going to be really, really hard.”

US Lacrosse is not alone in facing new challenges brought on by the pandemic. Membership renewals will ensure that lacrosse is on good ground when the games return.

“Lacrosse will return,” Stenersen said. “Youth sports will return. And so the importance of engaging the national lacrosse community, providing them with tangible tools to invest in their own development as players, coaches and officials in the meantime is where we’ve invested a ton and where people can see the value of our organization.”

“Everything we do,” said Mike Cather, the vice president of philanthropy and membership, “is because of them, because of their investment in our mission, because of their investment in our work. Their membership in US Lacrosse is an investment in the sport, whether they play for three years or they’re participating in the sport for a lifetime.”