Why you should care

Because lacrosse hasn’t had its breakthrough moment … yet.

Against The Spread: This OZY Series Probes Sports Gambling's Future. Against The Spread: This OZY Series Probes Sports Gambling's Future.

Memorial Day weekend means a celebration of country, a welcoming of summer, burgers on the grill, corn on the cob, pool openings and sandy toes. For my family, it also means sports on the patio television and a few friendly wagers.

A baseball lifer, I escaped the sticky tentacles of a sport that’s drawing talent away from America’s pastime, but my brothers weren’t so blessed. (They swear I’ve got this backward.) By fourth grade, they had ditched the diamond for the fast-paced allure of lacrosse. A bat, ball and lessons of endless failure could not beat the attraction of cool pinnies and long helmet hair called “lettuce.” Thus, our clan’s Memorial Day weekend also means gathering to watch the NCAA men’s lacrosse Final Four. I’ve come to enjoy it, and I’ve also noticed that only lacrosse players seem to truly understand the sport. It’s easy enough to decipher, but there’s a barrier to entry that requires education.

For sports bettors, that barrier equals opportunity.

The recent wave of sports betting legalization spreading across the United States presents a tangible opportunity for informed fans, particularly when it comes to niche sports like lacrosse, to put their knowledge to use. And gambling offers an opportunity for a sport that has yet to make the leap into a big spectator draw.

Momentum swings are where good gamblers can find an edge. Lacrosse definitely has more of that than soccer or baseball.

Peter Jennings, professional handicapper

For now, sports books typically offer lines only for special occasions in lacrosse — during the NCAA tournament and Major League Lacrosse games, for example — but that could change as the game and legalization take hold in new regions of America.

“It’s never a smart [sports betting] strategy to operate where most of the public is betting,” says WagerTalk betting analyst Kelly Stewart. “The key to successful sports betting is finding information that you believe in and exploiting the margins. If you know something that most people don’t, that’s an opportunity.”

A year after last May’s landmark Supreme Court decision to strike down a quarter-century-old law banning sports betting in states outside Nevada, eight states are fully operational — including New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware, where lacrosse is a schoolyard favorite — and more are expected to follow. Offshore sports book Bovada first began taking bets on the sport in April 2015, in the lead-up to the NCAA lacrosse tournament. But beyond mid-to-late May, it’s difficult to find lacrosse lines at most reputable sports books. And when the rare line does appear, most books place maximum limits of a few hundred dollars on the games. “If you’re betting on lacrosse, Vegas assumes you know something,” explains Stewart. “It’s too niche for most books to take on risk.” 

 

For the fastest-growing high school sport, lacrosse’s collegiate presence — up from 30 NCAA men’s programs in 2001 to 72 now — is key for expansion into middle America. Lacrosse also offers high school athletes the highest probability (12.6 percent) of competing in college of any men’s sport, a good reason for more youth athletes to become players — and future adult fans.

Because lacrosse has gained steam only recently and remains most popular among well-off White people, its demographics align well with active sports gamblers. According to a 2018 Nielsen Sports study commissioned by the American Gaming Association, 44 percent of sports bettors are under the age of 35 (compared to 31 percent of the general population), and 29 percent of bettors have household incomes of $100,000 or more, nearly double the national average.

Strategically, lacrosse is a handicapper’s dream. Scoring typically reaches the low-to-mid teens per side, making over-under totals unpredictable. More important, games feature loads of lead changes. “One of the most appealing aspects of football and basketball is the ability to make in-game bets,” says professional handicapper Peter Jennings. “Momentum swings are where good gamblers can find an edge. Lacrosse definitely has more of that than soccer or baseball.”

ESPN analyst Chris Cotter compares lacrosse to basketball: “It’s a game of runs, and it really comes down to which team has the ball last.” That makes for tense finishes and could create opportunities for bettors who know, for example, that a particular goalie often falters in crunch time.

Of course, as anyone who went to college on the East Coast can attest, lax bros have long insisted to anyone within earshot that theirs is the next big sport. Lacrosse is undoubtedly growing, but that rate of growth has slowed this decade. Television networks like ESPN, which airs the NCAA tournament every year, are invested, but you have to squint to follow the ball on TV — the same challenge that hurts hockey at times.

It shows in the ratings: In 2017, the men’s NCAA semifinal and championship games averaged 260,000 TV and streaming viewers, while the women’s NCAA championship game drew just 88,000. Compare that to 458,000 viewers for the 2017 NCAA women’s softball tournament game. “Familiarity is a huge key to drawing a television audience,” says Cotter. “As the sport grows, hopefully those games do bigger numbers.”

This Memorial Day weekend, if you’re in a state where such activities are legal, ask a guy who has good lettuce and wears a pinny to the beach for his advice. He’ll rightly tell you that lacrosse is on the rise. But, for now, the action is still good.  

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