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June 3, 2013

Lacrosse Analysis: Johns Hopkins to the Big Ten

When The Big Ten Conference formally announced Maryland and Rutgers as future members of the league Nov. 19, most of the discussion revolved around football. That's the expectation for a collection of schools with exceptional history in that sport (and the iffy resumes of the two new programs).

The change was far more exciting from the lacrosse perspective. On the women's side, the Terps and Scarlet Knights (Dames?) were teams five and six - giving the Big Ten enough teams to start a lacrosse conference, per its own bylaws and the NCAA's guidelines for automatic bids. On the men's side, things were still a team short. Since Northwestern competes only in women's lacrosse, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, the Terps and Scarlet knights were looking for a sixth.

This afternoon, conference commissioner Jim Delany hit it out of the park. If your league could Alabama's football program, or Kansas' basketball program, or Minnesota's hockey program, you're making the best addition possible.

In lacrosse, that team is Johns Hopkins. The Blue Jays have 44 national titles, the most of any school (by far: Syracuse is No. 2 with 15 titles). Most big-time schools spend their athletics budgets in an arms race for football facilities. JHU opts to use its capital on lacrosse facilities.

"The Big Ten is the premier conference in college sports," said Michigan coach John Paul. "As the oldest conference in Division 1 sports, there is so much tradition and pride. It has always stood for academic and athletic excellence. If we are going to add an affiliate member, what better choice is there than Johns Hopkins lacrosse? Hopkins is one of the preeminent academic institutions in the world, and the Blue Jays are intertwined with the history of our sport. I'm proud of the Big Ten for making this historic decision."

By any measure, this is a major coup for #B1GLAX from a competitive and traditional standpoint.

The one area in which the Big Ten doesn't win out in the deal is on television. Johns Hopkins has a long-term deal with ESPN, in which the Blue Jays' home games are broadcast on the ESPN family of networks. That means the Big Ten - which owns a dedicated television network - will not receive the rights to the most lucrative television properties in the new league.

"In the end, Tom Calder and Dave Pietramala recommended that Johns Hopkins join the Big Ten for several reasons, including… the conference's understanding and encouragement of our desire to maintain our agreement with ESPNU for national telecasts of all games from Homewood Field," said Johns Hopkins president Ronald J. Daniels.

The Big Ten Network, of course, has been hesitant to cover lacrosse in any significant way. While Michigan and Ohio State have both had game televised on the network - in tandem with spring football games - regular coverage has been extremely limited.

On the other hand, adding two of the country's most historic lacrosse programs in Johns Hopkins and Maryland makes for a much better TV product. Expect nearly all of the Terps' home game and conference games to air on BTN, and the Blue Jays' away conference games.

As things stand today, Michigan is one of the worst lacrosse teams in the country. The Wolverines have won a single game in each of the past two years, and while they've looked close to pulling off other upsets, they've just as often been blown out.

That's not the future of the Wolverines' program, of course. U-M is still operating from a talent deficit, with just one varsity recruiting class under the coaches' belts, and a roster that has been mostly comprised of club players. Paul and his assistants are adding highly ranked recruits, and it's only a matter of time before the Wolverines are operating a high-level program.

The level of competition has taken a step up. U-M was already in a conference - the ECAC - with Ohio State, and that league is about to get much weaker after losing 2012 national champion Loyola to the Patriot League and 2013 Final Four participant Denver to the Big East. Now, Michigan's conference slate will replace Hobart, Fairfield, Bellarmine, and Air Force with Hopkins, Penn State (whom the Wolverines were already playing outside the conference), Maryland, and Rutgers.

The road isn't getting any easier for Michigan.

In the more distant future, the existence of a Big Ten lacrosse league could help spur further growth of the sport in the Midwest. Michigan State discontinued a varsity program in 1995, and none of the other eight Big Ten schools have ever fielded men's varsity lacrosse. With a natural landing place, could the Spartans or any other athletic department in the Big Ten be convinced to make the jump?

"With three of our members coming from East Coast expansion, I don't know that this move says much about the westward growth of the sport. But I'm very hopeful that it helps influence other Big Ten athletic departments toward taking a hard look at varsity lacrosse."

While that may be in the distant future, it's looking far more realistic with #B1GLAX on the table.


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