Ramsey: U.S. lacrosse star sees brighter days ahead

July 18, 2014 Updated: July 18, 2014 at 9:52 pm
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Paul Rabil, arguably the best lacrosse player in the world, says the sport boasts the "physicality component" found in football, the "high scoring" thrills offered by basketball and the chess-like strategy of soccer. Photo by The Associated Press.

COMMERCE CITY - Paul Rabil, the world's best lacrosse player, was smiling as he described his favorite sport.

"It's brilliant," he said. "It's a combination of a lot of skill sets that you see in a lot of other sports."

Lacrosse, he said, boasts the "physicality component" found in football, the "high scoring" thrills offered by basketball and the chess-like strategy of soccer.

A million school-age Americans currently play the sport, which is safer than football and faster than baseball. And, yes, lacrosse produces many more goals than soccer.

The ingredients are there for mass popularity.

Why, then, had Rabil been surrounded by empty seats as he competed alongside his American teammates in the semis of the World Lacrosse Championships? Rabil and the United States will play Canada at 7 p.m. Saturday in the title game.

Lacrosse is a tough sell in the television age.

Here's the main reason why:

The ball is hard to find on a TV screen.

Major League Lacrosse has struggled with the hard-to-see ball challenge. The MLL has tried an orange ball instead of the traditional white ball. On Sunday, the Denver Outlaws will use a neon green ball in an effort to aid spectators.

Hockey struggles with a similar problem. The puck is difficult - and sometimes close to impossible - to see while a mass of big men struggle in front of the net.

But hockey is played in a small space, allowing cameras to zoom close to the action. Lacrosse is played in a space roughly the same size as a soccer field. This requires TV cameras to show a large area, and the ball often gets lost.

While walking through Dick's Sporting Goods Park, it's easy to see lacrosse's progress on the world stage. Players from Argentina and Poland and Costa Rica and Israel and New Zealand were wearing the colors of their country while mingling with fans.

The sport has multiplied its competitors, but the sport is stalling as it seeks to multiply its spectators. The Outlaws averaged 10,933 fans this season at Mile High, which includes a big crowd at the team's annual July 4 game/fireworks party. When the July 4 extravaganza is removed, the Outlaws averaged 7,176.

Attacker Brendan Mundorf will play for the U.S. in Saturday's final. He also plays for the MLL's Chesapeake Bayhawks.

He expects his sport to gain a throng of more American converts. He does not expect this throng to arrive soon.

"I think it's going to come with time," he said. "It's not going to happen overnight. It's just a slow process."

Lacrosse, as Rabil said, has all the elements needed for success, and there's a tidal wave of young players who might someday sit in their easy chairs watching TV games.

For decades, the majority of Americans found soccer an unwelcome invader to our shores. On July 12, 26.5 million Americans watched the World Cup final. Soccer conquered The Land of the Free. Lacrosse could someday do the same conquering.

Rabil, lacrosse's man of the moment, is hard to miss once he removes his helmet. He wears his hair in a free-flowing style that would have seemed outrageous at a London punk club in 1977, but he always makes sure his barber uses a razor to place a star and stripes in the middle of the mess.

This proud American wasn't discouraged by the empty seats that greeted him before Thursday's semis.

He believes in his sport.

"It's brilliant," he said again.

He's right.

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