Known as the "fastest sport on two feet," lacrosse combines the rapid pace of basketball, the jarring hits of football, the intricate teamwork of soccer and the stick skills of ice hockey. Until recently, however, lacrosse was considered the ultimate niche game: The North American indigenous sport was practiced almost exclusively at prep academies and colleges along the Eastern seaboard.


But "lax," as its devotees like to call it, is starting to break out nationally and coming to L.A.


Major League Lacrosse, the five-year-old professional outdoors league founded by Jake Steinfeld, the Brentwood entrepreneur who created the "Body by Jake" fitness brand, is expanding to 10 teams for the 2006 season.


Franchises are slated for Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, and Chicago, with the L.A. Riptide scheduled to play its inaugural home game June 3 at the Home Depot Center in Carson.


"It's the next big thing right now," said Gary Greenbaum, Pacific Coast Lacrosse Association president.


The Riptide is the latest acquisition by sports-entertainment powerhouse Anschutz Entertainment Group, which also owns the Kings, the Galaxy, one-third of the Lakers, the Staples Center and Home Depot Center. Privately-held AEG reportedly paid $1 million for the right to own and operate the Riptide.


Steinfeld said that it was worth waiting "a few years" to be able to team up with AEG. "You gotta be with the big dogs, and AEG is the pre-eminent sports operator in the L.A. market. So we become important by association," he said.


AEG has embraced second-tier sports (including track and field, cycling, and rugby), but introducing an unknown, untested sport such as lacrosse into Southern California's crowded pro sports marketplace presents a different sort of marketing dilemma. One attempt has already failed: the National Lacrosse League's Anaheim Storm, an indoor team that played at the Pond of Anaheim, folded after the 2004-05 season.


"The challenge is exposure," said David Simon, president of the L.A. Sports Council. "After the initial flurry of publicity for a new league and a new team, it's about reaching people who might not know anything about lacrosse."


Emerging sport
Still, it seems there's little doubt that lacrosse is an up-and-coming sport.


Sports Illustrated recently identified lacrosse as the "fastest-growing game in the U.S. at every level." And in 2006, the California Interscholastic Federation, the state's governing body of high school sports, sanctioned varsity lacrosse for boys and girls in southern California.


As for AEG, it views lacrosse as an "emerging sport" that will "complement our programming slate at the Home Depot Center," said AEG Sports president Shawn Hunter, who added that AEG and the Riptide will conduct a "grassroots marketing campaign" including player appearances at clinics and advertising.


"Our goal this year is to build a team that will make the final four," Hunter said. "Off the field, if we can build a strong fan base and see our attendance grow from game to game, that would make a positive statement. We don't think we'll be profitable this year, but we'll be close."


Hunter believes the Riptide will thrive if AEG can tap into lacrosse's growing popularity among youth. Major League Lacrosse has mined that angle successfully in signing sponsorship deals with companies such as Starbucks, Gatorade, Bud Light, and Tommy Hilfiger.


"That challenge is our opportunity," he said. "We're starting with the kids that are already playing, and we hope they'll introduce the sport to their parents. When people see lacrosse in person, they see that it's an enticing, exciting game."


For the Riptide's six home games, single-game tickets are priced from $18-$35, with season-ticket packages ranging from $100-$370. Home Depot Center will also host the league's championship weekend, involving the semifinal and final matches, Aug. 25-27.


Hunter estimates that the Riptide will sell "between 1,250 and 1,500" season-ticket packages a figure he calls "very respectable" for the franchise's rookie year. Hosting the final four, he added, "will give us a lot of momentum with ticket sales and will showcase the Home Depot Center and our commitment to lacrosse on national television."


Last year, average attendance at league games was about 4,200. Steinfeld hopes that its expansion west will help boost that figure to 5,000 per contest in 2006. "I think that would be gangbusters for us," he said. "Our business plan has always called for 5,000 fans. We've never walked in and said, 'We can do 22,000 fans.'"


Recently, lacrosse received national publicity, but for the wrong reason: the alleged rape at Duke University involving members of the school's top-ranked team. Hunter downplays any connection to the league. "We're doing our best not to let that incident distract us," he said. "We're staying focused on the opportunity we have here."

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