Lacrosse another sign of London's sports marketing

RYAN PYETTE -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 7:17 AM ET

It'll be three weeks or more before the local committee that put on the just-completed world field lacrosse championships in London finds out if its big show produced a profit or loss or broke even.

Until then, head organizer and event catalyst Tim Hobbs is happily settling for a hug from Canadian lacrosse legend Gary Gait.

"After Canada won (the worlds 15-10 over the United States on Saturday at TD Waterhouse Stadium), everyone was running around on the field and Gary came over and hugged me," Hobbs said yesterday. "He said thank you four times and I could see there were tears in his eyes.

"I had idolized him for years, but I got to know him as a friend through this process and world champion was the one thing he didn't have on his resume. I was happy he was finally able, at age 39, to get it done on home soil."

The title of world champion gives Gait, the team captain, better bargaining power with the federal government, which provided no funding for the lacrosse worlds. As part of the pre-tournament agreement, the London organizing committee funded Team Canada -- adding a deeper level to Gait's appreciation of Hobbs and company.

The on-field story was dramatic with Gait's four fourth-quarter goals sealing a Canadian win in a historic upset over the United States lacrosse machine in a nationally televised tilt on CBC.

It's the kind of storybook stuff that temporarily drowns out complaints about ticket pricing, extreme weather and snafus that plague every higher-octane event.

There were questions beforehand whether London -- a newbie to field lacrosse, although geographically close to the lacrosse-crazy northeastern United States -- was an appropriate spot for a celebration of this growing sport.

In the end, the event served as a fine introduction to a quality game -- previously lost onlookers could now discuss the merits of the long pole versus the short stick -- but genuine fans will have to travel to see a similar calibre of play again.

"I think there's a slim chance it would come back to London, probably not in the next 50 years," Hobbs said.

"This was, to date, the largest lacrosse event in history, but there are expected to be 30 (international) teams in 2010 at Manchester, England. We know Japan is interested in holding this and with it being played every four years, we shouldn't expect to see it back for some time."

Hobbs is satisfied with the announced attendance and tickets sold for the event, which was run on a shoestring budget.

He enjoyed the number of stories he heard from Londoners who interacted with players and teams and knows good money was spent here in bars and restaurants during the event.

There are mathematical formulas out there that try to calculate the financial impact of a sports event on a community. But really, how do you accurately measure out-of-towners spending five bucks at a Mac's, buying a brew at the Ceeps or eating steak dinners at the Keg?

You can gauge the electricity generated in the community, which improved as the week went on but never approached Memorial Cup levels. (Every national or international event here gets measured against the Memorial Cup).

"First and foremost, this is a junior hockey town, so hockey events will generate more of a buzz. Everyone knows the Knights because they have a long history here," said Tourism London's sport manager Paul Hardy.

"But the lacrosse, which is our national summer sport but not one everyone knows a lot about, was shown on national TV and it went into the U.S. When other sport federations look around for where to hold their events, we hope they'll remember the images of London they saw from the lacrosse and be interested in coming here."

The city is showing no signs of slowing down in its approach to sports tourism opportunities.

The next biggie is the CN Canadian Women's Open -- an LPGA Tour stop -- in a couple of weeks at the London Hunt and Country Club.

In 2007, the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge and world synchronized skating championships hit the John Labatt Centre.

Hockey, skating and curling -- especially after this year's Scott Tournament of Hearts -- always draw interest and will continue to be pursued.

"We just had a debrief with (Hearts organizer) Peter Inch and we asked, 'What's next?' " Hardy said. "We'd love to have another curling event and maybe go for something with the men, like an Olympic trial, or if it's there, a Brier."

The University of Western Ontario, through its dormitories, facilities and teams, played a big role in the lacrosse worlds and the school continues to be a part of many championships that roll into the city. This fall, the Canadian university women's rugby championship will be at the St. George's Society fields.

Earlier this summer, the national paralympic track and field championships were held as part of the Ontario Paralympic Games. And the provincial summer and winter games, held here in 2004, had roots in the Canada Summer Games held in London five years ago.

The general idea floating around now is London is ready to hold a multi-sport event like the World University Games or something approaching the sphere of a Pan Am Games or Commonwealth Games.

There have been studies suggesting there are 200,000 sports events occurring annually in Canada, with sport travel and spending valued at $1.3 billion. With its willingness, facilities and maturing volunteer base, London should be able to retain its share of that market.

Of course, continued interest depends on the ability to draw a high-profile jewel once in a while -- like another big golf tourney or an international hockey extravaganza.

The intriguing return of Sidney Crosby to the JLC for a Pittsburgh-Philadelphia NHL exhibition game this fall should tide folks over for a while, but every now and then, London will have to amp up the wattage to grab some attention.

After all, it's all part of a plan that London becomes an athletic destination -- not the place people stop to buy gas on their way to Toronto and Detroit.


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