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The small-stars game

Lacrosse is growing gradually -- but how far can it go?

Any major league perceptions about Major League Lacrosse evaporate as soon as you walk into its headquarters, a small first-floor office in Brighton, next to the Mass. Pike.

A few 20-somethings glide through cubicles and stacks of cardboard boxes filled with T-shirts and helmets. The main boardroom is a long wooden table stationed next to the front door, where league commissioner David Gross is eating his lunch.

It is just the way Gross likes it.

MLL, which hosts its All-Star Game tomorrow at 12:30 p.m. at Harvard Stadium, doesn't pretend to compete with the major North American sports leagues, with their Manhattan addresses and sold-out stadiums. In its seventh year of existence, MLL has yet to turn a profit, and is committed to a strategy of controlled growth.

"We never came out and said, 'We're going to be the fifth major [sport],' because that's unrealistic," Gross said. "Right now we think we've got major potential, and over time it's going to be big."

Lacrosse has exploded in popularity across the country in terms of participation, and has its sights set on a more lucrative goal: becoming a big-time spectator sport.

In the Boston area, the next year will be a crucial test of that strategy. Starting with the All-Star Game, continuing with the launch of a professional indoor lacrosse franchise at TD Banknorth Garden in January, and culminating in May with the NCAA men's championships at Gillette Stadium, New England will be given the opportunity to embrace lacrosse as a part of the crowded sporting landscape -- or ignore it.

Though the Baltimore-Washington area traditionally has been the mecca of lacrosse, participation levels in New England rival those farther south. With more than 23,000 members, including 19,578 at the youth level, Eastern Massachusetts is the largest of the country's 58 chapters, according to US Lacrosse, the sport's national governing body.

Lacrosse appeals to young athletes, but it remains unclear whether the sport will be able to make the jump from America's backyards to its living rooms.

Growing pains
MLL's Brighton location can be explained simply. The league office, with its six full-time employees, occupies the same building as the headquarters of New Balance, the athletic footwear company that owns 41 percent of the league.

"You can argue that Massachusetts is the hub of lacrosse business," Gross said. "New Balance is here, heavily involved in the sport. Brine Lacrosse [an equipment manufacturer] is out in Milford. The [MLL] league office is here. There's quite a bit of lacrosse going on in this area. It's a great place to be and to run this business."

Gross has run the 10-team league since December 2003, after serving as general manager of the Boston Cannons since the league's inception in 2001. Under his stewardship, MLL has maintained a strategy of slow, steady growth, but has yet to turn a profit.

"Some say we're not growing quick enough," Gross said. "[But] we don't want to be at 20 teams overnight. We can't support that right now."

Gross plans to expand the league in 2008 -- saying he is close to a deal in Dallas -- but is wary of growing too rapidly.

"If we signed every expansion team someone wanted, we'd have one in all 50 states," Gross said. "We had someone from Alaska last week that wanted a team, and we were like, 'Um, where are you going to play?' "

The Cannons, who play at Harvard Stadium, are the league's second-biggest draw, at 9,032 fans per game this season. The league averages 4,889 fans.

Gross was quick to point out that though league attendance is low, the pro sports leagues that debuted with MLL -- the WUSA, a women's soccer league, and Vince McMahon's spring football venture, the XFL -- have folded.

"Look at the cash that they went through," Gross said.

"Too often, leagues feel these outside forces to do things they don't want to do. What do teams do when they're in bad financial health? They expand like crazy because of the influx of money. Well, we don't need that influx of money. We run a very tight ship with this."

Fun indoors
Founded in 1987 as the four-team Eagle Pro Box Lacrosse League, the National Lacrosse League plays indoors during the winter. The expansion team at TD Banknorth Garden -- fans can submit names for the team at -- will mark the league's second stint in Boston.

The Boston Blazers, who spent their first three seasons in the Worcester Centrum, played in the Major Indoor Lacrosse League from 1989 until 1997, when tensions between players and ownership resulted in a one-year suspension of play. The team never reformed.

Now, with the growth of the sport in New England, NLL commissioner Jim Jennings decided the time was right for a return. He teamed with owner Tim Armstrong, president of advertising and commerce for Google, and announced the new franchise in May.

"There's definitely a lot more lacrosse going on in Boston and New England than in the '90s," Jennings said. "It was definitely a factor."

In 2007, the NLL fielded 13 teams in the United States and Canada and drew much larger crowds, on average, than any other lacrosse league -- more than 10,000 per game.

But the league attracts a crowd outside the mainstream lacrosse community, as 80 percent of its fans have their first experience with the sport at an NLL game.

"Where our marketing dollars are spent is because we go after the casual sports fan, those people that are NFL fans, people that just want to go to the arena for $20 and sit in a great seat," Jennings said.

College education
The NCAA men's championship, the sport's marquee event, has no problem attracting fans.

In 2003, the championship weekend moved to NFL stadiums to accommodate crowds, and has produced record attendance each year since, rotating between Baltimore and Philadelphia. In May, at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, the final between Johns Hopkins and Duke drew 48,443 fans.

Although there are only 56 Division 1 men's lacrosse programs in the country -- with just two located west of St. Louis -- the men's lacrosse championship has established itself as the second-biggest NCAA championship draw behind men's basketball (Division 1-A football does not have an NCAA-sanctioned championship).

Phil Buttafuoco, championship director for Gillette Stadium, said even though the May event will be the first time the championship has been held in New England since 1976, the momentum should continue.

"It's become a national event, and we believe that the national audience will come to New England, and we will be able to support them with the attendance from the six surrounding states," said Buttafuoco, who already has received ticket orders from Arizona and California.

"I think we will rival the numbers that have been posted in Philadelphia and Baltimore."

Seeing (on TV) is believing
A strong presence at the gate is a good start, but the real windfall for any spectator sport comes from television. The NFL will make $8 billion over the six-year term of its deal with NBC and CBS that began in 2006.

The two professional lacrosse leagues don't have that kind of clout -- nor does any other league -- but the leagues have ramped up their national TV presence in the hopes of further building their audience.

The NLL signed a television deal with Versus and is negotiating a contract for 2008. In 2007, the league had a consistent presence on Saturday nights -- though the games were tape-delayed, about two hours in most cases, and were occasionally bumped around on the schedule.

The league wouldn't disclose the financial terms of the deal, but said it made money. NLL games averaged a 0.1 Nielsen rating -- the National Hockey League averaged a 0.2 on the same network -- roughly 115,000 households.

"Considering that our games were on at different times each week and always on tape delay, we were OK with our results in our first-ever season of being on national TV for 16 weeks, with a championship game two weeks after that," Doug Fritts, the NLL's vice president of communications, wrote in an e-mail.

MLL struck up a 10-year deal with ESPN before the 2007 season, ensuring increased exposure and promotion on all the network's platforms.

Until this year, ESPN2 had shown MLL Tuesday afternoons on tape delay. This year, five of the 11 telecasts -- including tomorrow's All-Star Game -- are live, and all are shown in high definition.

But MLL averaged a 0.1 rating in the first three broadcasts -- though only one was live -- this year, a slight increase from 2006 that league officials expect to improve with more live broadcasts.

Lacrosse still has a long way to go at the gate and on TV before it can contend for ratings and earnings, but the sport's proponents hope its excitement will bring it into the mainstream.

"The game itself is nonstop, back and forth, with every component American fans love -- fast-paced, hard-hitting, lots of scoring, action-packed," said Gross.

"I almost feel bad for people who haven't had the chance to experience it because they don't know what they're missing.

"And it's going to take time to educate people and get people to see it."

Until then, an office in Brighton -- instead of Manhattan -- will have to do.

(Correction: Because of a reporting error, a story in Saturday's Sports section about the popularity of lacrosse gave an incorrect date for the last NCAA Lacrosse Championship played in New England. The championships were last played in New England in 1985.)