In order for a sport to really take off in the United States, there has to be interest from across the country. Field lacrosse isn't a sport that has reached that kind of status yet but while much of the Midwest and Western regions of the country may not give the sport much attention, field lacrosse is alive and well in the East. The sport can be played in both high school and college as well as professionally.
Major League Lacrosse (MLL) was founded in 1999 and kicked off its inaugural season in 2001. It's important to note that field lacrosse is a separate sport than box lacrosse, which is played in the National Lacrosse League (NLL). The Major Lacrosse League has gone through its ups and downs; five teams that were once a part of the MLL are now defunct, but there has never been a missed season and live games have been broadcast on CBS Sports, ESPN3 and even YouTube.
Throughout the MLL's first 10+ years though, one team out of eight active clubs has established itself as the team to beat; the Chesapeake Bayhawks. Founded in 2001 as one of the original six, the Bayhawks have won four Steinfield Cups, the league championship in MLL. No other active team in the league has more than two. Originally the Baltimore Bayhawks from 2001-2006 and then the Washington Bayhawks from 2007-2009, the Chesapeake Bayhawks have called several stadiums 'home' since their inception. Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis has been the team's home field since 2009 and while the venue may not be the most ideal place to play field lacrosse, everyone wins, both the fans and the team, by having home games at the home of Navy football.
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Hungry when you drive into Annapolis? You won't be when you leave. There are plenty of food and drink choices within the stadium; the only problem you may come across is a long line. While concession lines are a bit predictable at football games (halftime, for example), the lines in the concourse during the Bayhawks games seem pretty random are are more often than not, long.
The funnel cake stand ($5) as well as the Dipping Dots stand ($5) is especially popular with lines of more than 15-20 people. There are also snowball stands ($4) and a stand that sell both lemonade ($4) and cotton candy ($3). Most of the goods are at the larger concession stands though with food that includes chili dogs ($4), pretzels ($4), popcorn boxes ($4), nachos ($4.50) and the popular Papa John's Pizza ($8). Beverages include Coke products ($3.50 for a medium, $5 for a large) as well as the also-popular beer ($5 for a Bud Light can).
The cashiers take both cash and credit though cash is recommended because of the extra time it takes for them to swipe your card. All in all though there's more than enough to keep everyone satisfied. I had a pretzel and a Coke and enjoyed it. A good experience in stadium food means that the supply is meeting the demand and that was definitely apparent in Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium during the Bayhawks game, even if the lines are a little longer than perhaps people would like.
Think that there isn't any tailgating at a Major League Lacrosse game? Think again. After arriving at the stadium and parking about thirty minutes before the game started, I noticed a lot of fans still in the lot which extended into the grass field. Kids had brought their own lacrosse sticks and were passing to each other while adults were listening to music, drinking and talking. Music was also playing through the stadium PA speakers, a variety of tunes but ones that mostly landed on current pop hits as well as country music.
Once inside, it's important to note that although the stadium has a capacity of 34,000, the Bayhawks have fans sit in one section; the lower middle section on the south side of the stadium. This is a smart move because it brings all the fans together so that there's more unity and a better atmosphere instead of having a couple thousand fans spread all across a 34,000 seat stadium. Seats are comfortable and include an armrest but no cup holder. Each seat gives you a great view of the field but it will still sometimes be hard to follow the action since the lacrosse ball is so small and it's not as easy to track as a soccer ball or basketball might be. There are scoreboards on either side of the stadium that include the period, time remaining and score. The PA announcer is clear and shows a lot of enthusiasm towards the home-team Bayhawks when the players are introduced and when the team makes a good play, such as scoring a goal.
The atmosphere at the game is also lifted a bit by the Hawkettes, the name of the Bayhawks' cheer squad. The Hawkettes help keep the fans involved and also support the several different fan games that go on during timeouts or intermissions. All of the participants of the fan games were younger kids during my most recent visit, pushing the notion that the Bayhawks certainly focus on the younger kids, many who likely play recreational or club lacrosse, so they may enjoy the game at the professional level. At halftime there was actually a full-on youth game on the field as two local clubs with players likely around ages 8-10 enjoyed playing on a big field in front of thousands. The Bayhawks got kids involved at the beginning of the game too, allowing close to fifty of them on the field during player introductions to cheer and high-five the Chesapeake players as they ran out of the tunnel.
During the actual game though the PA music doesn't come on when the ball is live and there aren't any team cheers so you're left with some quiet moments as you wait for one of the players to make a big hit or score a good goal. If you're really interested in lacrosse, this is fine since you're able to focus and watch the different players and follow their strategies and the game. If you're just a casual fan of the sport though you might find yourself a bit bored.
Location is important to any sports team but it's especially important for teams in developing leagues like MLL. The Bayhawks have put themselves in a great position by playing in the capital of Maryland, Annapolis.
Annapolis isn't very big in regards to city population, but as far as historic attractions that could interest the whole family, the former capital of the entire United States is definitely near the top. 'Naptown', as the locals call it, is a historic goldmine. Navy Marine-Corps Memorial Stadium is less than two miles west of the main Naval Academy campus and while security around the campus may make visiting it a bit of a hassle, it's a must-see if you are in the area. There are guided tours as well as museums that can leave you with the feeling that while we all love sports, we are only able to safely play it and watch it because of the work put in by the men and women in each of the five service academies.
The city of Annapolis, which is about 29 miles east of Washington D.C. and 26 miles south of Baltimore, is also the home of several other historic establishments outside of the USNA campus. One of the most notable is the Maryland State House, the oldest that is in continuous legislative use in the entire country, having opened in 1772. There is also a World War II Memorial just north on State Route 450 and the Banneker-Douglass Museum on Franklin Street, a museum dedicated to preserving the African-American heritage within Maryland. The birthplace of athletes Mark Teixeira and Travis Pastrana, Annapolis will also keep any American history-enthusiast occupied and can certainly spark an interest in the younger generation.
The fan base that watches the Chesapeake Bayhawks is different than the traditional fan base for a team playing another sport. If you approached fans at a Baltimore Ravens football game, most of them would probably say that they or their child never played in a football league, they just enjoyed the sport. At a Bayhawks' game, it is very apparent that a vast majority of the fans are young and are lacrosse players themselves with ages ranging from very young to around high school range. Entire youth lacrosse teams may be at the game together along with their parents. These kids bring their own lacrosse sticks and a few of them even will have handmade signs.
The more I thought about it, the more it makes complete sense though. Kids who play a sport like baseball or basketball can watch the professionals, who act as their role models, on television almost any day of the week during the season. For young lacrosse players, that exposure isn't there since the MLL never gets much exposure locally, let alone nationally. Seeing these games live allows the young kids to see these role models; men who play their favorite game as a profession, and become even more attached.
Most of the kids are well-behaved, but you'll certainly get a few that run around the concourse or the stands. Overall though it's a very fan and kid friendly environment with the help of Hawk-Eye, the Chesapeake Bayhawks' mascot. Being that the Bayhawks play at the Navy stadium, you can also see a few Midshipmen at the game, though hardly more than a handful.
As far as enthusiasm goes though, the fans are a bit lacking sometimes. Many seem to always be on the concourse whether it's to get food, go to the bathroom or just converse with their friends, even though there's no way to see the game from there. For the fans that are in their seats, there aren't any fan chants or much focus on the individual players. The biggest reactions will come when the Bayhawks score and depending on the game, that could be frequent or a bit rarer.
The support is modest, but I was expecting a little more considering that the Bayhawks are the top franchise in the league and this visit coincided with their first home game since winning their fourth league championship the previous season. Fans were definitely aware of this with many kids wearing a blue foam hand that recognized the four Steinfield Cup victories that the Bayhawks have brought home throughout the franchise's relatively short existence. Still, I didn't really see as much team pride as I thought I might. It's one thing to be there because you're a fan of lacrosse. It's another thing to be there because you're a fan of lacrosse as well as a fan of the Chesapeake Bayhawks.
Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium is very easy to get to and that's a huge relief to every fan that's coming in. Since the stadium is not within the actual USNA campus the stadium's access is just like any other normal venue. This differs strongly from Alumni Hall, the home of Navy basketball which is inside of the Navy campus. Because of the military-level security, getting to Alumni Hall is quite the adventure. Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium is a lot easier to get to for the Chesapeake Bayhawks games in the summer.
Whether coming from the north or south, take Exit 24 and follow Rowe Blvd towards Taylor Avenue. The stadium is located at 550 Taylor Avenue and is very easy to spot with the help of the 'Event Parking' signs that they put up on Bayhawks game days. Parking is $10 which seems a bit steep but it does make it a short walk to the entrance. If you need to get your tickets though you will have to walk to the left side of the stadium to get to the ticket booth. There are entrances on that side so once you get your tickets you can enter the stadium from there.
For every Bayhawks game there are three different ticket price categories. Silver tickets are bleacher seating ($15). Gold tickets are seatback seating ($20) and VIP tickets are seatback seating plus VIP tent access ($75). There are two games a season that are considered premium games though which drives the prices a bit higher ($20, $25 and $80, respectively). Group (20 or more people) and Three-Game Packs are offered as well at discounted rates, something that would be good to look at for fans that it would apply to.
Compared to the other teams in the league the Bayhawks tickets prices are definitely on the high side, though that could be defended by some by noting that the Bayhawks are the most successful franchise in the league and a four-time champion. When you include parking and food, the price of a Bayhawks game for a family of four can get pretty high. If there are a lot of fans at the game and the atmosphere is strong, you can certainly get your money's worth.
One extra point goes to the seating arrangement at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Each fold-down seat had a small plaque on the back that was dedicated by a donator or donators to a Midshipman. The seat I was in on this occasion was dedicated to a certain Lieutenant Commander that was in the USNA in the early 1900s. This is obviously not Bayhawks-related but really strengthens the venue that Chesapeake plays at; it's a powerful message that reinforces the fact that the Navy Academy isn't just an academy; it's a family of individuals.
A second point goes to the merchandise shop that was set up on the concourse near Section 3. The shop was extremely busy throughout the game and having it is a great move by the Bayhawks. As I overheard some fans say it's next to impossible to find Chesapeake Bayhawks gear even if you look around the area because the MLL, similar to the NLL or Arena Football, is just not at that popularity level yet. Having a wide selection of merchandise from sweatshirts to shorts to t-shirts made a lot of fans happy, especially the younger kids.
One last extra point goes to the Chesapeake spirit squad; the mascot Hawk-Eye and the Hawkette cheerleaders. Even though the sun was down, the temperature was 60 degrees and falling and the wind was blowing, the Hawkettes kept the fans cheering throughout the game.
When you talk about location, everything makes sense for the Chesapeake Bayhawks in Annapolis, Maryland. The state is a hotbed for the sport with the Bayhawks being surrounded in the area by men's college lacrosse powerhouses like Maryland and Johns Hopkins. The stadium is spacious and clean and the team has built a very strong history in a relatively short amount of time. You won't get much of a 'home team advantage' feel when the Bayhawks play in Annapolis; sometimes it feels more that they're just temporary tenants of Navy-Marines Corps Memorial Stadium. Still, the fan base for the Bayhawks is strong and as long as that stays the case, you can definitely have a good time watching Major League Lacrosse no matter if you're a lacrosse expert or a lacrosse newbie.
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