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USA Lacrosse CEO details the growth of the ‘oldest team sport in North America’

USA Lacrosse CEO Mark Riccio sits down with Yahoo Finance Live to discuss the NCAA Women's Lacrosse Championship, the growth of the sport, innovations to the game to bring more fan engagement and media coverage, and the 50th anniversary of Title IX.

Video Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING]

SEANA SMITH: USA lacrosse reaching a three-year partnership with Gatorade, announcing the deal ahead of the World Lacrosse Women's Championships next week. Now we want to bring in Mark Riccio. He's the CEO of USA Lacrosse along with Yahoo Finance sports reporter Josh Schafer. Mark, it's great to see you. Thanks so much for joining us.

We know lacrosse is one of the fastest growing sports in the US. When you take a look at the NCAA championships this past season back in May for women's, at least, we saw record viewership. Now we have the World Championship coming to the US. What does this do for the growth and the popularity of lacrosse?

MARK RICCIO: Yeah, we're coming off some great momentum with the NCAA men's and women's championships getting 500,000, 600,000 viewers, sold out crowds. And having the World Championships in Towson, Maryland, you have 30 nations coming in. It's just building off the momentum from the NCAAs. And with anything in sport, if you see it, you can be it. So having some of the best women athletes in the world come play lacrosse in front of great crowds really continues that momentum of growth for the sport.

JOSH SCHAFER: And Mark, when we talk about those women athletes and those great women athletes, one that I think sticks out to a lot of folks nowadays is Charlotte North and what she's been able to do, the Boston College player, really attracting a lot of new eyes to the game, I think. Have you sort of seen that? And how has that sort of appeared tangibly you think, that Charlotte North effect in women's lacrosse?

MARK RICCIO: You bring up two really important points there, new eyes. You know, lacrosse we do a very good job of speaking to ourselves. I think one of the things that we've really been able to do over the last year and two years in particular speak to new audiences. And athletes like Charlotte North enable us to do that. You know, the great athletes transcend the sport. They become cultural or pop icons, if you will.

And Charlotte North has done that. When you see her compete, both at Boston College but as a part of the US Women's National Team, you see a lot of girls want to be like her. And that is obviously very important from an aspirational standpoint. So she's done a great job just becoming a brand in and of herself and transcending the sport into someone who is popular and then, therefore, attracts new audiences, which is certainly an objective and a goal for a growing sport.

JOSH SCHAFER: And perhaps the best opportunity to do so would make it an Olympic sport hasn't been since 1908. I believe got provisional status in 2018. What would it mean for lacrosse to be an Olympic sport? And how do you get it on the radar? How do you give it that nudge across the goal line?

MARK RICCIO: Yeah, you know, you bring up a good point. Lacrosse has been in the Olympics in the past. And so the process is right now LA 2028, which is the arm of the USOPC that is putting on the Olympics in Los Angeles in 2028, has the opportunity to add some provisional sports to the sport program. The process is starting now with World Lacrosse, the international federation, kind of leading the charge to put our best foot forward in front of LA 2028 to see if lacrosse can get in. We're certainly hopeful we get the opportunity to put our best foot forward, as I said. But some of the key elements around that are, it's a gender equitable sport, great opportunity to engage young fans, new fans, attract more eyeballs, maybe sell more tickets, leave a legacy in LA and the US in terms of the sport.

And I think what's also important to the narrative of lacrosse in the Olympics is it's a Native American sport. It was handed down to us and shared with us by the Native Americans. So it's the oldest team sport in North America. And I think that's very important to the narrative and the legacy of lacrosse and its ability to have an impact, not only in LA, but across the US in terms of a great sport that would attract many new audiences as part of the Olympic program.

SEANA SMITH: Mark, we're talking a lot about growing the audience here. I'm curious to get your thoughts on using media to grow the sport. And I bring this up because of F1 and "Drive to Survive" on Netflix and what that did for a sport that many Americans hadn't even heard of a couple years ago. What are your thoughts just on using media and that outlet to get the message and to get knowledge of the game out there?

MARK RICCIO: Well, you hit the nail. It's storytelling. You hit the nail on the head in terms of what attracts new audiences are great stories. And one of the things that I recognized when I came into this role is that, yes, we're a governing body. Yes, our job is about feeling great national teams. It's about fueling the growth of the game and enriching the experience of the game.

But we're a media company too. And we've got multiple social channels. We've got a magazine and a digital property. We're certainly working to take more of our rights in house in terms of our ability to tell those stories.

And as you see some great women athletes right here, you saw some footage of some other men athletes. We've got great storytelling at all levels of the game. So it's an important part of a governing body and a sports objective, quite frankly, is to tell those stories. And F1 is the perfect example of that.

And you see other sports trying to do the same thing. And I think we've got a lot of great stories to tell around our athletes, whether it's at high performance level or at youth levels, in terms of gender equity, new opportunities, overcoming adversity, or just having fun and great level of play and athleticism. And we're excited to keep doing that on the media front.

JOSH SCHAFER: Mark, we can't talk about that Olympics potential bid without talking about the change to the game that we're seeing there when we talk about sixes, right, instead of the traditional nine, 10 players that are on the field for lacrosse. How have you sort of evaluated that? Are you OK with that change?

Because, obviously, the Olympics wants it so there's less Olympians, less total team members there? How are you evaluating the sixes. And I don't know if you've got a chance to catch any of the tryouts that have been going on in the last couple of weeks, but any takeaways there.

MARK RICCIO: I have actually watched some of the tryouts. I was actually speaking to the women's sixes team, which will be heading down to Birmingham, Alabama, along with the men's sixes team to compete in the World Games this summer. So we have actually foiur international competitions. We have the Women's World Championship, as well as the men's under 21 in Limerick, Ireland. But then, again, you talked about those sixes.

You know, we look at it like this. Is in every sport you have disciplines within that sport. And so within the sport of lacrosse, you have the discipline of field lacrosse or box lacrosse, and now sixes. And sixes is just a great opportunity.

It's small-sided play. It's very much like basketball in terms of two-on-ones, fast breaks, three-on-two, a two-person game, pick and roll, team defense. All these elements of other sports that people get comes out in the form of sixes. And what's also important about sixes is that you can have boys and girls play it simultaneously at the youth level, which is actually really important in terms of just having a great experience in play.

But from an Olympic standpoint, it allows developing nations to field teams faster because they just need less competitive athletes. And so it really has presented an incredible opportunity for great athletes, both men and women, boys and girls, not only in the US, but globally. And that's certainly important as you talk about the global expansion of the sport.

JOSH SCHAFER: Opportunity is the word, Mark. And I think today we have to reflect on the 50-year anniversary of Title IX. I think if you'd asked two years ago, there might have been people that would reflect on various failures, inability to reach certain goals. But it feels like this is a moment for women's sports across the globe. Your reflections on where we are right now given this anniversary of Title IX?

MARK RICCIO: I cannot under emphasize how much progress has made, has been made rather. I've been in the business for about 30 years, collegiate, I've worked at the New York Jets in the NFL, I've worked with global agencies, and now in a governing body role. And the impact, the growth, the opportunity in women's sport is just fantastic.

And there's a couple of reasons. One, it's good business. Two, people recognize the quality of the athletes, the quality of play. In the early '80s, there was about 100 NCAA women's lacrosse programs. Now there's over 500. There's a reason ESPN continues to go deep in lacrosse. There's a reason why you see the global growth of the game.

And that's because highly engaged fan base, incredible opportunities for women to compete at a high level. And it's really been incredibly exhilarating and fun to watch. And we've got nothing but upside. And that's the other side of it as much as it's grown, we got upside. And that's the exciting part.

JOSH SCHAFER: Now we've got the world lacrosse championships next week. Best of luck to you, USA lacrosse CEO Mark Riccio. I really appreciate you joining us this afternoon. Thank you.

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