Asia Pacific Region Could Be Lacrosse's Next Frontier
Lacrosse is growing in both Thailand and Malaysia.
For decades, the Asia Pacific region has been well-represented in the lacrosse world by Australia and Japan. Australia was the runner-up in the inaugural 1967 World Lacrosse Championship and Japan achieved their best result when they placed fourth at the 2010 games. However, multiple other Asian countries have started programs over the last few years, further increasing the exposure of the sport in the region. Here's a look at some of those up-and-coming programs that you'll likely see at the 2014 FIL World Championships in Denver.
On a tropical Thursday night in Thonglor Soi 10, a happening nightlife area in Bangkok, a dozen people join the biweekly lacrosse practice. It's a mix of locals and expatriates; men and women; experienced and inexperienced.
Founded in 2010, the Thai program now has more than 100 members. They practice year-round and played 11 games this year. They placed third in the Asia Pacific Lacrosse Games (ASPAC) in Beijing this summer.
Payu Nerngchamnong, a Thai national and founding member of the team, is the president of the organization. He first learned of lacrosse while attending boarding school in Massachusetts.
Payu is taking a top-down approach to growing the sport in Thailand, first focused on building the national team. He sees the national team as a way to introduce new players to the game and provide role models for children.
He stresses the importance of education when introducing people to lacrosse. “Parents see sticks as weapons," he said. "They don't see the grace of the game. Getting this ideology across is where the national team comes in.”
Payu says they find new members through word of mouth and social media. He does not think it would have been possible to grow as fast as they have without sites like Facebook and Twitter. Due to their active marketing campaign, a typical Thai game now draws a few hundred fans.
However, with Thailand's GDP per capita of approximately $5,400 USD, there are challenges to growing a sport in a country that requires expensive equipment. Shipping costs and customs duties make equipment even more expensive. Adding travel and lodging costs of having to fly a few hours to another country to play a game further compounds the issue.
Without government funding, the lacrosse program in Thailand is privately funded. They sell Thai lacrosse gear and have corporate sponsors. Payu emphasizes the importance of becoming self-sufficient and says, “sponsorship shouldn't be a charity case; you need to do something for your sponsor.” Their sponsors include a mix of international companies (STX, Cascade and South Swell) and local Thai companies (Singha Beer, TrueVisions, IMPACT, Siam Sport and Enigma Apparel).
Other challenges include educating referees and more basic issues such as sourcing lacrosse goals. The Japanese team has supported the Thai program by flying in experienced referees at Team Japan's expense. And Payu had a local welder build goals. They also designed a portable goal, which they carry on planes and take to countries such as Singapore and Malaysia when conducting clinics.
The Singapore Lacrosse Association was officially founded in October, 2012. However, the seed for a program was first planted in 2011 when Team Thailand came to Singapore to host a clinic and left behind equipment and goals.
After a year and half, the Singapore team is an Associate FIL member and participated in the ASPAC tournament. During their first year, they achieved a record of 3-1 in their four official international games. According to Ed Burnam, an expatriate from Syracuse and the President of the Singapore Lacrosse Association, they also have a meaningful core group of women.
Burnam talked about some of the challenges they face starting a program from scratch. Shipping pop-up goals to Singapore costs $700. And for their first game in Singapore, they flew in a ref from Australia and one from Vietnam. Fortunately, they too have had success in securing sponsors, such as Brewerkz Restaurant & Microbrewery and Enigma Apparel.
To grow the game, the Singapore program has establishedstrong relationships with schools. In the spring, they introduced the sport to approximately 800 students. Burnam says it is, “grassroots right now with the Singaporean youth. We're looking at a long-term strategy for curriculum and participation with Singaporeans.”
Their vision is to promote lacrosse in Singapore for Singaporeans. Burnam continues: “It's going to take a lot of patience, a lot of time and a lot of resources to get it full swing here. … Our strategy is to use the expat enthusiasm to try and raise the visibility of the sport and the interest.”
Hong Kong Lacrosse is in a different stage of their evolution. They first participated in the World Games in 2002. They also have a recreational men's league, which consists of five teams and runs from January to May.
Today, there are also steps being taken to grow the game from the bottom up with youth players. Four years ago, a program was founded by Andy Bazarian at the Hong Kong International School. It has grown three-fold over the last three years and now boasts 95 players: boys and girls, ranging in age from five to 17.
Dillon McNiven, an equity trader originally from New York, has been a coach at the school for the last three years. He says one of the challenges they face is the differential in skill levels. He and the other coaches have to balance coaching kids with years of experience with new players who were recently introduced to the game. He also raised the challenge of finding opposing teams in a region where lacrosse is relatively new. They typically practice amongst themselves, but did have one actual game when a team flew in from Seoul.
Even with the challenges, McNiven is very positive on the growth of the sport in Hong Kong.
“It's good to see the kids in Hong Kong play," he says. "It's good to see them make it a priority with so many other sports and with how busy these families are. … In Asia in particular, they benefit from learning a more team-focused sport besides soccer.”
Other notable programs in the region include South Korea, which first participated in the World Games in 2002, and China, which became an Associate FIL member in 2012 and hosted the 2013 ASPAC Games. The China Lacrosse program currently has 1,200 members and their goal is to reach 5,000 within five years. With a population of 1.4 billion, reaching such an ambitious goal may be possible.
Malaysia is also in the process of starting a program, and Philippines Lacrosse toured through Maryland in August. The FIL has also had inquiries from India, Cambodia, Vietnam, Tibet, Mongolia and Indonesia about starting programs.
Talking about the growth of the sport, Tom Hayes, Director of Development at the FIL, says: “It moves along at a slow pace, but it's been steady. Once you get more than one or two countries that are adjacent to each other, the game spreads quickly.”
For any program to be successful in a new country with unique challenges, it's going to take people like the leadership teams in Singapore, Thailand and Hong Kong. Talking about the Singapore program, Burnam says: “We've tried to take a lot on. We've been very enthusiastic and at a lot of times pushed very hard.”
Differing skill levels, material expenses, limited funding, geographic challenges and lack of education are some of the hurdles new programs face in the region. However, with a mix of locals and expatriates quickly expanding the game in the region, it will not be surprising to see these fledgling programs have a meaningful impact on lacrosse's global development going forward.
Josh Bateman is a freelance writer based in Asia.