On a warm, humid Sunday morning in April, the South Campus Sports Complex, a pastoral 55-acre tract of grass at the corner of West Bellfort and Stella Link, just south of Loop 610, swarmed with dozens of middle school–aged boys wearing helmets and shoulder pads and brandishing fearsome metal alloy sticks crowned at the top with webbed pockets. The boys had traveled from all corners of Houstonia—Clear Lake, Friendswood, Katy, Magnolia, The Woodlands, Pearland—to compete in the Greater Houston Youth Lacrosse Association playoffs.
On one of the fields, the Memorial Knights were up 14-0 over a club team called the Houston Outlaws. We watched as Memorial scored virtually at will, its players encircling the Outlaw goal like sharks around a chum bucket, flinging the game’s hard rubber ball back and forth and occasionally whipping a shot at the hapless goalie. Standing next to us was Brendan Logue, the CFO of Brace Industrial Group and co-director of a group of investors responsible for bringing the 2015 Major League Lacrosse All-Star Game to Houston’s BBVA Compass Stadium this month.
“There are a few club teams [like the Outlaws] in the GHYLA, but most of the better teams are affiliated with public schools,” Logue told us. “You’d think it would be the opposite, but that’s what’s different about Texas.” Lacrosse is one of the oldest team sports in North America—17th-century Jesuit missionaries witnessed Iroquois tribesmen in present-day New York State playing an early version of the game. But until recent decades, its popularity has been limited mainly to the East Coast, where it’s associated with wealthy prep schools and the elite colleges—Johns Hopkins, Yale, Georgetown—that they feed into. Only one of the eight teams that comprise Major League Lacrosse, the Denver Outlaws, is located west of the Mississippi.
Logue and his fellow investors want to change that. They’re hoping that hosting this year’s MLL All-Star Game—the highest-profile game ever to be played in the state—will convince the league to expand into Texas; the group has already secured the exclusive rights to a Houston expansion team, and has even begun debating names. Although Texas doesn’t yet have a single Division I college lacrosse team, Logue said interest in the sport is exploding, with participation in Houston youth lacrosse leagues growing by around 30 percent per year over the past decade. The city currently fields 20 clubs, with Sienna Plantation and The Woodlands as its perennial powerhouses. (Two of Logue’s sons play for Cy-Fair ISD teams).
“We’ve seen the sport of lacrosse grow dramatically in the Houston area,” said David Gross, commissioner of Major League Lacrosse. “It’s just a huge market, a growing market. And it’s not cold in Houston, so you have kids playing year-round.” Gross said that holding the All-Star Game here was a way of testing the city’s interest in the sport. “We’ll see how it goes,” he said. “It’s not just the size of the crowd, but the crowd’s reaction. If they come out and say, ‘Eh, not too impressed,’ then we know the town’s not for us. But if they’re like, ‘That was awesome!’ then the city might be ready.”
To bring the game to Houston, Logue worked with the Harris County Sports Authority, which manages the city’s four major stadiums. HCSA CEO Janis Burke said her goal is to sell 17,000 of BBVA Compass’s 22,000 total seats—approximately the number sold for the series of exhibition rugby matches played there over the past few years between the US and the Italian, Irish and Scottish national teams. “If we can do that for lacrosse, the MLL will be really happy, and they’ll look at us as a serious lacrosse town,” Burke said. As with the rugby matches, the MLL All-Star Game will be preceded by a fan festival on St. Emanuel Street featuring live music, food, drinks and memorabilia.
Appropriately enough, one of Logue’s co-investors is the man responsible for introducing lacrosse to Houston in the first place, octogenarian businessman Ralph O’Connor. In 1971, the same year he helped put up the money to bring the San Diego Rockets to Houston, O’Connor organized a lacrosse game at the Astrodome between Navy and his alma mater, Johns Hopkins. To the surprise of many, the match drew 18,000 spectators.
To the surprise of many, but not the MLL commissioner: “This sport has everything the American sports fan loves,” Gross enthused. “It’s fast-paced, there’s lots of scoring and there’s lots of hitting.”
Major League Lacrosse All-Star Game. June 13 at 6. $24–136. BBVA Compass Stadium, 2200 Texas Ave. 888-929-7849. majorleaguelacrosse.com/all-star-game