Sportsbiz: For this rising Colorado company, success is a sticky subject

If you’ve coached youth sports, chances are you’ve had this problem. You hustle to the practice field, hit “mute” on a chirping cell phone, unload a duffel bag full of equipment, greet your early-arrival players, and then realize: You don’t have a clue what to do next.

Something like that happened to Greg Waldbaum. He’s a father of two and a lacrosse enthusiast who hit the coaching wall when he realized he had little more to offer to his son and his recreational lacrosse team. “I knew I was at my coaching capacity,” he says.

Rather than feel resigned, Waldbaum was energized. The entrepreneurial founder of Denver-based Firehouse Animal Health Centers recognized lacrosse was riding a growth wave. He sensed there was something interesting brewing within a combination of rising popularity, a shortage of talented coaches and a highly fragmented marketplace.  More players than ever were signing up to play in places like Colorado, Texas, California and Florida. Waldbaum realized lacrosse was going to need coaches. Lots of coaches.

Turns out there was a good one right in Denver. Jamie Munro had just left the University of Denver, where he turned a little-known men’s lacrosse program into a Division 1 powerhouse over 11 years, leading the Pioneers to two NCAA Tourney berths. Munro had conceived a business that would syndicate his coaching program – drills, terminology, practice plans, conditioning and more – into a national training platform that could scale right along with the sport. Waldbaum joined Munro’s 3D Lacrosse as chief operating officer in 2009.

Four years later, the Denver-based company is making a big impact. Leveraging Munro’s coaching techniques, 3D Lacrosse employs and trains coaches across the country with a remarkable consistency and track record. A case in point happened in July when a newly assembled team of 14-year-old boys from six states took the field at the ESPN/U.S. Lacrosse National Championship in Florida. None of the teammates had played together before, but they knew the same assignments, plays and positioning thanks to immersion in Munro’s detailed coaching regimen. They won the championship.

3D Lacrosse has had success off the field, too. Revenues for the company this year are expected to double from 2012 to nearly $7 million, thanks to a growing pool of teams and players who sign up for the company’s programs. The company isn’t the only player in the sport, but Waldbaum, who played lacrosse in his freshman year at Dartmouth University, says wide geographic presence and consistency in player experience have separated 3D Lacrosse from locally focused instruction programs.

Lacrosse’s rising popularity has helped, too. According to a 2012 study published by U.S. Lacrosse, the sport’s national governing body, more than 720,000 players participated on organized teams last year, an increase of 40,000 from 2011. Kids and parents are attracted partly by the sport’s inclusive qualities, says Waldbaum. He says lacrosse prizes a wide variety of attributes, among them quickness, smarts, aggressiveness and vision. Waldbaum thinks lacrosse also has benefited from rising parental and player concern about football-related injuries, including a possible link to brain trauma.   

Whatever the motivators, there are signs that lacrosse is becoming a go-to sport, especially in Colorado, where the Colorado Mammoth topped the National Lacrosse League for attendance in 2013, two area colleges are launching new teams next year (CSU Pueblo Men’s Division III and the University of Colorado Women’s Division 1) and the 2014 Men’s World Lacrosse Championships will be held next July at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park – marking the first time the event has strayed from an east coast location. “It’s a fun sport,” Waldbaum says. “And it’s expanding everywhere.”