Skip to main content

Lacrosse's inclusion in 2028 Summer Olympics will fuel game's growth

The 2028 Games in Los Angeles will feature a hyper-fast version of the game known as Sixes
  • Author:
  • Updated:

Early last week (Oct. 16), lacrosse booked a return engagement to the Los Angeles Summer Olympics, a long period after being showcased in Southern California for 1932 Summer Games while also being designated as a demonstration sport in the 1928 Amsterdam Summer Olympics.

After skipping the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, the sport originated by American Indians made its final appearance at the 1948 Olympics in London.

However, the last time lacrosse was an Olympic medal sport was in 1908, also in London, making the recent announcement of the sport’s inclusion music to the ears of lacrosse enthusiasts from a growing list of countries.

After all, there were 30 teams — from the United States to Uganda — in the 2023 World Lacrosse Men’s Championship in San Diego, matching the number of participating teams at the 2022 World Lacrosse Women's World Championship in Towson, Maryland. Both American squads prevailed.

Yet there is a twist to the story, considering that a new format will be employed for the men’s and women’s teams in Los Angeles in 2028.

In a version of the sport known as Sixes, instead of nine field players and a goalie on each side in the traditional men’s game, five field players — with no designated positions — and one goalie per team will battle it out. The women will pare down even more, from 11 field players to five per team for its competition.

Teams will play eight-minute, running-time quarters with a draw prior to each quarter on fields 70-by-40 yards, making for fast-paced, end-to-end action.

Calvert Hall vs McDonogh lacrosse

Players from Calvert Hall and McDonogh battle for a face-off in a Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Conference (MIAA) lacrosse game during the 2023 season. The MIAA is widely regarded as the best overall lacrosse conference in the nation and many of its current and former players will become Olympic hopefuls for the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angelese.

Throw in the fact that the men’s game does not allow defenders to wield long sticks, it leads to offensive fireworks and a more freewheeling style of play. The U.S. men and women competed in sixes at the Birmingham 2022 World Games, with both teams bowing to Canada. The American women, however, avenged their defeat by prevailing over the Canadians, 8-7, in the 2023 Super Sixes championship earlier this month.

While not the traditional full-field games played by most high school and collegiate teams in the U.S., sixes emphasizes the speed aspect of a sport that used the motto “the fastest game on two feet” for decades.

Nevertheless, the lacrosse proponents have been hoping to elevate their game to the Olympic level and on Monday the International Olympic Committee gave its stamp of approval to the idea.

“We are thrilled the International Olympic Committee has voted to include lacrosse in the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles,” said USA Lacrosse CEO Marc Riccio in a statement released by the Maryland-based organization. “In some ways, it feels like we’ve reached the finish line with so many people working towards this goal for so many years. In reality, this is the beginning of a bright new future. The Olympics gives our sport the platform and visibility to achieve unprecedented growth. We can’t wait to get started on the next chapter in the sport’s history.”

Fans of the traditional sport should not be alarmed, because full-field lacrosse is unlikely to be going away.

“Looking at it from the high school level, we won’t change how we prepare and how we play,” said McDonogh School boys coach Andy Hilgartner, who guided the Eagles to their second consecutive Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference championship last spring. “We play 10-on-10 lacrosse — and that’s what our priorities will continue to be. But I’ve always been a fan of small-side drills, and there are elements of Sixes that we can incorporate into our game.”

The number of people being introduced to the sport and the attention it will receive from being a part of the Olympics will be worth the effort, he said.

“Just think about the millions of people who watch the Olympics,” he continued. “It’s such an iconic event and whenever we can attract more people to our game, the more exposure we get at the Olympic level, I mean, that’s amazing.”

Hilgartner said that other Sixes’ benefits include helping players who need more repetitions or being able to stage competitive practices with fewer participants.

“Sixes can really help our guys to get better,” he added.

Blake Atkins, the coach of the boys West Coast Starz club team and Redwood High School in the San Francisco Bay Area, said that he was introduced to the sport by De La Salle High School coach John Christmas while both men were running the Alcatraz Outlaws club organization.

“He’s always on the cutting-edge,” Atkins, a member of Gilman’s 1998 MIAA A Conference championship squad, said about the former University of Virginia star. “He brought it to us pre-COVID. So we have used it and it’s a fun 20 minutes, but almost like a gimmick. It brings out the most fun things about lacrosse, although it eliminates a lot of the middle-of-the-field action (of full-field lacrosse). It’s all fast breaks — as soon as a guy takes a shot, he starts booking to the sideline (for a line change).”

He said that he doesn’t expect a major change to the traditional game at the high school or college level.

“I know the intention is to draw more fans to the game, and that’s great,” Atkins concluded. “It’s just such a different game (from 10-on-10). As a practical matter, I don’t ever see a full-time switch to Sixes.”

St. Paul’s School for Girls coach Mary Gagnon and Arundel High School coach Kim McNemar, co-women’s program directors for Ascension Lacrosse, run a fall Sixes league.

“I love Sixes,” Gagnon said, noting she coaches two teams in the fall league, neither of which is necessarily made up of SPSG players. “It’s really good developmentally for younger players by getting a lot of touches, learning how to make quick decisions, getting better at communicating and working on off-ball play.”

She added that defenders in girls’/women’s sixes have more of a familiarity with motoring up and down the field, using former Gator star Madison Beale, now at Duke, as an example of a dangerous two-way performer.

“Madison could play anywhere,” Gagnon said. “And that’s another thing that’s good about Sixes — players don’t get pigeonholed into certain positions. They learn to play everywhere, so that’s good for younger players’ development. Any small-side games will help stick skills.”

She also said that promoting Sixes was “a good first step” for lacrosse to return to the world stage.

“But I don’t see how it can replace the traditional game,” she said.

In fact, Sixes and Flex 6 — a version that allows for mixed-gender players and as few as three players per side even competing in gyms — should be looked at as complementary components of full-field lacrosse, said Brian Silcott, vice president of USA Lacrosse sport growth and development.

“They will be a big part of our player development,” he said. “It’s the best way to get more kids playing the game from non-traditional areas who can then progress to field lacrosse.”

From an international perspective, access to Sixes will give more countries a better way to compete, Silcott added.

“We already have the best development system in place for field lacrosse (in high school and college), and it isn’t going anywhere, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

Silcott said the USA Lacrosse will emphasize finding athletes with different skill sets to do the same for Sixes and box lacrosse — which is similar to ice hockey — without the skates — in terms of alignments.

“There won’t be as much crossover from field lacrosse to Sixes,” he said.

One player who has crossed over to Sixes recently, Ryan Conrad, has been a key member of traditional lacrosse championship teams in high school (Loyola Blakefield, 2015), college (Virginia, 2019), Premier Lacrosse League (Waterdogs, 2022) and Team USA (2016 Under-19 and 2023 Men).

Although the American Sixes’ squad was throttled in 2022 by the Canadians, “who have been playing the game their whole lives,” he expressed fondness for the six-man game.

“It’s obviously a lot of fun to play,” the 6-foot-1, 190-pound midfielder said from New York City, where he works in the financial industry. “You really have to rely on your ability to go both ways. I thought I would hate it. There are just so many different intricacies to it and subbing is so important.”

In the end, Conrad said that even though they “are completely different sports, I like both (Sixes and full-field)."

Besides, he said that the opportunity to play for his country trumps any hesitancy he might have in trying a different version.

“Anytime you can wear ‘USA’ across your chest,” he said. “It’s pretty awesome.”