A few weeks ago, I had two separate conversations just a day apart, with people who were disgruntled with Intermountain Lacrosse (IMLAX). They each had valid concerns that were different. I initially shrugged it off as a coincidence, but later realized I had my own questions about where our money goes when we register our sons and daughters to play in the IMLAX leagues. I say ‘our’ because my two daughters currently play and if you’re reading this, you’ve likely paid league fees as well, so we’re in this together.
I reached out to my good friend Niki Harding and explained my plight. She responded that she’d get back to me with a breakdown of where the league dues go and a few days later, she presented me with this great graphic.
Let’s start from the top and for this article, I’m going to use numbers as if I registered one daughter on a 3/4 grade team which cost me $135 this season (early bird discount for the win!).
Officials and Trainers should be self-explanatory. $36.45 from my fees goes to providing at least one and most times two officials and an on-site medical trainer at my daughters' nine games this season. That means I pay $4.05 per game for officials and a trainer. That seems reasonable to me. It should be noted that all boys' youth officials are managed through IMLAX which has its own officials organization. The girls' officials are part of the Utah Women’s Lacrosse Officials Association which covers all ages.
The IMLAX Staff consists of four staff members: Niki Harding (Director), Collin Madsen (Boys Coordinator), Alice Hadean (Girls Coordinator) and Michael Britton (Office Manager). The duties vary per person but the staff as a whole is responsible for running the various leagues, organizing TryLax and Laxival events, etc. $29.70 of my fee goes towards the staff members which again seems reasonable.
I want to touch on the team fees section since IMLAX hasn’t always done this. Recently, IMLAX started to collect team dues as part of the registration fee and then redistribute them to the teams after registration closes. This is an additional admin step that they take so that when we pay, it’s a one-time, all-inclusive fee. Gone are the days of paying a league fee in one transaction, a team fee in another transaction and then a third transaction to USA Lacrosse (more on this in step 4). IMLAX does all of this in one fell swoop. I will note though that this does create extra work for the IMLAX staff instead of the programs.
Field Setup and Program Equipment: If you’ve ever lined a field, I’m sure you can agree that any amount of money to not have to do it is worth it, so $28.35 is a deal I’d take all day long. Throw in a dozen or so balls each season, field fees, etc. and this feels like a win-win.
When your son or daughter is registered, IMLAX also registers them as a USA Lacrosse member which in return provides insurance under the USA Lacrosse policies. This has been standard practice for leagues and tournaments as far back as I can remember. Having this as a seamless registration step is a huge bonus as we used to have to do it separately which means a lot of times it wasn’t getting done and players were playing without insurance.
With any large organization, you’re going to run the gamut of economic realities so having a scholarship program and paying for coaching resources is something that makes sense. Lacrosse is an expensive sport in general so having an avenue to get a scholarship is a great tool that can really help grow the game. Also, if you’re a coach who has a kid on the team, not paying for league fees is also a good motivator for you to continue to coach. Coaches are also provided USA Lacrosse memberships as well as coaches' badges and background checks. According to Harding, in 2021, IMLAX gave out over $68,000 in scholarships or player fees that were waived. A majority of this amount went to coaches' kids who don’t have to pay fees. “There are many families who we give scholarships who say that their kids wouldn’t be able to play if they didn’t receive this,” said Harding.
Let’s play out a scenario where none of this is paid for by IMLAX and instead falls on the team or coach: You want to coach your son's 5/6 grade team but need to pay the $135 IMLAX fee for your son, register yourself as a USA Lacrosse member ($35), attend an on-field Level 1 Certification for $55. You’d also be responsible for providing your own coaches badge (just think of the variety here) for another $10-$15 and you're obtaining your own background check. These can vary in cost but let’s say another $20. Just to coach, you’d be paying around $250. With IMLAX, you’re paying $0 for the same services. It can be a struggle to get coaches now, imagine if they were charged $250 to do it.
Also, the line item of coaches' training is important to understand. The league pays for coaches to become USA Lacrosse Level 1 and Level 2 certified. The league also pays the costs to host those trainings. This isn’t the case for most areas of the country and is something you should take advantage of if you haven’t.
The last item on the list is Office Space. We’re talking about the facility used to house the IMLAX staff members, meeting rooms and warehouse, not the movie. If you’ve never been to the HQ I would highly suggest it. It’s a great office space that also has a warehouse in the back to hold equipment and a meeting room upstairs. It’s about as centrally located in the Salt Lake Valley as it can be and is easy to get to. Harding did tell me that whenever the lease has expired, they look for other space and have yet to find another option that provides the same value.
That breaks down the graphic that was shared with me which is a great resource. However, there are some other questions that I had for IMLAX so I met with Dan Dugan and Harding to talk about them.
First, did you know there is a board at IMLAX? The board dictates the direction of the league and uses input and votes from programs to make decisions. That’s right, your program should have a vote in these decisions so talk with your program managers about any issues facing a vote. The votes are taken at the annual league meetings, so be sure you’re represented there as well. The IMLAX staff simply carries out what the board wants. Dugan is the Chair and has six other board members. They meet 9 times per year and usually serve 2-3 year terms. If you are interested in being a board member, please reach out to Niki!
Second, did you know there is a foundation to help grow lacrosse in Utah? I didn’t either, and it’s called the Mountain West Lacrosse Foundation. It was created when the Utah Lacrosse Association was dissolved as IMLAX was created. The assets from that organization became the foundation base. And no, there aren’t millions of dollars in it. I was told there was about $150,000 and the foundation would love for their account to be $0 each year. IMLAX does contribute $5,000 to the foundation each year. The foundation focuses on new programs that need help getting off the ground. This can come in the form of new goals, equipment, etc. You can learn more about the foundation here.
Third, there are two other things to mention that affect the finances at IMLAX. The first is the U17 and U18 Girls National Teams. IMLAX pays the initial fee to hold the spot at the tournaments but is reimbursed as player fees come in. The other thing is the Ski Town Shootout and the Rendezvous in the fall. The Rendezvous breaks even each year so it doesn’t contribute to the finances.
Ski Town, on the other hand, does turn a profit. Any profit goes into the IMLAX general account and is then allocated to be spent on more gear, more training, etc. Profit from Ski Town doesn’t go towards the staff salary. Some may argue that profit should go to the staff and that tournament could expand with a little more incentive.
Harding also said that USA Lacrosse does support IMLAX, but that is in the form of grants that IMLAX applies for and is granted and is typically one or two a year for goods and services around $10,000 per year, not per grant.
I also reached out to Shawn Maloney who is the Regional Manager for the Mountain region for USA Lacrosse and lives in Denver. He had some great insight as well. I asked him mainly about fees because it’s very expensive to begin playing lacrosse compared to other sports, especially those managed through county/city rec programs.
“I can tell you that the IMLAX league fees are substantially lower than what most programs in Colorado charge for a spring season,” said Maloney. “I have seen several programs in the Denver metro that charge $250, $300, even $350 for 6–8 weeks of youth spring lacrosse.”
I did a quick Google search for ‘Denver Youth Lacrosse’ and clicked on the first result which was DLC or Denver Lacrosse Club. The cost for the Spring session was listed at $375 plus the USA Lacrosse membership. Now, Colorado is organized a little differently than us and they rely on different ‘clubs’ to make up their youth leagues.
“IMLAX also utilizes a slightly different structure than most leagues in the region since all players and coaches must register directly with the league,” said Maloney. “In Colorado, players and coaches only register with their local town program. Then, each town program pays the league a "team fee" based on the number of teams that they enter into each age division. Personally, I think the benefit of IMLAX's approach is that there is a level of consistency across the league. In Colorado, families often pay different fees depending on where they live, and programs that play in the same league often have very different coaching requirements and risk management policies. With IMLAX, everyone is in the same boat and knows what they are going to get.”
Imagine the frustration if you’re neighboring city was $100 less than what you were paying. Imagine if officials and coaches had different levels of training. The structure of IMLAX prevents any of those frustrations.
“The vertical structure of IMLAX also helps with the coordination of coach development clinics, TryLax events, etc.,” said Maloney. “IMLAX also pays for coach training, which I believe has had a big impact on the growth of lacrosse in Utah. Having a full-time professional staff is also a HUGE luxury that not many youth leagues in the country can claim!”
Now, I’ve painted a pretty nice picture of the IMLAX organization. I’ve done that because I consider each staff member and board member a friend and fellow member of the lacrosse community who is simply trying to grow the game. We are definitely in this together. However, I think there are some things that could be better.
For starters, I think IMLAX should offer year-round leagues for as many ages as possible. I get that participation would vary per season, but that’s okay. I also realize that indoor space in the winter may not be possible. Fine, let’s not play in the winter. Also, to be clear, the format doesn’t have to be the same. Let me float this out there: Spring - Field, Summer - Pickup/3x (Three By), Fall - Sixes, Winter - Box/Indoor Sixes. Maybe some leagues don’t have coaches to provide a non-stress environment, etc. Also, to be ultra-clear, I am in favor of multisport athletes, but I’m also not blind to the fact that some kids don’t want to play multiple sports. Should they? Yes. Will they? No, so let them play lacrosse.
We also face a big challenge in my mind with 9th graders. If high schools don’t bring on/allow 9th graders moving forward, in my opinion, IMLAX should fill that void. I’m all for waiting and pushing the schools to embrace them since I think that is better overall, but in the event it doesn’t happen, I think IMLAX should be that outlet. In full transparency, IMLAX hasn’t said they wouldn’t, only time will tell. I think it could look like having an 8th/9th division and a 7th/8th division. Or wouldn’t it be cool if we had enough players/depth to have a 7th-grade division, an 8th-grade division and a 9th-grade division?
Then there is getting more players to be hooked without the cost. In full transparency, the barrier to entry has decreased in cost since I played because we have youth leagues like IMLAX. I was a freshman in high school when I told my dad that I needed a $250 helmet, a $150 stick, $400 worth of protective equipment plus team fees. It was a $1,000+ experiment. There were no rentals. Obviously, it paid off and my dad and I laughed about it while going to the Utah game the other day, but that is a lot of money. IMLAX has done an awesome job at utilizing local partners to help with gear rental. If we look at costs this year, a 3rd-grade boy would pay a $150 IMLAX fee (explained above), a team fee of $50 - $150 and $75 for gear rental. That’s $375 on the top end plus they’ll likely be told by a coach that their stick isn’t good enough and should buy a new one. High equipment prices aren’t caused by any decision IMLAX makes, it falls on the manufacturers but there could be more opportunities for kids to play without having to pay.
So how do you get more kids hooked without the cost? The local communities, supported by IMLAX and the Mountain West Lacrosse Foundation, should be holding TryLax events, 3x pickup games, etc. Have the high school team/coaches put on clinics. Simply sitting on our hands and waiting for IMLAX to grow the game isn’t going to grow the game. They are in place to help you in your local community.
Another option would be to offer smaller leagues during the summer or certain weeks in the fall. These leagues would run more like a rec league where teams would have a league-provided pennie and no team fees. Maybe the gear rental is free and the season is only 4-5 games. It would basically be an entry league for kids to try the game in the cheapest way possible. If you have done something in your community that has worked, leave a comment below!
Another thing I personally would like to see is promoting lacrosse to those not in the lacrosse community already. Some may argue that is not the job of IMLAX, and that’s fair, but I also feel it’s the best lacrosse organization to do it with the most to gain. In full transparency, IMLAX did use to run full-page newspaper ads with the news from the week. It was called the ‘Utah Lax Report’ and I created it each week and was paid by the league for my services. I’d be a liar to deny the fact that the project was the foundation for the current version of the Utah Lax Report which again, is a weekly update from the community. Beyond that, I don’t see promotions going on. I have seen in the past, other organizations making banners for teams to promote registration. With the new digital billboards, it’s easy to make a banner and add it to the rotation to help promote registrations and events. I have seen Instagram ads for Ski Town though so that is something.
At the end of the day, we’re all trying to do what is best for the player and sport and I feel that IMLAX does a really good job for those already hooked. If we can figure out a way, as a community, to get more players involved without the initial down payment, then I think we’ll be in a great spot. Of course, then we’ll need officials, but that’s a topic for another time.