Jim Scherr was named the first chief executive officer of World Lacrosse in 2017. Prior to that, he was CEO of the United States Olympic Committee from 2003 to 2009. Scherr, who competed as a wrestler at the Seoul 1988 Olympic Games, was the first Olympian to serve in that position with the USOC. Before joining the USOC, Scherr served as executive director of USA Wrestling from 1990 to 2000, and also was the National Collegiate Hockey Conference commissioner from 2012 to 2013. During his time at World Lacrosse, Scherr has grown the sport globally, while navigating a pandemic. The 2023 World Lacrosse Championships will be June 21-July 1 in San Diego. The event will feature teams from 30 nations competing for the championship, with the title game hosted at Snapdragon Stadium. Scherr and his team are also focused on getting a version of lacrosse on the docket for the 2028 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, with a decision expected later this year.
Among the topics discussed in this episode:
- Being named the first CEO of World Lacrosse in 2017, the growth of the organization, and how the pandemic disrupted early planning (2:30): I think we’re on track with where we thought we’d be, maybe slightly behind. We took a two-year hit during the pandemic. We had a number of really critical goals — one was to grow the sport in terms of the number of participants, coaches, athletes, and member countries. We’ve gone from 58 when I started to now 86, and we anticipate 90 by the end of the year. Had the pandemic not hit, we might have been at 100 by the end of this year. We also launched a new discipline of lacrosse sixes. We’re really happy with where that discipline is, and I think we’re where we thought we’d be right now. We participated sixes in the World Games last year in Birmingham, Alabama, which was fantastic. Overall, we’ve grown from myself as the first staff person to now 11 staff and a $4 million budget, which is still pretty small compared to a lot of IFs, but for us it’s pretty significant growth.
- What his familiarity was with lacrosse before he took this role, and what interested him with it (4:06): I grew up in South Dakota, which is probably a place where somebody carrying a lacrosse stick would (make people stop) because no one would know what it was. But it’s a sport that I had tremendous respect for. I had seen only a little bit of it, but saw it’s growth in the United States and the passion that people had for the game. I really was impressed by the growth of the sport and the ability that I saw that it had to be a great addition to the Olympic family. I think lacrosse as a sport mirrors the values of the Olympic movement, and would be a great offering in the Olympic Games venue, on the Olympic games format, but also just a sport that would add a tremendous amount on the worldwide stage.
- What it’s like being CEO of World Lacrosse compared to some of his previous positions at USA Wrestling and the USOC (5:12): Wrestling was a sport that obviously I had grown up in. I knew everybody, and everybody knew me, which was sometimes good and bad. I’d been on the ’88 Olympic team and knew the organization and the people well. I had been on the executive board for almost 15 years before I became the CEO. Coming into lacrosse, I didn’t know the people. But once I was there, the people were incredibly welcoming. It’s pretty similar and you’re trying to do the same things. You’re trying to create opportunities for athletes to better themselves through sport. You’re trying to support the sport to become financially sustainable commercially and trying to attract people to support it as well, with donors, and you’re governing the sport and those things are the same, whether USA Wrestling, U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, or World Lacrosse.
- The upcoming World Championships in San Diego starting June 21 (6:28): This will be a phenomenal event. San Diego is one of the top destinations in the United States and the world. And we’re really pleased to have our world lacrosse family from all over the globe come to San Diego to experience the city. We’re using the University of San Diego, San Diego State and the new Snapdragon Stadium. So the venues will be phenomenal. We’re really excited about the opening game, the semis, the finals and bronze medal game at Snapdragon. That is just an incredible state of the art facility that our sport will have an incredible showing in. Interest is running high. We’ve got great support from the local community like Rady’s Children Hospital and others in the community. Ticket sales are going great. So we think it’s just going to be a phenomenal couple of weeks in San Diego.
- How World Lacrosse is growing the game outside of North America (9:56): There’s a lot of philosophical debate around that, even within our membership. The sport continues to grow around the world and more countries are joining as, as evidenced by the 86 countries now, because they want to be part of the organization. People in lacrosse always say there’s magic in the stick. You put a stick in a kid’s hand, they’re going to want to play the game. And I think there’s something about that skill progression and learning lacrosse that’s really attractive to young people. So part of our goal is to provide opportunities for exposure to the sport at the very base level. Getting sticks in kids’ hands and then building work clinics and grants for our members to grow the base in their countries. But then at the top end, building more new National Governing Bodies around the world and then providing competitive opportunities for those governing bodies. Pulling from the top and pushing from the bottom.
- Lacrosse being up for a potential spot in the LA 28 Olympics with the sixes format (12:22): We obviously think it would be a game changer for us around the world. It would re-stimulate the explosive growth that the sport had over the past 20 to 25 years, but around the world. It would provide opportunities for funding with National Olympic Committees and sport ministries. Increased promotion and brand exposure of the platform of the Olympic Games. Obviously, more than four billion people will see some part of the Olympics and learn about lacrosse. And then just that opportunity to tap into additional resources.
- World Lacrosse’s pitch to the Olympic committee (14:07): I think if I can encapsulate it in one statement: lacrosse is the next big sport on the world stage. If you look at the professional leagues in the U.S., with PLL, and Athletes Unlimited for women, you look at our growth around the world, you look at the expansion of the game… lacrosse will be the next great sport on the world stage and will continue to elevate itself in North America. But we also think that the values of the game and the origins of the game are a remarkable story for the Olympic movement, and would add to the fabric that already exist in the games with the origins with the Native Americans and the values of the game that started from the beginning.
- The reaction to the sixes format being nominated for the Olympics (15:10): The overall reaction from the beginning was that sixes has been fantastic. The athletes love playing the game because of the speed, the opportunity to score and the action. Of course, there were some lacrosse purists early on that thought “this isn’t the form of the game that we’re familiar with, or we believe is the true form of the game.” But if we look back 500 years ago and the origins of the game, it has continued to change and evolve. The showing that we had in the World Games in Birmingham, and then the PLL championship series, which showcased it with the very best players in the world, won over even the staunchest purists in the game.
- The impact of the rise of the Premier Lacrosse league (19:45): It’s great example of the sport and they’ve promoted the league very well on social media and their television product is some of the best we’ve seen in the game. They’re bringing new fans to the game and they’re also engaging the existing fan base with their product. It’s been great for the game, and a rising tide is lifting all boats in the sport. The excitement and energy they’ve brought to the game has been great for us.
- His time as commissioner of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (20:50): Commissioner’s a pretty cool title and I had my name on a hockey puck, which was pretty awesome. But between hockey and lacrosse, the people who play them are often the same people, particularly in Canada. And it’s kind of the same demographic. I had played a small amount of hockey as a kid and really enjoyed that sport. So it wasn’t as new to me as lacrosse was when I jumped into it. But the one thing that kind of stayed with me is just the similarities with the people and the audience between hockey and lacrosse — both great sets of people and great sports.