The casual manner in which Scott Neiss said it did not reflect his seriousness.
The Executive Director of the Israel Lacrosse Association was not joking when he insisted that he wants lacrosse to become the national sport of Israel.
Only a very small percentage of Israelis have even heard of the sport, not to mention played it. But that doesn’t deter Neiss.
It seems like a far-fetched dream, but considering the progress the sport has made in the country since the establishing of the ILA, of which he was one of the founders in June 2011, there is no doubt Neiss is certainly going to give it his best shot.
With the men’s national team ending last year’s European Championships in second place and over 2,000 children currently playing the sport at some level, lacrosse’s future in Israel sure seems bright.
And with Israel being announced on Tuesday as the host of the 2018 FIL Men’s World Lacrosse Championships next summer, an event which is set to be played in Netanya over 10 days and include over 2,000 athletes from over 50 countries, everything is in place for the sport to continue its growth in the country.
“From the very beginning I have been almost arrogant in saying that I want lacrosse to be the national sport of Israel,” Neiss told The Jerusalem Post. “That is my goal here. It might take 20 years or it might take 30 years. But that’s the plan, not a dream.”
For anyone not quite familiar with the sport, lacrosse is a contact team sport, with 10 players on each team, played using a small rubber ball and a long-handled stick. The head of the lacrosse stick is strung with loose mesh designed to catch and hold the ball.
The aim of the game is to score into the opposing team’s net. The roots of the sport are in the cultural tradition of the Native American Iroquois people, who lived in the Northeastern US.
It has earned the reputation of being a rich-person’s sport in North America, something the ILA is determined to avoid in Israel.
The ILA launched its programs in Ashkelon because it is sister cities with Baltimore, which as Neiss put it, is the “lacrosse capital of the world.”
Ashdod, Sderot, Kiryat Gat and Beersheba soon followed, making southern Israel the stronghold of the sport in the country.
“We were very strategic early on at not going to where the Anglos were,” explained Neiss. “The sport has a perception problem in the US that it is viewed as a sport for the affluent in the suburban communities. A rich white middle class sport. When we brought it here we went in a different direction.
We could afford to do this because the funding initially all came from the US.
We could afford to be philosophical and could afford to go to these areas in the periphery.
“It also helped us because there is less competition down there. These are under-programmed areas and there are certainly no American sports there.”
The ILA has focused on youth development from the start.
“We have taken a very strategic approach to this,” he noted. “I come from the US and in the US if you want to be good at something you start playing it as a kid and grow up with it. I think we are kind of forerunners and pioneers at starting from the bottom up. It is working. Our best kids are peaking now and some of our younger guys between the ages of 17 and 20 who are native Israelis are going to breakthrough on our men’s team this year.”
Neiss said there are plans to expand the ILA’s programs ahead of the World Championships.
“Now with the World Championships in Netanya we’re shifting our strategy a little bit and plan to establish programs in Herzliya, Ramat Hasharon, Even Yehuda and the surrounding area.”
Israel received the right to host the championships after England’s lacrosse federation decided that it could not financially afford to hold the event in Manchester as originally planned.
This will be the first time a country outside of the traditional powerhouses of the US, Canada, England, and Australia will host a men’s field world championships.
“There was a shot-gun bid process and we were one of two countries that bid,” said Neiss, with the US the other candidate. “We were all a bit surprised.
We put the bid together in three weeks.
I don’t think we would get it under normal circumstances, but we also clearly saved the day here because the alternative was another World Championship in North America.”
Neiss, who made aliya from New York in February 2012, was announced last week as one of the recipients of the 2017 Sylvan Adams Nefesh B’Nefesh Bonei Zion prize. The Bonei Zion Award recognizes immigrants that have made an extraordinary impact on the state and on Israeli society.
“His efforts have resulted in hundreds of people visiting Israel, some even making aliya,” read the Nefesh B’Nefesh press release.
Neiss explained the logic behind the ILA’s initiatives.
“There are not a lot of professional opportunities in our sport. The players that are US born on our team are people that we have convinced to make aliya, move their lives here for this opportunity,” he noted.
“We are an amateur sport so I’m not allowed to pay them to play, but I can pay them to coach and we need coaches. There are kids that have played high level Division I lacrosse in the US that have made aliya, served in the army and are fluent in Hebrew. It is a genuine true Israeli team, which is the most exciting part for us.”
Neiss admits his vision of lacrosse as the No. 1 sport in Israel is crazy, but he genuinely believes it will happen.
“I think the World Championships have the opportunity to really put us on track for that,” he said. “To put this sport on the map, get TV exposure and really showcase the sport at its highest level.
“This sport is perfect for Israel,” he added. “It has got the same flow as soccer and basketball and is easy to understand.
It is also a contact sport and physical, and Israelis like that. I think we just need to get it exposure. This sport is not that far away from getting back into the Olympics. If we can win a medal in a team sport on the world stage like that it could send the country in a frenzy behind the sport. That is our hope. It isn’t going to happen overnight. It is going to take at least 20 years and we will keep working towards that.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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