SBJ/July 1-7, 2013/In Depth

How Little League scores big with sponsors

To consider what attracts sponsors to Little League, consider that:

More than 400,000 people attend the Little League World Series in Pennsylvania each summer. Of those, 70 percent are married.

Little League counts more than 2 million players around the world.

And what sells like the wholesomeness of kids playing ball?

Those are among the reasons big league companies such as Gatorade, Hilton, Honda, Kellogg’s and Subway have become sponsors of the best-known brand name in youth sports.

Young players participate in the Dick’s Sporting Goods Baseball Factory experience at the Little League World Series.
Photo by: Catalyst
Companies like the Little League audience and Little League likes the combination of promoting the game while bringing in crucial revenue. Money from sponsorships accounts for 30 percent of the nonprofit’s operating revenue, money that Little League executives say is used to help keep affiliate fees more affordable.

“We really look at the marketplace in a way that considers the family audience we have and the volunteer base we have,” said Liz DiLullo Brown, vice president of marketing and strategic partnerships for Little League International. “There is a commonality. When we are digging into sponsorships, we look at what themes will support the program? Education, valuable offers to save our families money, or some benefit to the league itself.”

One thing sponsors and Little League executives share is a desire to make sure alliances extend beyond the World Series. To be sure, that event, televised by ESPN, remains far and away the No. 1 asset of Little League.

But much of the rest of the year, from sign-ups to the regular season, gives companies many chances to work their way into the minds and wallets of coaches, players, families and fans alike.

Brown said the scale and the local reach of Little League are enticing for companies. From late winter to fall, teams
and leagues are fundraising, organizing, practicing, playing games, or all of the above.

“Our goal here is to help identify opportunities, come up with new ideas to help [the sponsors] reach their audience,” she said. “It’s a unique place in youth sports.”

Dick’s Sporting Goods became a Little League sponsor six years ago. And while there are obvious ties for a sporting goods retailer and a youth baseball and softball league, taking advantage of those opportunities requires more than just hanging a banner in Williamsport and buying ads on ESPN. (All of the TV ads are sold separately from Little League sponsorships.)

Dave Natale, Dick’s director of sports and events, said the sponsorship involves a number of local and national pieces.

For the Little League affiliates, the local league administrators and coaches, the retailer offers team sale programs on uniforms, bats, balls, gloves and other equipment. As the season approaches, Dick’s concentrates more on individual players and equipment.

Sponsors such as Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes can activate at events throughout the year, culminating with the high profile Little League World Series.
Photo by: Little League Baseball
The retailer has 50 community marketing managers around the country tasked with the responsibility to raise awareness of local stores and getting to know league coaches and organizers. That includes local Little League coaches and administrators. Dick’s stores also play host to Little League registration days.

Earlier this year, Dick’s and another Little League sponsor, player-development company the Baseball Factory, joined with Little League coaches for an 11-city tour providing free clinics. The two-day sessions in each city were held at local baseball fields and included hitting sessions, skills instruction and drills. About 500 youth attended in each city, Natale said.

The tour started in California in February and ended in Pittsburgh, Dick’s headquarters city, in May.

At the World Series, the company started a kids day last year, filling four buses with a total of 200 players and coaches from teams and Little League affiliates within three hours of Williamsport. The idea was to give players who may never reach the World Series a chance to experience the event: watching some of the games, visiting the Little League museum and going to clinics. This year, the program will double to 400 guests.

Last year, Sun Products, makers of All laundry detergent and Snuggle fabric softener, became a Little League
sponsor. The laundry theme ties in with the family-friendly audience and, of course, baseball and softball itself.

Or, as Teresa Bello, the company’s marketing director, put it in ad-copy-ready language, “There is always a need for uniforms to look clean and fresh.” All and Snuggle target families because families tend to have infinite laundry demands.

Bello said the company targets volunteers and coaches with email blasts promoting the laundry brands starting in March, just as baseball season begins. Little League is also a prominent part of print, digital and TV ads for All and Snuggle. Sun Products has the rights to use the logo on packaging and in store displays.

The baseball theme dovetails with a recent push for All’s in-wash pre-treaters, brand-speak for a revised formula aimed at removing grass and dirt stains. A Facebook promotion offers moms a chance to win $1,000 for their hometown Little League affiliate by submitting a photo from a game that shows an outstanding play, sportsmanship, character or enthusiasm. Ten Little League affiliates will win $1,000 each.

At Williamsport’s baseball complex, All and Snuggle are used for the Little League World Series as well as baseball camps held there throughout the summer.

Of the partnership, Bello said, “We tested the idea [of sponsoring Little League] with consumers and it fit fantastic. It’s a no-brainer.”

The sponsorship attracted Sun because Little League covers the entire country and beyond. And, Bello added, the organization stands for core values that resonate with families: doing your best, participating and not a win-at-all-costs mentality.

“You put a quality brand next to Little League and you will get a lift,” said Harlan Stone, co-founder and managing partner at SJX Partners, a Connecticut marketing firm that helps Little League with corporate sales. “We like to remind people of the scale. It’s not just 350,000 people at the Little League World Series in Williamsport. During the season, you can have 10,000 games going on. It’s the sheer scale.”

The family audience and strong brand affection borne out in a recent study by Sponsorship Research International has given Little League executives confidence to explore other marketing ideas. Little League recently hired Atlanta-based Fermata Partners, a company with deep roots in licensed products. Clothing and novelties with a Little League theme would resonate with families, said Brown, the Little League marketing executive.

The organization expects to decide on a strategy within the next year or so, she said.

Erik Spanberg writes for the Charlotte Business Journal, an affiliated publication.


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