SBJ/July 29-August 4, 2013/Opinion

How the Little League World Series creates a great experience

Every August, 300,000 people come to Williamsport, Pa., to take in the Little League World Series, where admission and parking are free, concessions reasonable, and players and coaches unknown. Of course the players’ families and friends are among the thousands, and many locals make the LLWS an annual weeklong celebration, but the majority of fans are neither local nor players’ relatives. They come from far and wide. Why?

The LLWS shouldn’t be so compelling. It’s a bunch of normal 12- and 13-year-olds, many of whom won’t even make their high school baseball teams, but happened to navigate Little League’s series of district, section, state and regional championships to land in Williamsport and on ESPN. So what’s the draw for these fans? The LLWS has apparently mastered a recipe for delivering an exceptional fan experience — a purely pleasurable event that has fans leaving Williamsport happier than before they arrived.

Both of us have attended the event and even we, as casual fans, could see that there is something the LLWS could teach to college and professional team executives about creating a more consistently exceptional fan experience. The LLWS does things differently. And intentionally. It’s no accident that the people keep coming back for more. Here’s what we found:

1. Fan Hospitality (fans create fans)

What makes a baseball tournament featuring 12- and 13-year-olds so compelling?
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
You think you don’t have leverage over your pay-per-game ushers? At the LLWS, they’re all volunteers. They work solely for the event T-shirts, a hot dog and a Coke. And yet try to find one of these people not going out of their way to make your experience more enjoyable. Providing an OK experience is not an option. They greet you with a smile, talk to you about the teams, ask you where you’re from, and tell you about the best play they’ve seen so far that week. They are fans of this event. They are thrilled to be there. It’s written on their faces.

The secret: Find people who love the event and want to be part of it. Give them training to reinforce behaviors you want and to help them communicate their fan excitement with ticketed fans. Employ them.


2. Fan Access (real connections create fans)

At the LLWS, when you’re in line for kettle corn and lemonade, you’ll be standing behind the team from Japan or Karl Ravitch from ESPN. You can watch the teams take batting practice like they’re at your neighborhood batting cages. Such access to these 10-day celebrities is part of the charm of the LLWS. It leaves you with memories worth sharing. Top professional and collegiate athletes and coaches are undoubtedly harder to provide access to than 12-year-old ballplayers. But perhaps there are ways to deliver time-sensitive information or exclusive interview content that only attending fans will see.

The secret: Create ways for fans who attend to experience things they wouldn’t experience if they were watching on TV.

3. Fan Mobility (comfort is key to experience)

The LLWS complex is conducive to an exceptional fan experience. It’s expansive. The real appeal is that fans can freely walk the grounds when they get tired of watching baseball, or when rain delays play. There’s room to roam, and plenty to see. The flow is easy, the concessions well-spaced and uncrowded. Getting around the LLWS complex is refreshingly simple.

The secret: Make it easy for fans to stretch their legs, access a restroom and get something to eat. Let them move as freely as they move around their living room, only make the venue more interesting than their living room.

4. Fan Attractions (fan experience is made up of happenings)

The LLWS has a host of activities for fans who need a break. There are bouncy castles and bases to run for time and a cage to see how fast you can pitch. There’s even a LLWS museum to peruse. All of these outlets give fans, especially marginal ones, something enjoyable to do independent of the game. All of these attractions give fans an experience they can’t get from “SportsCenter” highlights. It’s not just about the product on the field. It’s about all that’s occurring around the complex.

The secret: The product isn’t just the game itself. The game isn’t always great, and even if it is, you can see it on TV. Make the venue appealing and interesting beyond what’s occurring on the field.

5. Fan Tradition (fans convert fans through the stories they tell)

If you’ve ever watched a LLWS game, you’ve seen the kids sliding down the steep center-field hill on cardboard boxes. If you’ve ever been to the LLWS, you’ve undoubtedly gotten swept up in the pin collection craze. The LLWS is packed with annual traditions that fans love coming back to. Traditions inspire stories that people love to share, which in turn get others to want to come and see what the buzz is about.

The secret: Give some thought to building traditions, and then let them develop and evolve on their own.

The people of LLWS have nearly perfected the art of creating an exceptional fan experience. They have the advantage of being able to charge no admission and low costs for concessions, an advantage professional and top college sports teams don’t have. But they also have the disadvantage of having a product that many sports fans would deem sub-par. These aren’t world-class athletes. Most aren’t even future world-class athletes. And yet they get fans to come to watch them each year in droves. There has to be some transferable lessons in there somewhere.

Sean O’Neil (sean@one2oneleadership.com) is CEO of One to One Leadership (www.one2oneleadership.com), and author of “Bare Knuckle People Management.” Maureen Kelly (maureenkelly1210@gmail.com) is an international customer experience expert and consultant to the automotive industry.

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