SBJ/Aug. 4-10, 2014/In Depth

Print All
  • At age 75, can Little League stay true to its roots as parents push for more?

    At the red brick museum that preserves the history of Little League, each visitor’s trip begins as the organization did, in the backyard of Carl Stotz, a 29-year-old lumber store clerk who, as the story goes, hatched the idea for well-tended, child-sized ballfields after tripping on a lilac bush while playing with his nephews in his backyard.

    Here, amid 10,000 square feet of artifacts and interactive exhibits, is the first home plate, which Stotz carved from a hunk of black rubber. An original base, sewn by his sister. The scribbling that became the first set of rules. Minutes from the earliest league meetings.

    On the eve of the Little League World Series, the organization faces the challenge of staying pure to its mission in the increasingly competitive world of youth sports.
    Photo by: Getty Images
    That Stotz founded Little League is evident. That he later argued that it shutter its marquee event, the Little League World Series, because he worried it had veered from his original intent is never mentioned.

    There is a dichotomy to the world’s largest, best-funded youth sports organization, with about 2.4 million players on 160,000 teams across 76 countries, about 1.9 million of them in more than 5,500 leagues in the U.S.

    SBJ Podcast:
    Senior writer Bill King and Assistant Managing Editor Mark Mensheha, who both have backgrounds coaching youth sports, discuss Little League Baseball, the pressures it's facing and how youth sports have changed and continue to change.

    At its core, Little League is as pure as it was the day it was founded 75 years ago, a member service-driven nonprofit that provides organization, insurance and other benefits to community leagues operated solely by volunteers, guided by the principle that any child who wants to play will find a safe and structured place, regardless of ability.

    On its fringes, it is increasingly commercial, funded in large part by an eight-year, $76 million deal with ESPN, accented by about $4 million annually from national sponsors such as Honda, which touts its family-friendly vehicles as the preferred way to transport players to practices and games, and All laundry detergent, which is angling to be the choice to remove grass stains from 2 million pairs of white pants.

    Little League organizers have balanced the two for decades, going back to 1953, when the World Series championship game first was telecast from Williamsport, Pa., with play-by-play provided by Jim McKay.

    But the discussion has taken a turn in recent years. There still is debate about whether wall-to-wall exposure across ESPN’s platforms is developmentally appropriate for 11- and 12-year-olds. But now there is this additional wrinkle: A generation of parents who increasingly are asking for more than a fun and safe place for their children to pitch, hit and field.

    For them, the youth sports fields aren’t so much a destination as a path.

    Instructors selling hitting and pitching lessons. Travel team operators promising exposure to college recruiters and
    The sprawling home base of Little League in Williamsport, Pa., will come alive this month with the Little League Baseball World Series.
    Photo by: Little League
    scouts. Coaches in other sports who explain, rather somberly, that their child can’t hope to reach the “next level” unless they make a year-round commitment to soccer or lacrosse or tennis. All of them are in parents’ ears and on their screens, positioning their services in ways that make the concept of a practice run by dads and moms and neighbors seem dated.

    In a recent conversation in his office at Little League headquarters, down the parking lot from the museum, Little League CEO Steve Keener thoughtfully explored a range of issues — from the ESPN rights deal to travel teams to safety to training and beyond — all of them hitched to the broader question of whether a volunteer-based organization can remain relevant in today’s youth sports culture while staying true to principles laid down in the same year that Lou Gehrig played his final game.

    This year, Little League is using its 75th anniversary as a platform to highlight the role it plays for children, regardless of whether they continue to play baseball competitively once they’ve aged out. Titled “Little League, Big Legacy,” the anniversary campaign includes the tag line: “Developing Major League People For 75 years.”

    It was taken, Keener said, from the words of the founder of the Harlem Little League, former Citibank vice president Dwight Raiford, who long ago told him that the league’s goal was to “develop big league people, not big league players.”

    “What we want to communicate this year is that our mission today is the same as it was 75 years ago,” said Keener, who has worked at Little League for 34 years and headed it for the last 20. “We just have to find different ways to tell the story and get that information to parents and make people understand that what you really want for your kids is what we’ve been offering all along.

    “We have something here that still resonates and resonates strongly.”

    In 2011, Little League launched a research study aimed at getting to the bottom of a decline in participation.
    Through surveys and focus groups, it examined not only the preferences and behavior of children, but of parents.

    What it found will not surprise you if you’ve spent any time around kids or youth sports of late. Today’s parents don’t want to spend three hours at a Little League field. They want their children not only to be active in a sport, but to be engaged by it.

    And, because they grew up at a time when there were other sports to play and more organizations in which to play them, they aren’t necessarily familiar with Little League’s structure and its divisions.

    Largely because of those findings, Little League has changed rather radically in the last few years, at least in the way it presents itself and interacts with its members.

    It has turned its website into a vast resource both for league administrators who now have at their disposal tools to help with administration and fundraising, as well as for coaches, who often become coaches by accident, showing up for a volunteer meeting out of curiosity and leaving it with an equipment bag and a bucket of balls.

    “Parents want what we’re offering,” Keener said. “They just don’t know where to find it. They want their kids to have an experience that is fun. That they get some exercise and feel like they’re a part of something special. They’re really not worried about that next level, for the most part. Some are. But, for the vast majority, what parents want is what we offer.”

    Balancing act

    There is so much to adore here, at the center of the youth baseball world. So much to stir the soul, including a setting in the Pennsylvania hills so spectacular that even terminally cool former major leaguers pause to soak it in.

    Did you know you can’t buy a ticket to the Little League World Series? Admission is free. Fans file in through
    Much has changed, and much has stayed the same, since this photo was taken in Williamsport in 1942.
    Photo by: Little League
    metal detectors, then make their way to either Lamade Stadium, which seats about 7,000 and can hold upward of 40,000 when fans pack the surrounding, two-tiered berm, or the adjacent Volunteer Stadium, which holds another 5,000.

    Ask Pat Wilson, Little League’s senior vice president of operations and coordinator of all its tournaments, how much revenue the organization forgoes by letting fans in for free at an event that attracts upward of 400,000 a year and he shrugs his shoulders. The charter that governs Little League members across the country prohibits them from charging admission, Wilson points out.

    “Not only is keeping it free here the nice thing to do,” he said, “but if we don’t allow our local leagues to sell tickets I don’t see how we can.”

    Sponsorship is the fuel of any local Little League. It also plays a prominent role here. Little League has deals with 18 national sponsors, who together pay about $4 million annually for an association not just with the World Series, but with the body that is in contact with registered families in leagues nationwide (see story).

    While the Little League World Series has a Fan Zone loaded with interactive areas operated by its sponsors, the outfield wall remains a clean green. When ESPN suggested it could create ad inventory with digital signs that would be seen on television but not in the stadium, Little League said no.

    Little League sticks to the mantra that playing should be fun and not about trying to reach the “next level.”
    Photo by: Getty Images
    “We’re all brand stewards here,” said Liz DiLullo Brown, Little League’s vice president of marketing and strategic partnerships. “You work here for just a little bit of time and you get it. You get that there’s a balance in what’s too commercial. Sometimes it’s us just talking it out. Here’s what the sponsor wants to do. We want to work with them.
    But is it too far? How do we get to the families? Is it fun for the kids? Is it too far? We ask ourselves that question a lot.”

    Keener tells the story of a sponsor that wanted to buy placement in “Building Blocks,” an in-game feature that over the years has had former major leaguers such as Harold Reynolds, Bobby Valentine and Nomar Garciaparra working with Little Leaguers, offering tips on how they might improve.

    ESPN sold sponsorship of the feature to a company that wanted the players to wear shirts bearing their brand, rather than their Little League jerseys. When Keener balked at the idea, the sponsor pulled out.

    “They lost the deal, but they agreed with us,” Keener said. “The line where we have to be careful is the commercial exploitation of children. We’re not going to do that.”

    Yet Little League is no different from other properties in understanding that its bread is buttered by ESPN, which
    delivers both a rights fee that will account for about a quarter of the organization’s annual revenue and exposure in front of about 70 million viewers each August.

    Not only does the network air every game, it has brought its “SportsCenter” and “Baseball Tonight” shows to Williamsport.

    “They allow us to tell our story,” said Wilson, the Little League executive who manages the relationship with ESPN. “Our friends at ESPN have a certain way they like to tell stories. They want access because they’re storytellers. But they can’t tell the story as if these kids were professionals, or even college athletes. We’ve developed a relationship where they respect our boundaries. We have no hesitation about saying no.

    “But they allow us to tell our story in a way that — look, no other youth sports organization has this kind of platform, right? We all understand the opportunity we have here.”

    Leaning over a set of blueprints spread across a table in his office, Little League CFO Dave Houseknecht ran a finger along an area behind the grandstands of Lamade Stadium, starting near home plate and stretching down the left-field line.

    “We used to scrunch them in right here, right next to the stadium,” Houseknecht said, describing the challenge of fitting the satellite trucks, production trailers, sets and support stations that ESPN brings to Williamsport for two weeks each August. “It took up an incredible chunk of our property. We kept a two-car path so two vehicles could pass. But that was it.

    “They outgrew what we could provide. They knew it and we knew it. It was just a question of finding a solution.”

    That solution came during rights talks over the last few years. Little League knew it wanted to remain with ESPN, which provides a platform that dwarfs those of other youth sports programs.

    Beginning this year, ESPN will have its own, self-contained compound in a paved area with easy access to both stadiums. There’s room for all the trucks and trailers, as well as an area for catering. Little League will pay for the project, which cost about $1.3 million, funding it through proceeds of the new rights deal.

    That rights deal also will throw off benefits to local leagues. Shortly after it signed the agreement, Little League’s board of directors voted to lower its charter fees from $16 per team to $13 per team. It also created a distressed league fund of $500,000 and agreed to provide funding assistance for domestic and regional tournament hosts and stipends for World Series umpires in all divisions.

    “We said we have to find a way to take that money and direct it back to the local programs,” Keener said. “We’re not like Major League Baseball or the NFL or NBA, where the money is going into the owners’ bank account.
    We’re a nonprofit organization. We have an obligation to make sure we take those rights fees and redirect them back into the best services we can provide to our programs.”

    A hesitant evolution

    On a back field at the Williamsport complex, clusters of 9- to 12-year-olds are gathered in groups, going through the daily routine of sleepover baseball camp.

    ESPN delivers major exposure to Little League and about a quarter of the organization’s annual revenue. It has brought its “SportsCenter” and “Baseball Tonight” shows to Williamsport.
    Photo by: Little League
    On this morning, five weeks before the opening of this year’s World Series, representatives from Spalding are visiting. They’ve brought a baseball that they say is revolutionary, made of a polyurethane cover with raised seams that are not stitched. Spalding says it sheds water, resists scuffing and can last through a full season of play.

    The company, which is in its fourth year providing Little League’s official ball, already is marketing it for use in practice. Now, they hope Little League will certify it for use in regular-season games. So they brought it to Williamsport, to be tested by the staff and the campers.

    “We’re looking at it as we do any product,” Wilson said, “which is with a healthy skepticism. We’ll take a look at it and we’ll see.”

    The complex offers an idyllic setting for camp. Along with the World Series stadiums and the practice complex, there is the Grove, an adjacent, gated area that the 16 teams stay in during the series, which includes living areas, a dining hall, a rec room and a pool.

    About 1,000 campers come through the program each summer. In 2012, it generated $458,346 in revenue.

    Each Thursday of camp, another of Little League’s sponsors is on hand to provide a perk that’s reflective of the evolving manner in which players and their parents view youth sports. The Baseball Factory was founded 20 years ago as a recruiting and placement service for high school players. Over time, it began offering more services geared toward not only exposing players to college programs, but improving their skills. It now is one of the top such providers in the country, with more than 375 alumni playing in the major leagues.

    Five years ago, Little League hired the Baseball Factory to help create its online coaches resource center, which now includes more than 100 videos and primers that offer ideas on teaching skills and running practices.

    Last year, Baseball Factory revamped the Little League division that probably needed the most help, creating a week-by-week tee-ball curriculum that endeavors to teach the game in a structure that’s age appropriate and fun.

    Each Thursday of camp, staff from the Baseball Factory put players through a scout-styled workout, which they record. They then evaluate each player and provide a report that lets them know where they stand compared to others their age, offering suggestions on ways they can improve.

    “We’re among the largest at what we do and we work with 35,000 [high school] players a year,” said Jason Budden, senior vice president of marketing and brand for the Baseball Factory. “Little League gives us access to millions of players that we’re able to introduce ourselves to at an even younger age.”

    While Little League’s mission is geared toward benefiting all children, the marketing relationship with the Baseball Factory and other recent moves by Little League are in response to the subset within its membership that demands more, and has shown it will take its bats, balls and players elsewhere if it doesn’t get it.

    Keener is no fan of travel baseball, speaking out against the practice strongly and frequently, largely because much that Little League has done to make the game safer for children — most notably, adopting strict pitch counts — can be negated by an irresponsible travel team coach.

    And yet, he concedes that some of the teams that you see in Williamsport are, in fact, travel teams that play in other tournaments to prep for the road to Williamsport. He’s also not crazy about year-round baseball, invoking the name of former big league player and current Little League manager Mike Mussina when he advises families to encourage their children to play multiple sports. And yet Little League sanctions fall baseball, which is popular in the moderate climates that frequently produce the most competitive teams.

    A youth participates in a summer training camp in Williamsport.
    Photo by: Little League
    Keener explains that leagues were going to offer a program in the fall with Little League or without it, so he’d prefer they be subject to the same oversight as they are in the traditional season.

    “We offer it because we can’t stop it,” Keener said. “We can’t make it go away. So we have to live with it and manage it.”

    That’s the same reason Little League recently added its intermediate division, with larger field dimensions and rules closer to those used in high school. If it didn’t, the leagues that wanted those dimensions simply would have dropped their Little League charters and moved on to another organization that offered the bigger field, such as Ripken Baseball.

    This is, after all, a membership-based organization. Rather than feuding with leagues and revoking charters, as the administration has previously, Little League has moved more toward making its case directly to parents on its website and through a newsletter that reaches more than 1 million readers.

    “We have what parents want,” Keener said. “Maybe they’ve changed in some ways. But we all still want what we think is best for our kids.”

    Celebrating the anniversary
    Here’s a sampling of elements planned around Little League’s 75th anniversary:

    ■ The anniversary is being shared via social media under the official hashtag: #LittleLeague75.
    Russell designed these uniforms for the Little League World Series.
    Photo by: Russell / Little League

    ■ Major League Baseball teams are holding Little League days throughout the season. MLB honored the anniversary during July’s All-Star Game in Minneapolis.

    ■ The Little League Big Legacy Project is a unique, digital baseball mosaic with images supplied by the public and spanning 75 years of Little League memories. Check it out at:

    ■ ESPN has produced short-form retrospectives that will feature some of the most significant moments and important people in Little League history. The vignette series is airing this summer.

    ■ VIA Studios Global, a division of WVIA Public Media, created “Little League: The History,” an original documentary film.

    ■ Pop artist Charles Fazzino worked with fifth-grade students from Pennsylvania schools to create a one-of-a-kind work of art that will be unveiled at this year’s Little League Baseball World Series.

    ■ The Little League Baseball World Series will feature many special guests and Little League alums.
    A photo mosaic captured memories.

    ■ Russell Athletic and Little League unveiled new uniform combinations for this year’s Little League Baseball World Series, designed specifically to celebrate Little League’s anniversary.

    ■ provides information on the history of Little League, an interactive timeline, photos and videos, and up-to-date information on events and activities.

    Print | Tags: In-Depth
  • Little League memories

    Chairman, CEO, The Walt Disney Co.

    Photo by: Getty Images

    “I played Little League in Oceanside, N.Y., and while I didn’t really stand out as a player, the entire experience created indelible and very special memories for me. They are memories of friends, coaches and families, all gathered together on baseball fields at schools throughout my hometown. These were special experiences during special times. … Playing taught me a lot of things — from sportsmanship, to teamwork, to resilience. You had to learn how to enjoy victories, and how to absorb defeats.

    “I always appreciated the commitment of both my parents. They set such a great example for me, as I attend numerous sporting events involving my two sons. It is my hope that my boys pass on the ability to keep life in perspective, and to spend time with their children.”

    Executive vice president, CFO, MLB

    “The memories that I have are each son starting off in tee-ball and I think every father probably thinks about their kid playing tee-ball. It’s such an early stage for them, you’re just wondering about how they’re going to develop as players. I have three boys. They’re all out of college now, but my youngest son then and now is probably the most active. … I remember particularly him playing tee-ball. I’ve got videos of him doing it and so the memories I have are kind of the classic father-son, kid growing up, playing tee-ball, got the video of him playing tee-ball, getting a hit, running around the bases and those very poignant moments. …

    “I think there is this connection that parents have watching a kid play baseball. There is something calming and pastoral about it. … I played baseball. There was an organized league, but I did the classic sandlot ball. I think every father who gets off work, myself included, to go see your son play, you just have visions of your kid coming up to bat — we all do this — and the bases are loaded and it’s an important run, or your kid is pitching and he’s got to make the right pitch. We all lived that.”

    Vice president, operations, Delaware North Cos. Sportservice

    (One of Sims’ accounts is Little League so he attends the annual World Series.)

    “I wish I knew the name of the team, but they were from Louisiana. It was a small parish from Louisiana that their team had made it to the Little League [Baseball World Series] so the mayor and city council and everyone came up to root their team on. They brought a lot of Cajun food with them and had no place to heat it up. They got in touch with me and asked me if I could heat their food up for them. I took it into the kitchen and the mayor was actually in the kitchen warming the food up for his staff. They had a nice little picnic area out there and they invited me over to participate with them and I just thought that was so nice that someone who I’d never met before invited me to be an honorary member of their group. I thought that was pretty cool.”

    Executive vice president, business, MLB

    “I remember playing coach pitch and we had minors, majors and seniors. I can remember playing minors and I
    Brosnan grew up playing Little League in New York City.
    Photo by: Major League Baseball
    think the first team I played on, and this is no phony baloney, was the Gristedes Comets … Even when we were little you got a shirt, a hat and a pair of stirrups. Again, the Gristedes Comets and then you went to play in the majors when you were 10 or 11 and I played a lot of baseball so I went to the majors when I was 10. I played I think for the Lenz Royals. Lenz was a delicatessen in our neighborhood. Then I distinctly remember playing for the D’Agostino Cardinals. Gristedes and D’Agostino are both grocery stores in New York. …

    “Little League is what the community gathered around. Literally, Saturday was Little League from the crack of dawn until dusk until you couldn’t play anymore. Then Wednesday was the night games and then there was a designated practice day, so what Little League did then was it galvanized the community. It was what the community did from the beginning of spring until summer vacation. … Besides your religious worship, which was an appointed time, the other appointed time from April to June was your Little League schedule for parents, family, friends, everybody.

    “I played Little League in New York City. I played on Con Ed Field on Avenue C and 16th Street. I grew up in a project and that was our field of dreams for sure. I was a pitcher and I spent a lot of time pitching with my dad and we didn’t even pitch in the project. We would walk over to the Little League field to do our pitching practice because that was the place where you did it. I played baseball seven days a week with my guys and played stickball and kickball and boxball and every other kind of stick and ball game, but when I was practicing for my games I practiced at the Little League field.”

    President, Cleveland Indians
    Shapiro enjoys the bond.

    (Shapiro has coached his 11-year-old son Caden for three years.)

    “Some of the greatest memories I have and the bond that I have with baseball was built largely around the bond with my dad and his love of the game. For me, being able to take my life’s work and say here is this incredible game and here is a way for my son and I to build our own experiences around it instead of just through our Major League team, that is what youth baseball has offered me in my experience with my son.

    “I remember he’s had a lot of really good games and the team has done a lot of great things, but the first time he walked the bases loaded and battled out of that jam … that for me kind of is the epitome of what baseball has to offer developmentally to kids. You’re alone in that situation. You’re either going to be able to find a way to handle adversity, setbacks and challenges and use them as moments to get better and develop as a person, not just a player, or you give in to it. I was so proud of him more for that than any other accomplishment that I remember that first year.”

    Founder, Sports Media Advisors

    “I had a really neat experience last summer that sort of combined my past as a Little League participant with my
    The Perlman brothers
    family’s. My boys all play baseball. Unfortunately, our town is not a Little League town. They don’t play Little League but they play a lot of baseball and last summer Little League was kind enough to invite us down to the Little League World Series. … My boys at the time were 8, 10 and 12, and we had an incredible time. The Little League folks would let the boys take batting practice on the field, and then, as luck would have it, the Little League All-Star team that I had played for 30 years ago made the Little League World Series. … My boys got to see them play an incredible game in which they had a big comeback and a very exciting win. That was an incredible Little League experience that kind of intertwined a little bit of my past for the Westport, Conn., team with my kids’ current love of the game and we just had an amazing weekend.”

    Vice president, business and legal affairs, Fox Sports

    “In 1999, after years of my sons being on different teams, I coached both of them on the same team for the first time (Westchester, Calif., Little League). My older son, Max, was a 12-year-old and his brother, Charlie, a 10-year-old. Max was our best pitcher and Charlie was the starting second baseman and our leadoff hitter. The boys were, as brothers often are, just as likely to battle (big brother terrorizing little brother) as to hang out and have a catch. In one game, Max was particularly dominant, and as he struck out the last batter of the game to complete his no-hitter (one walk, 15 strikeouts), the first thing he did was to turn toward second base, do the then in-vogue Jordan fist pump and look at his brother, who raced to the mound to be the first one to embrace him. Clearly, it remains one of the happiest days as a father, a coach and a lover of baseball.”

    Senior director, social media, broadcast communications, NASCAR
    Warfield gets mobbed.

    “Here is probably my most memorable experience from my 10 years coaching Little League baseball here in Charlotte. Attaching a picture of our celebration as it captures the moment beautifully. Yes, that’s what a walk-off home run to win the league’s first-ever state championship looks like! And yes, that’s me on my back after getting tackled by 12 11-year-olds!

    “5 to 1, bottom of the sixth, 7, 8 and 9 hitters coming up. Rip to left. Chopper over 1st. Seeing-eye single to right. All of a sudden Myers Park Trinity Little League had life in the rubber match of the 2013 State Little League Championship. Not one 11-year-old in the first-base dugout was thinking about making history but instead was simply focused on making memories for a lifetime. A double, fielder’s choice and two-run opposite field home run later and MPTLL had its first state championship in the league’s 60-plus-year history.”

    Executive vice president, production, program scheduling and development, ESPN

    “The best thing that stands out to me is the opportunity to coach both of my boys in Little League. They were two years apart, so there was some overlap and I got to coach them all the way through. One amazing memory was watching how the kids are able to deal with adversity at that level and lessons we can all learn from them. One year, our team had many injuries and we ended up losing every game we played, including 11 losses in one-run games. The kids are so resilient it’s incredible and, believe it or not, that year was the most fun we had. As you watch the kids, they teach everyone a great lesson. No matter how difficult the losses were, 15 minutes after the game, the kids would be out having pizza together enjoying life.”

    Director, consumer engagement, Taylor
    Lesson learned for Smith: Don’t feel sorry for yourself.

    “My key learning from Little League, one that has served me to this day: I was beaned in my first at-bat, sat there crying at home plate. My coach came out — and I was expecting a kind face, an ‘It’s OK’ chat. Instead he told me I better get down to first base quick, or he’d be pulling me out of the game. The life lesson: don’t feel sorry for yourself, don’t play the victim. Always be moving forward. The best way to feel better — at least it was in my case — is to steal second. (Rickey Henderson was my favorite player then.)”

    Senior director, marketing solutions – international, NBA

    “I played in central New Jersey. I remember everyone caring so much when uniforms were handed out to see what our team sponsor would be. Palumbo’s Pizza, Rocket Construction, Quality Fence, Rt. 18 Sports and others were all local businesses that sponsored our teams. They had their names on our hats (super high, mesh-back hats) and painted wooden signs on the fences. Everyone always hoped to get ‘a good name,’ whatever that meant. When I think back on that, it’s funny to me that I now work in the sports sponsorship business having no idea what went into it then.”

    Vice president, client services, rEvolution

    (Boyer coaches his son’s Little League team in Chicago)
    Boyer, second from left, enjoys coaching.

    “These kids have a lot of pride for their park. The competition with other Little League parks and teams is intense.
    “You try to teach skills to those kids at that age and you teach winning. The thing is, though, you know you aren’t always going to win. When your team does lose, you want the kids to understand why they lost. The key is instilling with them that the loss should not come from a lack of hustle or from not listening to their coaches and teammates. It’s important for them to know that it doesn’t take skill to hustle and listen. These are important to life in the long run. Working hard and being a good listener will go a long way.”

    Print | Tags: In-Depth
  • Sponsors tap into families and volunteers

    A glance at the roster of Little League sponsors gives you a clear idea of what companies are buying when they sign on with the world’s best-known youth sports property. There are the usual suspects on the endemic side, manufacturers of balls and bats and uniforms. But cobble together the broader list and a profile emerges.

    ■ Honda, the longest-tenured sponsor at 18 years, uses Little League to promote its minivans.

    ■ All laundry detergent hails its ability to remove stains from white baseball pants.

    ■ Sam’s Club is a destination for the volunteers who stock Little League concession stands, often with Gatorade and Lance Crackers, which also are sponsors.

    ■ Chiquita and Subway use their Little League sponsorships to promote a connection to healthy eating.

    The All and Snuggle brands are a natural fit for the sport.
    Photo by: Little League
    “We definitely position ourselves as a channel for companies to reach parents and also volunteers,” said Liz DiLullo Brown, Little League’s vice president of marketing and strategic partnerships. “There are hundreds of companies we could go after. But for us it’s healthy eating. It’s lifestyle. It’s activity. What companies out there have the same mission and mantra as us?

    “Honda is a great example. They’re not endemic. But

    SBJ Podcast:
    Senior writer Bill King and Assistant Managing Editor Mark Mensheha, who both have backgrounds coaching youth sports, discuss Little League Baseball, the pressures it's facing and how youth sports have changed and continue to change.

    they’re all about safety and quality and the reputation speaks for itself. There are some that just fit.”

    Because Little League offers such compelling imagery for use in advertising and in retail displays, and a rich database of families that are in the sweet spot for many brands, DiLullo Brown said selling the sponsors on the connection typically is easy. But there can be a few rubs when it comes to activation.

    For one thing, a Little League sponsorship does not include television spots, which are sold by ESPN. That can make activation of a national campaign more complex. The upside of that for Little League is that it can offer pricing that is within reach of more brands. Little League does not tier its sponsorships. Each sponsor receives the same level of benefits and pays a similar amount: about $250,000 a year for category exclusivity, with most deals running three years.

    That gives sponsors year-round use of Little League’s intellectual property as well as activation rights around the Little League World Series, which draws upward of 400,000 fans each year and of late has attracted an average of 70 million viewers for the run of the tournament on ESPN.

    One of Little League’s new sponsors, Canon, plans to use the fan experience zone at the World Series to promote its printers’ ability to print from Google Cloud, inviting fans to send in good luck images and messages that will be posted to a wall in Williamsport.

    Other sponsors that activate heavily in Williamsport, such as the equipment manufacturers, hope that the visibility at the highest level will trickle down to purchases at the local level.

    Of course, signing on as a national sponsor doesn’t guarantee anything on the local front. Just as an MLB club might make Miller its sponsor even though the league deal is with Budweiser, individual leagues are free to hand out Powerade rather than Gatorade or buy snacks for the concession stand at Costco rather than Sam’s.

    “There’s autonomy [at the local level],” DiLullo Brown said. “But I think we’re an incredible resource for our leagues. … We can’t require. But we can give opinions. And we know our leagues value that opinion.”

    Little League can point to examples of rallying its membership, especially of late.

    When Little League emailed coaches a Gatorade offer for a free 48-pack and a large wheeled cooler if they registered their contact information, it ran out of its allotment in only six hours, a redemption rate that was beyond anything it expected.

    When it learned from surveys that its leagues typically bought concession stand items from Sam’s, it landed the club store as a sponsor, negotiating a discounted trial membership for leagues that weren’t already shopping there. When Lance signed on as a sponsor in the hope of cracking into concession stands, Little League suggested the snack maker create a special concession stand variety pack that could be sold at Sam’s club prices. The program landed distribution in almost all Sam’s outlets, DiLullo Brown said.

    “We have some fantastic brands we work with that are used to dealing with sports properties and big entities,” DiLullo Brown said. “So our consultative nature needs to mirror what they’re used to. It’s quick turnaround. It’s thoughtful reaction. Solution driven. All those things. We can’t sit there and say, ‘We’re a nonprofit so we can’t give you that.’ We have to service them.”

    Print | Tags: In-Depth
  • Running the bases: Looking back at 75 years of Little League

    ■ On June 6, the first Little League game is played in Williamsport, Pa. A $30 donation is sufficient to buy uniforms for each of the first three teams, named after their sponsors: Lycoming Dairy, Lundy Lumber, and Jumbo Pretzel.

    All photos by Little League
    ■ Little League founder Carl Stotz designs the Little League logo.

    ■ Mac McCloskey builds the world’s first remote-controlled electronic scoreboard for use at the original Little League field.

    ■ Eleven teams participate in the first Little League World Series, then known as the National Little League Tournament.

    ■ U.S. Rubber (now Uniroyal) becomes Little League’s first corporate sponsor. The partnership between the maker of Keds and Little League led to the development of rubber-molded cleats that are still used today.

    ■ Peter McGovern is named the first full-time president of Little League.

    ■ The Little League World Series is televised for the first time, with CBS providing the coverage.

    ■ Little League Director of Research Dr. Creighton Hale develops the double earflap batter’s helmet.
    ■ ABC broadcasts the Little League World Series championship game for the first time.

    The 1962 Little League World Series

    ■ The Little League World Series championship game is televised in color for the first time on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.”
    ■ Little League opens its first regional headquarters in St. Petersburg, Fla.

    ■ Howard J. Lamade Memorial Field is renovated with new concrete stands and is renamed Howard J. Lamade Stadium. Seating capacity would later increase to 10,000 in 1971.

    ■ Little League Baseball revises its rules to allow girls to participate, following the New Jersey Supreme Court’s order allowing girls onto Little League teams in that state. Little League Softball was created the same year.
    ■ The Peter J. McGovern Little League Museum opens at Little League’s headquarters.

    ■ ABC carries the Little League World Series championship game live for the first time. A miniature camera is mounted on the mask of the home plate umpire, a broadcast first.

    ■ Little League Baseball creates the Challenger Division for mentally and physically disabled children.
    ■ Little League Baseball celebrates its 50th anniversary.

    The lights come on in 1992.

    ■ The first Little League Baseball World Series night game is played after the installation of a lighting system at Howard J. Lamade Stadium.

    ■ Little League celebrates its 50th World Series.
    ■ Little League’s first full-service regional headquarters outside the U.S. opens in Kutno, Poland.

    ■ Little League debuts its Child Protection Program. This initiative expands and organizes safety-based initiatives for local leagues and includes background checks for volunteers.
    ■ U.S. regional championship games are televised nationally on ESPN2 for the first time.

    ■ Little League begins a capital campaign to raise $20 million for a variety of projects.
    ■ Construction begins on Little League Volunteer Stadium, allowing the Little League Baseball World Series to expand from eight to 16 teams in 2001.

    ■ Little League Baseball and ESPN agree to a six-year deal, worth more than $7 million, to carry Little League World Series games.
    ■ Little League International personnel construct a special field on the South Lawn of the White House. Three games are held on the field, with a fourth scheduled game postponed due to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

    ■ The printed version of the “Little Leaguer” newsletter is replaced with an electronic version distributed monthly via email to more than 400,000 Little League managers, coaches, league officials, parents and players.

    ■ Little League and ESPN sign an eight-year television contract, worth $30.5 million, for coverage of all 32 Little League World Series games on one of its TV networks, and to expand the coverage in all eight Little League divisions.

    ■ Little League Baseball and Youth Sports Live sign a deal to stream all nontelevised tournaments for a subscription fee.

    ■ Video replay is expanded at the Little League Baseball World Series.

    ■ ESPN 3D airs the Little League Baseball World Series for the first time.
    ■ The ESPN family of networks televises all four World Championship games in Little League Softball, and the semifinals of the Little League Softball World Series.

    ■ Davie Jane Gilmour is elected chairman of the Little League International Board of Directors, becoming the first woman to hold this position.

    ■ Little League and ESPN agree to an eight-year extension worth approximately $76 million through 2022.

    Sources: Little League and SportsBusiness Journal/Daily archives

    Print | Tags: In-Depth
Video Powered By - Castfire CMS Powered By - Sitecore

Report a Bug