Little League, Big Dollars
The outfield walls at Howard J. Lamade Stadium in Williamsport, Pa., the world's most-photographed Little League ballpark, are painted a soothing shade of dark green. What they aren't--and have never been--is cluttered with advertising. There's a reason for that. "We're trying to maintain as commercial-free a program as we can," says Stephen D. Keener, chief executive of Little League Baseball Inc. It's one of the bright lines that Little League has drawn over the years to prevent its marquee event, the Little League World Series, from turning into the next Weedeater Bowl. Another World Series no-no: charging for tickets. Choice seats to the title contest might fetch $100 if you could buy them, but Little League passes them out for free. "We want families to be able to come here and be able to enjoy this event," Keener says.
All that said, visitors to the 54th World Series, scheduled for Aug. 20-26, might wonder what happened to the little in Little League. Fuzzy-cheeked players still rap the ball around the immaculately kept diamond as they have for years in this agreeable small town. But outside the ballpark, the series can look more like a trade show than a kids' ball game. Sponsors shout their corporate messages from an array of brightly colored booths and elaborate tents, burying fans in an avalanche of free bubble gum, baseball-bat shaped pens, and paper visors.
"They've opened the door to commercialism. They've pretty much been infiltrated," notes Rick Burton, director of the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sport Marketing Center. League officials contend that by cutting deals with corporate sponsors and embracing national television--ABC and ESPN were to broadcast 16 tournament games, including the title contest on Aug. 26--they've improved the series and Little League Baseball in general. Each year, sponsor agreements bring in more than $3 million, nearly 25% of the organization's revenues. That helps pay for an organization that now operates in 105 countries (with the addition last year of Bosnia/Herzegovina). "Every youth organization struggles to raise money for its programs," acknowledges Keener.
SEEING RED. Still, critics question whether Little League has strayed too far from its apple-pie image and mission of giving future Sammy Sosas a relaxed, fun place to play ball. "I can't believe what we've created is really for kids. It started out for kids, but it's become a training ground for professional activity," says William Pollack, author of Real Boys and a child psychologist at Harvard Medical School. The series, with its TV exposure and corporate tie-ins, is "too large for kids," he observes. "It's like putting a little boy in a man's suit."
No doubt, Little League founder Carl E. Stotz would be seeing red. "Carl always believed the game was for the children, and he fought to keep the game for the children," says journalist Kenneth D. Loss, who collaborated with Stotz in writing his autobiography in 1992. A local bookkeeper, Stotz invented Little League in 1939, drawing up field dimensions and using folded newspapers for bases. He signed Little League's first corporate marketing deal in 1948, which obligated U.S. Rubber Corp. to pay the travel expenses of World Series teams. In return, players wore the company's new shoe, Pro Keds, in the series.
By 1955, though, Stotz complained that the World Series had become too much a focus of the Little League season. In a dispute over that issue, he left Little League that year. By the time he died in 1992, the series had become everything he had hoped it never would be--a spectacle watched by crowds of 40,000 in Williamsport and by a TV audience for last year's title game that numbered 3.6 million. Last month, ABC and ESPN signed a deal extending their rights through the 2006 series, and ESPN2 picked up coverage of the tourney a week before the 11- and 12-year-old players settled into their bunks in Williamsport.
COVETED. Little League rents its image to companies ranging from well-known brands such as American Honda to emerging dot-coms such as Myteam.com, which maintains Web pages for more than 2,000 Little Leagues and helps the home office chat virtually with league officials around the world. The companies get limited access to an enormous database of more than 3 million children and 1 million adult volunteers around the world, use of the coveted Little League emblem in their advertising, and the right to a major presence in Williamsport during tournament week.
That presence can be none too subtle. At last year's series, the stadium crowd was quieted momentarily when a Honda minivan drove through a gate and onto the outfield. (The car was the grand prize in a drawing sponsored by the carmaker.) Such deals have helped the organization balance its $13.6 million annual budget and keep down the costs it passes on to its leagues. By affiliating with Little League Baseball, local organizations receive a range of services--rule books, access to league insurance policies, and advice on league affairs. The fees are a modest $1 per player--a third what they would be without the support of sponsors, says Keener.
Beyond the sponsor fee, which ranges from $200,000 to $300,000, Little League's 13 corporate partners must commit to a minimum three-year deal and are expected to devise fund-raising or other programs to benefit the 7,500 Little Leagues worldwide. Wilson Sporting Goods Co. gives "starter kits" of gloves and balls to leagues in disadvantaged communities and Third World countries. RC Cola provides soda machines for local leagues to augment their concession stands--and to sell the sponsor's soft drinks. "We just don't have an interest in a crass commercial relationship," Keener says.
The 2001 series will be the biggest yet. A second stadium, under construction in the shadow of the first, is due to be completed by next August, when the series doubles the number of teams competing to 16. The price tag for it and other refurbishment projects in Williamsport is nearly $7 million, and Keener has spent the past year beating the bushes for donors. Already, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has appropriated $3 million. An additional $500,000 has come from the Pennsylvania Masons, who bought naming rights to the ballpark's high-tech scoreboard to honor Little League's disenfranchised founder--and Mason--Stotz. And corporate sponsors also are chipping in: Myteam.com, with a $1 million gift, and Musco Sports Lighting, by donating stadium lights worth several hundred thousand dollars. Naming rights for the stadium itself are still up for grabs, though corporations need not apply, cautions Keener. "I don't think a corporate name belongs on a Little League stadium like ours," he says. Little League prefers to name the new field for an individual such as Lamade, a Williamsport native whose family owned the Grit newspaper.
The expansion will mean more fans, more games on TV and, eventually, more corporate partners. Little League is "aggressively pursuing" partnerships and expects to lock up two or three more deals in 2001, says Fred Fried, senior vice-president for corporate marketing at SFX Sports Group, the powerful firm that helps Little League Baseball negotiate its sponsor agreements. It'll make the big event that much bigger, but boffo TV ratings aren't all Keener is after. His main goal is to fill more ball fields with budding players--"for more communities to affiliate with Little League Baseball." A bigger challenge may be keeping the outfield walls in Williamsport clear of commercial clutter.