Little League Baseball Inc. gets millions of dollars annually in broadcast rights for its World Series, nearly matching the deals struck for the WNBA and mid-major college football conferences.
Boasting assets of about $80 million, the organization based in Williamsport, Pa. has a CEO with a total compensation package of more than $500,000, and several top executives make six figures.
Yet, at the local level that is the organization’s beating heart, volunteer boards often find themselves largely on their own when it comes to scraping up the bucks to buy equipment, cover travel expenses to tournaments and maintain or improve facilities to keep their programs relevant in the hyper-competitive youth sports world.
So, as we move toward the climax of another Little League World Series, PennLive wondered about the balance between the cash coming in to Little League’s headquarters and what flows back out to nurture the roughly 6,500 grass roots leagues.
PennLive also spoke with some of the leaders of Pennsylvania Little League programs about what they would like to see.
When asked if he felt Little League was doing enough to share the wealth with its community affiliates, Jim Janovich, the immediate past president of Red Land Youth Baseball, said, “Unequivocally, no.”
The all-stars from Red Land played in the Little League World Series four years ago and won the United States championship, drawing record crowds as enthusiastic fans made the 90-minute drive to Williamsport. Last fall, the organization decided to leave Little League for the Cal Ripken Baseball division of the smaller, Babe Ruth League.
The biggest part of Red Land’s move was for baseball reasons, Janovich said: Ripken rules allow pre-teens to play a closer version of the game they see on television, allowing things like taking leads, stealing bases, and pick-off moves from the pitcher’s mound.
But Janovich says he firmly believes Little League could be more supportive of its grassroots level. He said Little League could lower program costs, find ways to distribute more of its revenue back to the leagues on a regular basis, or help players’ families with travel costs when they reach the game’s highest stage.
“Let’s be honest,” Janovich said recently. "It’s a business making millions of dollars off of a youth sport. And they nickel and dime you every step of the way.
“All along the way it’s we pay, we pay, we pay. And the only thing that comes back is that you get to say: ‘We’re a Little League organization.’"
Janovich’s reference was to the costs that his organization paid to Little League Baseball annually for league and team charter fees; insurance coverages and other administration fees.
Little League officials contend they’re committed to striking a fair balance between putting on the show that entertains millions of viewers around the world and using the revenue to support their local partners.
“While the Little League International Tournament provides more competitive opportunities for local leagues, Little League remains proud of its role as an affordable, recreational baseball and softball program that is focused on youthful development for all children," said Director of Media Relations Kevin Fountain.
And, he added, it is “always looking for additional ways to provide support and assistance to its local leagues.”
‘Big expense’ on families
Some local affiliates have benefitted from that assistance, and they are grateful for it. But they also see ways the organization could do more.
Shippensburg Little League officers were one of the lucky local groups who received an $11,000 grant from Little League’s “Grow the Game” program in 2018. They used those funds to help improve drainage on a field that was getting water-logged after heavy rains, and they are appreciative of it.
But this summer, parents interested in tracking their kids’ progress through state and regional tournaments had to foot the bill for unplanned travel to and extended stays in DuBois, and Freehold, N.J. - both hotel trips from Shippensburg.
“That’s a big expense on the families between hotel rooms, gas and the van to get the team there,” said Tiffany Roth, vice chair of the Shippensburg Little League board. “It’d be nice to see something (to help families) as they progress to the higher levels.”
Little League argues it is plowing more money than ever into the local leagues. “Grow the Game” has doled out more than $4 million to 237 programs around the world - an average of about $17,000 per grant - in the last four years, Fountain noted.
These funds are used to start up Challenger divisions for kids with special needs, softball divisions for girls, or to help inner-city leagues find playing spaces. Leagues have used that money to buy equipment like batting cages or to seed larger capital campaigns that provide for upgrades like new scoreboards and dugouts.
“Involvement from the community is like a snowball,” said Dan Beauchamp, president of the DeMotte, Ind. Little League, a recent Grow the Game beneficiary. “We got the ball rolling, and the more improvements we make, the bigger the snowball is and subsequently, the faster the progress we’re making with community involvement.”
The traditional cost-sharing model, Fountain noted, has always been that leagues use their local registrations to cover baseball equipment, uniforms, field maintenance and other operating costs. And it is absolutely true that the vast majority of the registration fees raised by the local leagues stays right in the community.
In addition, Fountain said, for the past 15 years, Little League provides up to 125 free national background checks for the coaches and other volunteers. There’s also a lower-than-market-cost group insurance plan providing coverage for sports and spectator injuries, and local leagues can create free, customized websites with online registration through a sponsorship arrangement with Dick’s Sporting Goods.
That’s all real cost-saving stuff for the parents and baseball lovers who make the volunteer armies that bring the program to life in your town. But is it enough?
The business of the World Series
Audits of Little League’s finances for the year ending Sept. 30, 2018 show the organization pulled in $34.9 million in total income. Most of that money comes from the playoff season tournaments, corporate sponsorships and the eight-year ESPN/ABC broadcast contract.
The broadcast contract pays the organization more than $9 million per year through 2022, and it’s seen by one top sports business analyst as a winner for both parties.
Little League gains national exposure unique among its youth sports peers and an income stream that’s somewhere in between the rights deals for the WNBA ($10 million per year), or the NCAA’s Mid-American Conference ($8 million).
“Little League is getting weeks of coverage on one of the most popular networks in the country at a time when there is little else on TV,” said Austin Karp, managing editor/digital of Sports Business Journal. “It’s a good deal for the organization, which can turn around and pump that money back into the grassroots operations.”
It’s just as good for ESPN, Karp said, noting last year’s Little League World Series championship game on ABC drew 3.25 million viewers, beating the final round audience for the first FedExCup playoff event for the PGA Tour.
A recent “Baseball America” feature on the series noted that that 2018 championship game drew more eyeballs than any regular season major league baseball game that year.
“This is a relatively cheap deal that gets predominantly good P.R. and provides ESPN with a ton of games heading into football season,” he said.
Little League also nets more than $7 million annually from partnerships with major corporations such as Adidas, Canon, Chick-fil-A, Cigna, DICK’S Sporting Goods, Easton, Gatorade, Honda, and Musco Sports Lighting.
As a business, Little League Baseball has 111 employees, most of whom are based at the headquarters in South Williamsport. There are nine regional offices, five in the U.S. and four others around the globe.
Eight of its staffers make more than $100,000 annually, led by Chief Executive Officer Steve Keener. He became president in November 1994 and was given additional duties as CEO two years later.
Keener’s salary in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2017, the latest year for which compensation data was publicly available, was $431,959. Including benefits, Keener’s total compensation package that year was $513,470.
Following Keener in compensation that year were Patrick W. Wilson, vice president of operations and program development, and David B. Houseknecht, the chief financial officer, at $257,060 and $257,019, respectively.
Those salaries inevitably add to the scrutiny given the organization that is powered primarily by volunteers. But by some commonly used barometers for non-profits, they are not seen as wildly out of line.
As a comparison, New Jersey-based Babe Ruth’s IRS Form 990 for 2016-17 showed that on revenues of $4.9 million, its president, Steven Tellefsen, was paid $309,337.
According to Little League’s own Form 990 filings, salaries for top officers are set by a compensation committee; Keener and other top officers do not sit on that panel. The committee acts based on performance evaluations, comparisons with peers, and the organization’s broader salary budget.
Kevin Doyle, a senior program analyst for the non-profit data clearinghouse Charity Navigator, noted that Little League reports using 88.7 percent of its revenue for delivery of its programs and services, which he said is “better than most organizations we rate.”
The question for locals is exactly what programs and services are being funded.
The organization’s most recent audit, for the year ending last Sept. 30, stated that Little League spent $14.4 million on its tournaments that culminate with the LLWS, maintenance of its five regional baseball complexes around the country and Kutno, Poland, and the World of Little League museum in Williamsport; league operations get $17.1 million.
A more detailed breakown in the 2017 Form 990 shows that the organization’s top three expense categories were:
- Salaries and benefits, $9.278 million;
- Office expenses, $7.516 million;
- Travel, $3.991 million.
Benefits for leagues and Little League’s Urban Initiative trailed at $1.518 million.
Sharing the wealth
Coaches and organizers had suggestions, big and small, for more ways to share the wealth.
Steve Bandura is a founder of the non-Little League Anderson Monarchs baseball program in Philadelphia, that produced much of the talent for the famous Taney Dragons team with the celebrated pitcher, Mo’ne Davis.
Bandura had one easy suggestion: paid home plate umpires for the LLWS. He said he found it odd that players, regardless of their age, are placed on this global platform and playing for the ultimate youth sports prize with volunteer umpires behind home plate.
“I would like to see them find really good home plate umpires and pay them (for the tournament),” Bandura said. “The balls and strikes umpiring was really bad in 2014, and the kids deserve to have a fair strike zone on that stage."
He also wonders if Little League - despite its Urban Initiative program - couldn’t share even more resources with inner city programs that have trouble raising funds when they’re outside the spotlight of a national tournament run.
Several, like Shippensburg’s Roth, mentioned the family travel costs for all-star tournaments. But it appears no changes in Little League procedure is imminent on that front.
“The top priority for us is to ensure the players, coaches and managers are provided with the accessibility to travel to each of our seven World Series locations and enjoy the experience at each of those events,” Fountain wrote in an email to PennLive.
Little League advises leagues on ways they can raise funds to help cover costs of family and friends, he added, but “providing logistical and financial support to families from countries around the world at all seven of our world series events would not be feasible without an extremely significant investment.”
To be fair, organizers in other youth baseball leagues often have the same complaints.
“All of them could be a lot better with: ‘Hey, you’re a part of our organization. What do your leagues need?’” said Amechie Walker Sr., Youth Baseball Director for Harrisburg’s Men of the South-East League Field, or MOSELF, a non-profit that sponsors the RBI (for Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities) program here.
At Red Land, in its first year in the Cal Ripken program, Janovich noted costs to parents remained exactly the same as they were in Little League: A $100-per-player registration fee for kids 12 and under, with players responsible for their own glove and cleats.
Then too, in Shippensburg, where the community just raised $75,000 this year to help with an emergency replacement of field lights, leaders noted there’s an intrinsic value in neighbors-helping-neighbors for a program that is aways going to need volunteers.
“Our biggest driver is our community. Our community supports us pretty well,” said Josh Fritz, a Shippensburg board member.
And, for the record, they wouldn’t think of leaving the Little League brand.
The local association’s boy’s team participated in the 1990 World Series in Williamsport, and like Red Land, won the U.S. bracket. So, “when you talk Little League in Shippensburg, everybody knows what it’s all about,” Roth said.
The consensus, if there is one, seems to be that most local officials would like the Little League professionals to re-evaluate their finances and try to find ways to provide more direct support to the local affiliates.
But for the most part, they’re also still proud to be a part of its overall mission - keeping games accessible to all - at a time when overall participation in youth sports overall seems to be declining.
A recent study by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association stated that in 2017, only 37% of kids aged six to 12 played team sports on a regular basis, down from 45% in 2008. Critics lament the growing split between families who are paying for professional coaches and specialized training, and those who can’t.
Little League is still seen by some as an equalizer. Local leagues are barred from turning away families because of an inability to pay a registration. Little League is a place where all can come to play, and the emphasis is on letting kids be kids.
“Does your worst player want to come back next year and play?” asks youth sports reform advocate Bob Bigelow. “That’s the only thing that matters” for kids, Bigelow strongly believes, and he sees Little League as one of the last vestiges of that kind of atmosphere.
“Can the worst player look back and say: ‘That was fun. I want to come back next year and see if I can learn to get more hits.' Where is the positive force in that kids life?”
One leading youth sports scholar noted Little League’s position as both a community-based program and the producer of a globally-broadcast World Series is unusual in the youth sports world.
But Travis Dorsch, director of the Families in Sport Lab at Utah State University, said they can be complementary.
A story like that of Davis and her Taney Dragons teammates from 2014 - given ESPN’s platform - can inspire a whole generation of kids to play.
What’s important then, he added, is that Little League backs that up with the resources and training at the local level so that kids are able to have a positive experience, giving them some things they can learn and take to other area of their lives.
Because in the end, Dorsch said, most Little League players aren’t going to remember how many games their teams won or lost.
“What we remember is the way the coaches treated us and what they taught us, and the relationships that we had with our friends."
PennLive correspondent John Beauge contributed to this report.
Source : https://www.pennlive.com/news/2019/08/volunteer-fueled-little-league-is-big-business-in-its-espn-age-some-wish-broadcast-s-trickled-a-little-farther.html4017