Baseball’s New Direction: Leaders Make It Easier For More Kids To Play Longer

By Paige Townley

While baseball has been one of the team sports challenged by declining participation in recent years, according to Sport & Fitness Industry Association participation trends reports, leaders of numerous baseball organizations have been working to reverse the trend. 

“While we have seen a steady decline over a period of years dating back to 2006, that is starting to plateau,” said Rick Riccobono, senior director of development for USA Baseball. “Not to suggest that we’ve solved all of the challenges facing our sport, but there is reason to feel good about the direction we’re heading. It’s an exciting time for our sport.”

USA Baseball

USA Baseball has been doing all it can to provide amateur baseball organizations and teams with the tools and resources needed to get more kids involved in the game. One way method the organization has employed is Play Ball, a collaborative initiative between USA Baseball and Major League Baseball.

Officially launched earlier this year, Play Ball is a website (www.playball.org) featuring educational resources for parents, players, coaches and umpires on topics ranging from health and safety to planning tools. In addition to educational resources, the Play Ball website helps connect potential players to local teams. Through the site, parents and athletes can search a database by zip code to find local leagues and even register to play.

“We want more kids playing more baseball. But we also want them playing a better version of the game, and we want them playing longer into adolescence,” Riccobono said. “With Play Ball, there’s a lot of effort being made to provide everyone involved in the sport with more resources to make sure everyone has a better overall experience with our sport.”

These efforts to grow the game have also led to the launch of Pitch Smart (www.pitchsmart.org), an arm care initiative with age-appropriate guidelines to help parents, players and coaches avoid overuse injuries. “While baseball is one of the safest sports, there are some inherent risks in that over time players can be prone to arm injuries if they don’t take care of their arm like they should,” Riccobono explained. “That’s exactly why we started the Pitch Smart initiative. And we’ve been working with national organizations to educate everyone in the game. This is a priority for us, and it will be for quite some time.”

PONY Baseball

USA Baseball isn’t alone when it comes to implementing initiatives to increase the number of participants in America’s favorite pastime. PONY Baseball is working to grow participation as well, especially in younger age groups. “Specifically, we are looking at age 10 and under and what we can do to give more kids an opportunity to participate,” said PONY Baseball President and CEO Abe Key. “We are focusing on younger age groups and growing the grassroots numbers in hopes that they will have a meaningful experience at a young age and continue to play as they get older.”

To reach more kids, PONY Baseball has been working with local community organizations to get the word out about opportunities to play baseball—especially to parents. “Oftentimes, young kids don’t know what to sign up for, so we are making sure parents know about the opportunities for their kids to play baseball,” Key said. “We are also promoting the fact that the risk of injury in baseball is low and that, in fact, it’s one of the safest sports youth can play. We are also making sure parents know that in PONY Baseball their kids will be well coached, teams will be well organized and their kids will be taught the sport in a fun environment.”

Little League International

In addition to participating in Play Ball and Pitch Smart, Little League International has developed its own program, Little League University, to attract and retain players. Launching this fall, Little League University is starting as an online portal that will offer training, tips and advice for anyone involved in the sport. “The platform will provide valuable resources and tools in an interactive environment to enhance the Little League experience for all who participate,” said Brian McClintock, Little League International’s senior director of communications. “Users can also customize, share and interact with important resources developed specifically for them.”

Little League has also started an initiative called Grow the Game, which is a $4 million plan to help local Little League programs grow the game in their communities by providing financial assistance to the programs to ensure all the children have a meaningful Little League experience. “All of the funds will be spent on programs for kids, including grants to repair fields, support for urban programs to attract minorities to baseball and softball, and educational programs to train volunteers, including coaches and umpires,” McClintock said. “In addition, to make Little League even more affordable for those who participate, the charter fee paid by all 6,500 leagues throughout the United States will be reduced from $16 to $10 per team. This continues the organization’s commitment to make Little League accessible and affordable for all children.”

American Amateur Baseball Congress

To make it easier for players to participate in its league, this year the American Amateur Baseball Congress (AABC) began hosting regional World Series events instead of one national event. “The cost of travel makes it difficult for many teams to participate,” said AABC President Richard Neely. “We feel we have to do what we can to keep our kids playing ball and giving them opportunities.”

Amateur Athletic Union

In addition to introducing the new Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Baseball International World Championships, AAU has implemented a new incentive program for operators, which will assist them in starting clubs, obtaining licenses and processing insurance certificates for two years. “They will also receive bonus assistance upon reaching certain milestones of membership,” said Debra Horn, AAU senior sport manager. “It’s a great new program for operators just starting out in AAU. There are also incentive milestones available for existing operators.”

National Amateur Baseball Federation

With a mission of inspiring everyone to play ball, the National Amateur Baseball Federation (NABF) is constantly trying to improve its offerings to provide the best experience possible.

“We have an annual meeting where we make a point to discuss things we can do to improve our game, including the venues we use, our rules and all kinds of things,” said NABF Executive Director Charles Blackburn.

How CVBs & Sports Commissions Can Help

To provide the best experience possible and attract more players to the game, leaders of the sport also know that producing fun and rewarding events is also a key for success. They recommended working with the local sports authorityfor support from the host city’s CVB or sports commission, whether that comes in the form of financial assistance, marketing skills or recruiting volunteers. “Sometimes we look to the CVB or sports commission for their expert marketing skills, and in some cases we need their event management skills,” Key said. “Sometimes we just need their local help identifying facilities and hotels. Some of our events are spread out over a large radius, and we need the CVB to help us secure enough hotel rooms and playing facilities for the hundreds of teams that will be participating in that event.”

Regardless of the specific assistance needed from the CVB/sports commission, one of the best ways to plan and host an event is by forming a strong relationship with the local leadership. “We have seen this many times over,” Riccobono said. “Local CVBs/sports commissions have a way to connect you and, most importantly, your participants with the best possible experience. We don’t take the viewpoint that the experience is just between the foul lines. The moment the participants get into town they are part of our event. So the experience as a whole—hotel, transportation, amenities, facilities, etc.—all of these things play a major factor in the overall event we deliver. The local leadership in the CVB/sports commission can help make that the best experience possible.”