Little League, big finances
The NBA has laid off employees. So has the NFL. And now comes word from the Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., about budget cuts at probably the best-known brand name in youth sports: Little League.
SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT – Little League International has weathered the global economic downturn without the layoffs that have affected some pro sports organizations, but says it is watching expenses closely.
Its budget for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 shows operating revenue of $19.9 million, a decrease of $1.7 million over last year’s spending plan. Operating expenses are projected to increase $82,302, to $18.9 million.
By the way, $4.7 million — or about one-quarter of that budget — comes from right fees paid by ESPN to show the Little League World Series and the regional finals. Just in case you wondered where the economic incentive was to put 11- and 12-year-old baseball players on television.
To me the most interesting numbers come at the end of the story:
Membership in Little League Baseball (11- and 12-year-olds) decreased by 158 leagues and 356 teams in 2008. That’s the group that ends up in the World Series every August.
Last year, 36,582 leagues and 173,027 teams were chartered in all levels of baseball and softball. That is a drop of 943 leagues and 2,931 teams compared to 2007.
Since the team charter fee is $16, the downward trend has not affected the budget, Houseknecht said.
The past 10 years, the general trend for all youth team sports, not just Little League, has been down, Van Auken said. This trend is the reason a league development department was created, he said.
So why would these numbers be going down? Here’s my best guess:
1. Membership organizations, sports or otherwise, are having trouble retaining people and getting new ones to join, unless people see them as a way to fight a threat, like joining the NRA under a Democratic administration or the ACLU under a Republican one.
2. There are plenty of other sanctioning bodies one could join. My local teams are in the Pony league organization, for example.
3. The rise of travel ball is making Little League, with its local teams playing local teams, irrelevant to many elite-level players. And there are plenty of entrepreneurs starting travel leagues if a locality doesn’t have one already.
4. Related to point No. 1, people like the idea of their money staying local. For example, my children’s elementary school recently changed its PTA (part of the money is sent to support a national organization) to a PTO (all money stays home). A sanctioning fee is $16 is nothing, but it’s the principle that your kid is supporting some pencil-pusher in South Williamsport, Pa.
If any of this means that Little League is in danger of losing its ESPN cash cow in 2010, when its contract is up, I don’t see it. A brand name still means something. After all, Notre Dame football has sucked for years and NBC keeps paying more and more money to broadcast it.