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Saturday, May 18, 2024

MLB Little League Classic Boosts Youth Development As Part Of $3.9B Deal

  • Youth baseball participation rates have almost fully recovered from pandemic
  • Up-close interaction that primetime event provides seen as key development tool
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

MLB returns to Williamsport, Pennsylvania, on Sunday for the sixth installment of the MLB Little League Classic, looking to jumpstart youth development efforts that had stalled during the pandemic.

The primetime game between the Phillies and Nationals, played just a few miles from the Little League International Complex, is a key component of ESPN’s restructured, seven-year rights deal with MLB worth $3.9 billion — and runs alongside the network’s Little League World Series rights deal totaling about $10 million annually through 2030. 

The league continues to invest tens of millions annually in youth development efforts such as Play Ball and the MLB Urban Youth Academies. The MLB Little League Classic provides another large-scale opportunity to help reverse drops in baseball and softball participation rates during the public health crisis. 

Overall U.S. youth participation in baseball in 2022 rebounded to 15.5 million, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, about equal with the 2017 level. Casual participation, while up 7% to 7.91 million in 2022, hasn’t quite returned to pre-pandemic levels.

“The pandemic was definitely a setback, particularly since we’re a team sport,” Tony Reagins, MLB chief baseball development officer, told Front Office Sports. “We’ve almost completely recovered, and we see momentum having that sense of normalcy again, and the type of up-close interaction this event provides.”

MLB has always believed those playing baseball and softball as youths are more likely to become lifelong fans. The league’s 2023 attendance resurgence bears that out, as younger fans have dramatically reduced the median age of MLB ticket-buyers.

Alternate ‘KidsCast’

ESPN will again support its MLB Little League Classic coverage with an alternate “KidsCast” featuring youth commentators and offer increased pregame access to Phillies and Nationals players in Williamsport.

“This event has passed from a novelty into a core of what we do,” Phil Orlins, ESPN VP of production, told Front Office Sports.

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