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Leagues Work to Grow Games with Youth

By Mike May, Contributing Writer
June 7, 2016

For years, leaders at the professional sports league level didn’t take much of an active role in the national youth sports scene. Today, however, attitudes have changed.

In the baseball community, youth baseball leaders have been urging Major League Baseball (MLB) to help foster the growth of baseball at the grassroots level. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred agrees with that message.

Last June, MLB and USA Baseball launched “PLAY BALL,” a new initiative to encourage widespread participation in all forms of baseball and softball activities among all age groups, especially youth. The new program highlights the variety of ways — both formally and informally — that baseball and softball can be played, such as playing catch, stickball, kickball, whiffle ball and skills competitions such as “Pitch, Hit & Run.” The PLAY BALL initiative also provides players, parents and coaches with the information and resources to help with proper play and instruction.

The initative’s website, PlayBall.com, includes coaching tips and parent resources, and gives parents, coaches and players information on how to participate in affiliated activities, links to youth-related news and events, and searchable maps to help find local community leagues.

According to Chris Marinak, MLB’s senior vice president, league economics and strategy, PLAY BALL involves “everybody in baseball working together to accomplish a great goal.”

Marinak admits that children seemed to have “lost the ability to play baseball casually.”  Every game of baseball does not require nine players on a team and does not have to be travel ball with adults serving as coaches and umpires, he adds.

PLAY BALL has three goals:

  1. Increase grassroots participation in all forms of baseball;
  2. Increase organized participation in all forms of baseball across all demographics;
  3. Develop more future MLB players from diverse backgrounds, as the game needs more Hispanic and African-American participation.

Major League Baseball is spreading the word about baseball opportunities by using public service announcements, hosting special events, increasing awareness through social media (Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter) and getting involved in baseball education.

Last summer, three different PLAY BALL events were held in three different cities (Sacramento, Calif.; Baltimore and Oklahoma City, Okla.) where the goal was to highlight the fun of baseball. At each event, children tried some element of baseball — hitting, fielding, running, sliding, throwing, and catching.

Baseball leaders and executives are thrilled about Manfred’s passion for supporting grassroots baseball. “In regards to MLB’s program to grow the game of baseball, I think that it is fantastic,” says Elliot Hopkins, director of sports, sanctioning and student services, National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). “I love the commitment from Commissioner Manfred and his staff that they are working not only to reach out and get more young people involved in the sport through participation, but to build up a younger, more diverse fan base.”

“We’re excited to see Commissioner Manfred’s passion towards building participation at the youth level,” says Lindsay Naber, director of marketing, key accounts, Rawlings Sporting Goods, St. Louis. “Those of us on the manufacturing side, such as Rawlings, have worked on our own individual programs in the past, but our efforts are more impactful when we’re all pulling from the same side of the rope. By addressing the decline in participation as an industry, hopefully we’ll see more positive results.”

National Football League (NFL)

The NFL has created a campaign (NFL PLAY 60) where it simply wants young people to become and remain physically active, regardless of whether it’s through playing football, for 60 minutes a day to help reverse the trend of childhood obesity.

“Our players recognize the value of staying healthy and it’s important that young fans also understand the benefits of exercise,” says NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. “NFL PLAY 60 is a significant tool in ensuring children get their necessary, daily physical activity.”

While the NFL is always interested in developing the next generation of pro football players, the league knows that some of its best players are actually well-rounded athletes who are not one-dimensional football players, and may be one of the reasons that NFL PLAY 60 is not a football-specific program.

Specializing in one sport at an early age is actually negatively impacting overall youth sports participation in the United States, according to Commissioner Goodell.

“I worry so much about putting pressure on kids that if you don’t commit to a sport by fourth or fifth grade, you’re out of luck,” he says. “There’s a lot of pressure we’re putting on our kids whether it’s coming from coaches, leagues, or parents.”

National Basketball Association (NBA)

The NBA also is in touch with its youngest constituents through its Jr. NBA program, which is expected to reach 5 million youth in the United States and Canada during the next two years via a series of basketball clinics, skills challenges and tournaments.

As part of this effort, the NBA has developed a Jr. NBA partnership network that includes youth basketball programs affiliated with all NBA, WNBA and NBA Development League teams, elementary and middle schools, military bases and longstanding community partners, including Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Jewish Community Centers of North America, National Association of Police Athletic Leagues, National Recreation and Park Association, National Wheelchair Basketball Association, Special Olympics, and YMCA.

National Hockey League (NHL)

In addition to Major League Baseball, the NFL, and the NBA, the National Hockey League is very focused on getting its youngest fans on the ice with sticks and skates.

“The NHL and our clubs recognize how‎ critical it is to the future of the sport — and the business — to build and support hockey at the very lowest levels, and we have invested significantly in pursuing that objective,” says Bill Daly, deputy commissioner of the National Hockey League.

Daly says the league provides resources and support to both of youth hockey’s governing bodies in North America — USA Hockey and Hockey Canada — as well as to other hockey countries around the world. Additionally, in conjunction with the National Hockey League Players Association (NHLPA), $20 million annually is earmarked for an Industry Growth Fund, under which hockey-themed, in-school and ‘Learn to Play’ programs have been developed for each of the league’s 30 markets. Those funds also have helped establish club-specific youth hockey and grassroots initiatives.

“Nothing is more important to us than growing participation in the sport, increasing opportunities for access and building our fan base by bringing more and more young players to the game,” he says.

Mike May is a Wellington, Fla.-based freelance sports writer, veteran high school soccer official and high school basketball coach, and experienced sporting goods industry publicist. For more information or to comment on this article, email