In my last column, I wrote about why even non-baseball fans should take an interest in the recently completed Little League World Series. Two inspiring stories were unfolding, one that dealt with race, the other with gender.
The Jackie Robinson West team from Chicago had an all-African-American squad, and the most heralded star in Williamsport, Pa. was Mo’ne Davis, an outstanding girl pitcher from the Philadelphia area.
While neither the Jackie Robinson team nor Davis ended up winning the World Series, their performances were triumphant. The Chicago youths lost in the final game to South Korea, but revitalized the Windy City, which has had little to celebrate in recent months. As for Davis, she landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated, the first Little Leaguer to be so honored, and a baseball with her autograph sold for more than $500 on eBay.
With the players now back home and beginning their school years, a complex question has come to the forefront: Should Little League World Series competitors be compensated? And while the idea may strike many as farfetched, a study of the economics indicates resoundingly that yes, they should be.
No one is suggesting that the players get paid in the monetary sense of the word, but rather that scholarships be established or money be put into a trust for future use when the children become adults. The sum doesn’t have to be huge, but a total that’s consistent with the revenue the network and tournament sponsors earn. I’m thinking $5,000 per player, a pittance in the big picture.
Simply put, the Little League World Series is big business, a financial bonanza for ESPN and its advertisers. Little League Baseball, Inc. is a nonprofit that, according to its most recent federal tax fillings, generated a $2.8 million profit in fiscal 2012 on $24.5 million in revenues. At year’s end, Little League Baseball, Inc. had $78.5 million in assets.
The Little League World Series rakes in an additional $6.1 million in non-broadcast revenue from nearly two-dozen corporate sponsors including Honda, Hilton Hotels, Chiquita Bananas and Gatorade.
To make my argument more compelling, I’ll point out that Disney — $42.3 billion in 2013 revenue — owns ESPN. Bob Iger, Disney CEO, is the nation’s third-highest-paid corporate executive, whose 2013 salary exceeded $50 million. Certainly somewhere in those millions and billions Disney and the Little League could find a spare few thousand for the players.
Some might counter that offering money to children for playing baseball takes the innocence out of the game, commercializes the event and might distort the youngsters’ values. The truth is that the LLWS is already highly commercialized with everyone but the players profiting handsomely. The last LLWS game Davis pitched had a higher rating for ESPN than any of its Major League telecasts since 2007.
Player compensation isn’t around the corner. Steve Keener, Little League Baseball CEO who made $431,000 in salary and benefits in 2013, says only that “down the road” the LLWS might “do something ... if it’s feasible.”
Keener should act voluntarily before he’s forced to. The recent O’Bannon vs. NCAA held that players should be paid for the use of their images.
Joe Guzzardi is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America. Contact him at email@example.com.