Little Leagues, big cash problems

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You see how the Wrigley Little League in South Central L.A. struggles to make ends meet — we brought that topic up a while back when exploring the old neighborhood of the Wrigley Field of yesteryear (linked here and linked here).
But you gotta know it’s a nationwide problem, funding Little League teams in a brutal economy.
This story gets into it more:

By Genaro C. Armas
AP Sports Writer

Little League baseball has always been as much about fundraisers and concession stands as balls and strikes. This year, teams expect a scramble to get a sponsor’s name on the back of their jerseys.

Registration is down in some areas around the country, a trend local administrators attribute in large part to cash-strapped parents concerned about their pocketbooks during the recession.

Many leagues slashed registration fees to boost enrollment. However, that means raising more money through sponsorships and donations, already a major slice of Little League budgets. Such revenue is especially important in poorer areas, but finding more money is tough everywhere in a stormy economy with local shop owners — the potential sponsors — also tightening their budgets.

“We didn’t raise fees. We lost sponsorship. Some kids who played in the league for so long, I have to let them play for free,” said Chris Navarro, president of Kingsbridge Little League in New York City’s Bronx borough. Registration there starts at $105 for T-ball. “We’re always running with a negative balance.”

As of late April, about 162,000 teams across the U.S. had been chartered by Little League this season, down slightly — a little more than 1 percent — from the same point last year, according to Little League International headquarters in South Williamsport, Pa.

With leagues still forming, Little League president Steve Keener remains hopeful that when the final count is finished in June the numbers won’t be far off from 2008.

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“This is why we thought we could be somewhat cautiously optimistic … participation is relatively inexpensive in comparison with travel teams and lots of other sports,” Keener said.

Joe Smiegocki, vice president of operations and marketing for Babe Ruth League, Inc., a separate entity from Little League, offered a similar prognosis. As of mid-April, Babe Ruth, based in Trenton, N.J., had a roughly 5 percent increase in the number of teams, possibly because some families are avoiding costlier travel teams.

“We’ve been extremely lucky. Usually what happens with all youth programs when the economy seems to have a bump in the road, our numbers go up,” he said. “More people stay close to home, more people do a lot less traveling.”

But youth baseball organizers aren’t as upbeat in some hard-hit locations.

Leagues that have the tightest budgets often are those in urban areas, such as the Kingsbridge league, which serves what Navarro described as a “below-middle class” area.

Down six teams from last year because of the decreased registration, the league pressed on with opening day in mid-April.

“You try to do your best. If a child is truly having difficulties paying, you should not stop them from playing,” Navarro said.

Little League’s policy is to turn no child away because of financial issues.

“Think about it this way. If a kid is playing, he’s more likely to stay out of trouble,” Navarro said.

In Salinas, organizers voted in January to slash entry fees for players from about $60 to $25. The move helped: Registration has nearly tripled from about 40 players last year to 110 this season.

“We thought $25 would be less of a problem for the parents,” said Salinas American league president Julie Deaton. “It really was … a lot of people (that) didn’t want to send their kids out if they had to pay for Little League.”

Administrators were trying to find a way to make up the difference when a Salinas Little League graduate who wished to remain anonymous donated $10,000 to help pay for repairs and equipment. That allowed the league to dip into its regular budget to make up for lost registration income.

They have remained frugal, though.

The league bought uniforms from a thrift store for about $1.99 apiece, Deaton said. A printing shop owner related to a league board member printed numbers and logos on the tops at a deep discount.

The Little League in rural Reynoldsville, Pa., slashed player entry fees, too. That helped participation stay steady in an area hammered by job losses in the auto supply industry, league president Mike Fye said.

Scrambling for cash isn’t entirely new for Little Leagues. But worries over sign-ups come as Little League has seen a 13 percent decline in the number of children playing baseball, from nearly 2.6 million worldwide at its high point in 1997 to about 2.2 million in 2008.

The number of girls playing Little League softball has also declined, by roughly 10 percent during the same period, to about 359,000.

With Little League participation growing abroad, most of the decline has occurred in the U.S.

In Reynoldsville, as in other places, soccer draws children away. Other Little Leaguers lose interest as they age, though Reynoldsville organizers are optimistic given an increase in 7- to 9-year-old softball.

“The older the kids get, the less participation,” league secretary Kori DeFazio said during a break from cleaning up fields recently before opening day.

Little League sees hope in its Urban Initiative program, created in 1999 to help build baseball leagues in inner cities. Little League said at least 2,700 new teams have started up since the program’s inception.

The Seattle Central Little League is considered one of the program’s top sites, with enrollment having jumped from 30 players in 2003 to more than 400 this year. About 15 percent of players are on scholarship and registration hasn’t taken a hit because of the economy, league president Scott Orser said.

The league has two fewer sponsors from last season, but Orser is optimistic. In fact, with 33 teams, a shortage of fields is the biggest problem.

“We don’t have the latest and greatest (equipment) … but we’re doing OK,” he said. “Baseball for us is so grass roots. Making sure that kids get to practice. Just making sure they can play.”

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