On the start of Players’ Weekend, Major League Baseball says that its efforts to bring new kids into the sport are paying off. After writing how the Aspen Institute’s Don’t Retire, Kid campaign potentially highlighted baseball’s participation problems, MLB reached out to assure fans that there is a strong undercurrent to carry baseball well into the 21st century.
MLB is leaning heavily on its Play Ball initiative to get kids excited about what baseball has to offer. Created in June 2015 by Commissioner Rob Manfred, Play Ball became a top priority in his efforts to grow the game. According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, casual participation is up 52.8% since Play Ball launched.
“Let kids play,” said Steve Arocho, Senior Director of MLB Communications & Youth Engagement.“They don’t have to wear a uniform. They can play baseball in any form and enjoy a connection to the sport.”
The SFIA separates participants into core and casual, with core participants playing more than 26 times per year. With more travel ball programs starting at younger ages, MLB views Play Ball as a conduit to familiarize kids with the skills in free or low-cost ways.
“We’re making it easier for kids to get into baseball,” Arocho said. “The Play Ball initiative helps to support Little League and local RBI programs. We also have a program with USA baseball that is for physical education [classes] to introduce them to the sport, so that it is not so much on the parents to bring them to Little League.”
While Play Ball is taking a much-needed grassroots approach to sports development, youth-centric approaches like Players’ Weekend are engaging younger audiences through social media. MLB is also using this weekend to support the MLB-MLBPA Youth Development Foundation through auctioning game-worn Players’ Weekend jerseys and batting helmets. The YDF supports a diverse group of amateur baseball and softball programs across the United States and Canada.
With these initiatives in place, will the rise in children casually playing the sport create high school athletes and long-term fans? It may take MLB another five years to find out.
Despite some tough headwinds, MLB feels confident it will find new ways to create excitement about the sport with the next generation. With Little League participation no longer a rite of passage, MLB realizes it has to find different ways to reach communities in order to capture the hearts of a new generation.