Little League seasons are in full swing, and there’s a lot happening in the world of youth baseball and softball this summer. Some of it’s terrific news, like the way communities are navigating umpire shortages. Other developments, such as field maintenance issues forcing the potential end of seasons in other communities, might make you cringe.
But let’s start with the big news out of Little League world headquarters in Williamsport, Pa. ESPN platforms are set to broadcast 337 Little League Region and World Series tournament games in 2023, beginning with the Little League Softball Region Tournaments on July 22 and concluding with the Little League Baseball® Word Series on Aug. 27 from Williamsport.
“Little League and ABC [which owns a majority share of ESPN) share a storied history that goes back to 1963,” Stephen D. Keener, Little League president and CEO, said in a statement. “Now, 60 years later, we’re thrilled to see how our program and partnership has continued to grow to bring our Little League Softball World Series to even more people after a record year of viewership in 2022. As we enter our new eight-year partnership with ESPN, we are excited to work together to showcase the teamwork, fun, and sportsmanship that are the hallmarks of the Little League program to millions of people around the world again this summer.”
The 2022 Little League Softball World Series was the ESPN’s most-watched tournament since the network expanded its coverage of the tournament in 2017. In addition to the LLSWS Championship moving to ABC this summer, the championship games from six Little League Softball U.S. Region Tournaments will be broadcast on ESPN after four years of airing on ESPN+.
With its growth and ability to reach younger audiences, ESPN+ will continue to be the home of Little League World Series and Region Tournament games, with 240 games scheduled to air exclusively on ESPN+, including for the first time the World Series Championships of Little League’s teenage divisions: Intermediate (50/70) Baseball, Junior League Baseball, Junior League Softball, Senior League Baseball and Senior League Softball.
Speaking of the LLSWS, Athletes Unlimited — which owns and operates professional women’s softball, lacrosse, volleyball and basketball leagues — has partnered with Little League to host the first-ever “Athletes Unlimited Pro Games during the Little League Softball® World Series” event.
What does that mean? Well, in the middle of its championship season, Athletes Unlimited will relocate its entire roster and staff from the Chicago area to the home of the LLSWS in Greenville, N.C., to stage a doubleheader at East Carolina University’s Stallings Stadium at Elm Street Park on August 9. Both games will be televised live on ESPN2.
The previous day, Athletes Unlimited players — many of whom played Little League Softball as kids — will meet with all 12 participating LLSWS teams from around the world.
“When we talk about ‘growing the game’ and expanding opportunities for women and girls in sports, an event like this is a prime example of how we can bring those concepts to life,” , co-founder and CEO of Athletes Unlimited, said in a statement. “Getting a chance to see the best players in the world up close will hopefully be an inspirational experience for the next generation of softball stars and leaders in our community.”
Meanwhile, some communities are finding new ways to combat umpire shortages at local Little League games. In Madison, Wis., West Madison Little League — which boasts more than 50 teams and needs about 24 umpires every weekend to cover all its games — lowered the age requirement to umpire to 12. League officials also have added more training and increased pay. Almost all umpires are current or past players, but not all of them are always available.
“We didn’t let kids start until they were 13, because we had enough players to do it,” West Madison Little League Board President Jerry Schmitt told NBC15.com. “And as things transitioned, [we] noticed that there [are] more and more games that we don’t have two umpires.”
To coincide with the lower age requirements, the league also introduced a zero-tolerance policy for arguing or questioning an umpire’s call.
“[Former players turned umps have] been taught to listen to the coaches, now they’re the ones in charge of the games and it’s hard to do that to an adult,” Schmitt said. “I can understand why that would be intimidating. That’s what we always want to remind people; this will make them better players, this will make them better people, this will make our community better.”
Unfortunately, that’s not the mindset in all Little League communities. A Little League organization in San Diego, for example, was forced to shut down its season — at least temporarily — because of poor facility conditions that include worn-out fields, rundown bathrooms and rusty, broken fences.
“Greg Spielman is the North Park Little League President. The league has over 40 teams, 430 kids, playing 750 games,” according to CBS8.com. “He says they play at ballparks all over San Diego, and the ones in the city’s heart, in underserved communities, are maintained the worst.”
“There’s no maintenance. There’s no cleanup. There are no funds for it,” Spielman said. “Deferred maintenance has devastated the fields. The hardscaping at the park is falling apart. The plumbing and the bathrooms are constantly closed.”
In a statement to CBS8.com, the City of San Diego Parks and Recreation Department noted that two parks recently underwent field renovations, including one that won’t reopen until mid-July.
“Often, fields will ‘look’ ready, but the turf still needs time to settle, and if they were opened prematurely, it would set back all of the work that had been done,” the statement continued. “It looks pretty ready to go, and it may appear like nothing is happening, but the grass is recovering, rooting and growing, necessitating it to remain closed until July 11.”
But that doesn’t solve the other non-field issues at city parks, Spielman claimed. “Parks and Rec staff are trying to help as much as possible,” he said. “City Council is not giving the resources. The mayor’s not giving the resources. I just heard the mayor on a news show tout that Park and Rec was one of his shining achievements. And I voted for the man every time, for every office he’s been in, and I was like, ‘Wait, what?’ We can’t say that our park system is our shining achievement.”