The Hopeful Future of America’s Favorite Pastime
By Brian Litvack
August 18, 2021
On August 12, a baseball game was played that was as heartwarming, dramatic, and engaging as a classic Hollywood blockbuster. The scene began with a very famous movie star slowly strolling across the field toward the mound when he then turned to watch the players emerge from cornfields to take their places. A crowd screamed in the distance and viewers held their breath to see what happened next.
But it wasn’t a movie at all. It was the “Field of Dreams” game between the Yankees and White Sox played in a cornfield in Iowa where the iconic movie was filmed in 1988. Many others seem to agree, as it was the most-watched regular season MLB game in 16 years, with nearly six million viewers who shared on social media that it gave them goosebumps or even made them teary to watch.
The night before the pro game was played, two youth sports development programs in New York’s DREAM and Chicago’s ACES got to play in a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition game. We were able to get a special sneak preview from DREAM, including talking to an impressive young man in middle infielder Alejandro Diaz.
Whether it was a special batting practice, meeting MLB legends, or competing on national television, each of these kids—and those in their communities watching them—walked away with an experience they’ll cherish for the rest of their lives.
Yet, those are just two of the thousands of youth baseball, and softball, games that took place last week. The true magic of the games, as that daily part of our lives, can be experienced in any neighborhood with baseball created by leaders with a passion for the sport and for helping young people reach their individual potential through it.
The sport of baseball has been a staple for more than 100 years in the United States, which is why the discussion around the decline of youth baseball participation is always surprising.
A study by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association found that the number of people who played baseball within the United States rose 21 percent pre-pandemic, and for three years in a row, baseball and softball combined to be the most participated team sport in the U.S. These trends point to enticing opportunities for baseball to not only be America’s pastime, but also the sport of our future.
Many of these opportunities include technologies that are on their way to becoming mainstays for both youth sports player development and fan enjoyment.
Tech Enabled Experiences
Baseball has paved a way for innovation, being a long-time groundbreaker in media, in-ballpark experiences, and a stat-driven game through records and analytical revolutions such as “Moneyball.” But now, many of the most innovative and powerful software platforms in sports are focused on investing in the development of baseball.
Companies such as Diamond Kinetics, enable player development, superior equipment fitting, objective scouting and recruiting, and engagement-driven entertainment. Blast Motion provides the industry’s most accurate swing analyzer. Rapsodo brings a new dimension to the game by creating real-time analytics on player activity, which can be used for performance and coaching but also for engagement and enjoyment. And HitTrax uses an immersive and interactive digital experience to rethink training while bringing elements of gaming into practice.
The different applications of the “digitization” of all youth sports are still in the early innings and baseball, again, is leading the way.
Like in Iowa’s Field of Dreams, a green field shaped like a diamond has an aura about it that captures the awe of kids, parents, and fans—and there’s the unmistakable vantage point when you see it from a plane at 30,000 feet.
That feeling’s being captured again in Williamsport, Pa., for the Little League World Series. And it’s being captured in Aberdeen, Md., and at other Ripken Experience locations. It’s also captured in Cooperstown, NY at the All Star Village and in Redondo Beach, Calif., at the Dodgers Training Academy powered by EL1. It’s also captured at each of the MLB Youth Academy facilities.
Thanks to the rich tradition of the sport, and the memories these premium experiences create, baseball is amassing professional venues for kids across the country that engage entire families and communities.
Major League Baseball continues to make it clear that it will invest in developing equitable access to playing opportunities. It’s extremely valuable to align, and directly connect, the most influential and powerful organization in the sport with the overall youth experience.
Commissioner Manfred has recognized that supporting youth baseball is also good business and has said, “The single biggest determinant of whether a kid becomes a baseball fan for life is whether or not they play. We do feel like the participation numbers give us a real bedrock in terms of growing the game.”
Major League Baseball has multiple initiatives that focus on youth participation, including Reviving Baseball In Inner Cities (RBI), Youth Academies, PLAY BALL activations, and the development of the Youth Development Foundation in partnership with the MLB Players Association.
MLB also works closely with Little League and USA Baseball—a synergy that is important to align all the most influential organizations.
One aspect of baseball that has faced challenges in terms of participation is its inclusivity towards females. While there are important efforts such as Baseball for All and MLB GRIT, there historically has not been an accepting culture or defined pathway for girls to play baseball.
While these initiatives are shifting that framework, there always has been one for softball. The games are certainly different, yet there are more similarities than differences, and MLB, and all baseball organizations, are well-served to advance support for softball initiatives.
Building from Lauren Chamberlain’s recent appointment as MLB Youth Softball Ambassador, which includes sponsorship of the Women’s Olympic team, including softball as part of all “PLAY BALL” activations, more closely aligning with USA Softball, integrating technology advancements for development and entertainment and uncovering media distribution opportunities for fun softball content.
Baseball is a game that brings people together—we saw that with “Field of Dreams”—and has custom traditions in many cultures. That includes the recognition and celebration of the Negros Leagues in the 20th century.
The Players Alliance—and the recent $100MM commitment—is a concerted effort to support Black communities with a stated mission to create an inclusive culture within baseball and the community, where differences are leveraged to elevate racial equality and provide greater opportunities for the Black community, both in our game and the places we live in, play in, and care about most.
Globally, the recent growth of the World Baseball Classic and Baseball’s return to the Olympics were signs that baseball will continue to evolve as a global game that is growing in a world more closely connected than ever before.
The Future Belongs to Youth Sports Development
At LeagueApps, we believe all traditional and popular team sports, like any other cultural staple, must evolve their experiences in order to continue to engage future generations. There’s an opportunity to modernize: evolve the rules, create derivatives of the traditional game for different age groups and competitiveness levels, and continue to develop new and creative ways to introduce the game to kids.
The future of America’s favorite pastime begins with local and youth sports development programs, just like DREAM and ACES did by taking their kids to Field of Dreams, and the way thousands of leaders who are paving the way for all kids to experience the power of play.