Some thoughts from the Little League District Administrators Conference
What's a Little League District? Do we have an Administrator? Why did you go to Warsaw for this Conference?
These might be some of the questions popping through your mind after reading that headline (even if you didn’t know that the Conference was in Poland). Hopefully, though, one of you questions isn't ‘What is Little League?'
Having returned from the Conference (held on 8-9 October), I thought it pertinent to share some of my observations with our youth volunteers in the UK. But before I do that, let me pick up some of those questions.
Each Little League in Europe belongs to a larger District. For the UK, the District is the whole country. Since the Confederation of European Baseball and Little League signed a partnership agreement nearly a decade ago, Little League has recognised the national governing bodies in each country as their governing structure, particularly where those bodies actively work to integrate the Little League programme as a key part of their youth domestic set-up.
In the UK, the coordinating body has been BaseballSoftballUK, even though we are not the governing body for baseball or softball, for two reasons: first, we were the organisation to start the integration of Little League because of its benefits for local youth development and second, because we always intended that Little League should be a baseball and softball programme. So, as part of my job, I am the District Administrator and I have appointed two Assistant DAs in Will Lintern and Johanna Malisani. Together, and with some vital help from volunteers like Matt Crawshaw and those who sit on the Great Britain Management Committee for fastpitch softball, we run Little League in the UK on behalf of the British baseball and softball communities and with the blessing of the British Baseball Federation and British Softball Federations.
Phew! Hopefully, things are a little clearer now.
On to my observations.
1) Little League is much more than a competition -- it is first and foremost a local, community league. Little League is the best model for how to run a local community league. If European countries are to develop participation in baseball and softball, we have to do it locally, through strong and self-sufficient youth programmes. Let me unpack that a bit. Europe has a club system for sport that stretches into age group teams that are usually ranked by ability. To replicate that for our emerging sports will require that there are nearby clubs to play. In most cases, there just aren't, and when you have to travel for more than an hour to play, it is off-putting and severely affects our ability to attract any but the most passionate players and supportive families. Internalise that effort on our town programmes, as we have in Leicester, at Wormwood Scrubs or at the London Youth Baseball League, and we have something that will stack up against the local cricket, football, netball or rugby club. Simply put, if you have having trouble recruiting, recruit more! And give them a really good playing experience.
2) The UK has strongly integrated the Little League programme and much has been achieved in the decade since our work on Little League started in earnest. Thanks to the hard work of Matt Crawshaw on behalf of the BBF and to Will Lintern, the UK has made really positive strides towards making our competition offer in youth baseball a local one. Since BSUK formally took on the coordinating role for Little League, it has brought previously autonomous organizations such as the LYBL and LondonSports into the fold of British baseball and softball. The UK Little League Qualifier (UKLLQ) offers League All-Star teams the chance to qualify for European Qualifiers in Kutno, Poland and elsewhere. And, critically, it also offers newly-formed teams the chance to play in a fun tournament. The need for home-and-away games as a competition structure for youth clubs has greatly reduced and the UKLLQ has become the premier youth baseball event on the calendar.
3) There is still a lot more we can do to improve our organisation of Little League. The road to Williamsport, or whichever age or sport-relevant World Series you want to mention, is such a powerful force within Little League that there are many rules and regulations in place to ensure that the overly-competitive (and there are many of them!) don't cheat. Our understanding of these rules needs work to make sure that we are compliant in the UK and when we take All-Star teams abroad for Little League competition. We will be running training this off-season and asking for player registrations to take place in full at the start of next season, including compliance with league boundaries and affidavit sign-ups. We need to make sure that the emerging fastpitch set-up has the right boundaries and structure too. Maybe more critically, many forming clubs still aspire to home-and-away play, and we have more work to do to convince everyone that even if you have only 18 players in a town you can form a competition that is engaging and fun for the kids and that this will help your programme grow far more rapidly than trying to take a travel team on the road. Clubs and leagues should talk to BSUK staff about using the combined resource of Hit the Pitch and Little League University to help them recruit and grow their youth programmes.
4) Little League is here to stay and will be a key support programme for years to come. Little League has a first-class staff, committed to helping baseball and softball grow across Europe. Since signing a lucrative rights deal with ESPN for their World Series, they have the resources to provide genuine help and they will continue to be a powerful force on the continent.
5) Little League will become the continental youth programme within the next five years. Australia is often cited as a model for how Little League can be used across a country as the single youth system for baseball development. Australia is showing a boost in youth participation and the quality of youth organisations and their place in local communities has gotten better and better. There is an opportunity in Europe for this to be the case across a continent. With the growing Little League movement, which was helped along by this past weekend’s conference, I predict that Little League will become the single model for youth baseball and softball in Europe over the next five years.
What can you do next?
If you’re a local organisation looking to develop your structure, there are a few things that you can consider as next steps.
1. Look at the Hit the Pitch resource. Hit the Pitch is BaseballSoftballUK’s new participation programme and is intended to help support organisations looking to develop new playing opportunities, and as such, it’s a useful resource. Included in it is what many people would recognise as the old MLB Play Ball! youth league programme for clubs. Check out hitthepitch.com and request to add your organisation’s new programme to it. Once you’re set up, you’ll have access to a wealth of support guides and information. It will also give you guidance about where you can get equipment and how you can structure your programme.
2. Talk to a BSUK member of staff, preferably your Point Person. Each baseball club or softball league has a member of staff assigned to it who can help guide you through the development of your organisation. They can help with the Hit the Pitch programme, local funding routes, support for recruiting and training volunteers and anything else you might need. The link to the Point People designations is here: http://www.baseballsoftballuk.com/club/pointperson.
3. Check out the Little League University and sign up for an account. Little League is running all of its support online through a new portal called the Little League University. There are sections for Parents, Umpires, Coaches and League Officials and each section includes helpful information about running a strong local youth organisation. Not all of it will be relevant to everyone, but the site is really well laid out and offers the most comprehensive set of support tools we’ve seen. I’d recommend checking out:
a. The LLU Umpire Quiz here to see if you can pass (http://www.littleleagueu.org/quiz/2016/06/02/LLU+Umpire+Quiz+101).
b. The 10 Things Every New Youth Baseball and Softball Coach Should Know (http://www.littleleagueu.org/article/2016/09/16/10+Things+Every+New+Youth+Baseball+and+Softball+Coach+Should+Know).
c. How To Improve As A Little League Coach In The Offseason (http://www.littleleagueu.org/article/2016/09/16/How+to+Improve+as+a+Little+League%C2%AE+Coach+in+the+Offseason).
d. 5 Steps To Help Find More Volunteers (http://www.littleleagueu.org/article/2015/11/23/5+Steps+To+Help+Find+More+Volunteers).
The site can be found here: http://www.littleleagueu.org/.
4. Check out the Club Matters website. This is a Sport England-run initiative that offers a wide set of club development tools for any sports club. The site will include the online Clubmark Accreditation system (available to baseball/softball in the next few months) and offers useful tips and good practice advice on club finances, marketing, club management and club people as well as advice on starting a new club and information on helpful workshops available to you. The site can be found here: http://www.sportenglandclubmatters.com/.
Part of my role at the Conference in Poland was as a Board Director-elect of Little League International. Colleagues present were the very people who put me forward earlier this year to be their representative in Williamsport for Europe and Africa (EA).
In early November, I will be off to Williamsport, Pennsylvania for inductions, a handover from outgoing EA rep Kristian Pälvia, swearing in and my first Board meeting. I’ll keep everyone posted!