MLB executive VP: Embrace the disruption in youth sports

Chris Marinak photo.jpg

Baseball may be one of the oldest and most traditional sports, but it remains one of the top two games played by children. By combining softball with baseball, the sports surpass basketball as number one among kids ages 6 to 12 in the U.S., according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.

Helping provide the leadership to ensure baseball remains relevant to future generations is Chris Marinak, executive vice president of technology, strategy and innovation at Major League Baseball. His portfolio of work includes youth baseball, which has introduced several initiatives in recent years designed to get and keep more kids in the game.

Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, caught up with Marinak to understand what has worked and what he hopes flows from Project Play 2020, the multiyear initiative that includes MLB as a founding member. Excerpts of their conversation are below.

Tom Farrey: Chris, what do you see as the greatest challenges facing youth sports today?

Chris Marinak: We need to realize that the youth sports model is being disrupted, in the same sense that the newspaper industry, cable TV, books and (so many other sectors) have been. The value proposition for youth sports when I was a kid was friendships, the opportunity to get together with kids in your neighborhood and community. It was really about building bonds and connections with your friends. Today, it's a lot easier to do those things digitally. You don't have to leave your house or pay any money. You don't have to commit.

So what we need to do is redefine the value proposition and show that (sports) is a much better experience (than digital entertainment) for kids because it provides so many benefits from the standpoints of health, social interaction, and leadership skills development. Those are the things that youth sports offer kids that the digital alternative doesn't quite offer.

Farrey: How do we do that exactly?

Marinak: For baseball, it's about giving kids opportunities to play that are much more flexible and aren't just one-size-fits-all. We can't just say, 'Here's your option if you want to play baseball – you've got to sign up for a 20-game season, buy a bunch of equipment and a jersey, pay a league fee and get your mom to drive you to the field every Tuesday night for practice.' It's about meeting kids where they are and offer alternatives for them to play the game. It's about offering clinics, camps, and big group get-togethers that are based around sports or multiple activities. And coming to them where they are, which is physical education and schools.

We created a program in schools called Fun at Bat that's geared for 5- to 7- or 8-year-olds. It uses baseball as a curriculum to teach life lessons. It's off-the-shelf programming and comes with a kit of equipment and resource books that have lessons in them. Educators love it; they sign up for it and it's really inexpensive ($80). We had 400,000 kids participate in 2017 and we're on track for a million kids in '18. We're in big school districts like New York, L.A., Chicago and Nashville.

We've also partnered with the U.S. Conference of Mayors, local parks and rec departments, and mayors' offices to put on events that aren't games. They're just community-oriented events that are all around baseball – running the bases, playing catch and Wiffle Ball, all those kinds of things. And you don't have to sign up three weeks in advance. You don't have to commit to a full season. We've had more than 250 cities put on those types of Play Ball events, exposing kids to baseball that would have otherwise never had an opportunity to play.

Farrey: We know from sports sociologists that kids playing sports want action and access to the action. Baseball can be a slower game. How have you addressed the need to give kids the level of action that a video game provides or perhaps some other sports provide?

Marinak: Little League has a program on this, and frankly, a lot of the youth groups are now adding programs like this where it's prepackaged practice plans and more flexible game formats. It may be a six-inning game or you start with runners on base. You may have five batters per inning regardless of who gets out. You get people rotating around the different positions.

Farrey: One of the strengths that baseball has is the adults who surround the game are quite familiar with the sport. They played when they were young. At the same time, one of the challenges is now they want to be coaches and adults can sort of co-opt the experience. How do you ensure that kids have sufficient ownership of their experience?

Marinak: It's a really tough problem because at the end of the day, in order to have a sport, you're heavily relying on the volunteers. I mean, there's no other model that makes any sense. And so even if a parent is overly aggressive or overly enthusiastic about how they coach or trained their kids, they're still offering their time.

There's pockets of some really good things (happening). You saw the little experiment that the one town did regarding kids playing with no coaches and the parents aren't allowed in (NBC News story on "Unorganized Baseball" that was shown at the 2017 Project Play Summit). Those types of things are becoming more and more common. It really comes down to messaging, to trying to drive home the fact to parents that it's a fun and inclusive sport. The more that message gets driven home, the less you're going to see these overenthusiastic parents that are only focused on their kid.

Farrey: How do you see Project Play 2020 making a contribution?

Marinak: The thing I've always thought is great about this is just the number of organizations that are on board with the program and have adopted the philosophy. The youth sports landscape is a very heavily local landscape, and if you're in a local community and Bob Smith is the best-known basketball coach in your town, you're going to listen to whatever Bob Smith has to say whether Bob Smith knows what he's talking about or not. It takes a lot to cut through that. Given how high of a hurdle that is, it's valuable that a lot of really well-respected brands across multiple sports (have come together) to break down some of those barriers. Starting with the Aspen Institute but all the way on down to MLB, the NBA, Nike etc, having all of them stand behind a unified message helps cut into that heavy stickiness of that local presentation that stands in the way of a lot of progress.

Farrey: There's lot of skepticism and even cynicism out there about the state of youth sports. How optimistic are you that progress can be made?

Marinak: I'm very optimistic. You have to have a reasonable time horizon. I mean, you can't just come out here and say, by next year the youth sports landscape is going to be totally different. You've got to recognize that this is a multiyear process, five to 10-plus years. You start with small progress. And as you continue to build on that it makes a big difference.

We've seen that in a lot of initiatives that we've embarked upon in baseball, things like pitch counts for keeping pitchers' (arms) safe. People had been asking for 10 or 15 years, why don't we have pitch counts? So we finally just sort of got everybody banded together and unified around the vision and we knocked that barrier down in three to four years. So, if we're realistic about the timing, I think there's a lot of things we can get done that will really change the landscape.

Farrey: What can be done to discourage early sport specialization and promote sport sampling?

Marinak: That's one of the focus areas for (Project Play 2020). I think inherent in the specialization conversation is the idea that kids are out to play sports to get scholarships or to get to be professional players. So I think one of the most important messaging points is that specialization doesn't help you get better at your sport. The best athletes in any sport – from tennis to baseball, football to hockey and soccer – I mean, they all played multiple sports (as youth).

Farrey: Bryce Harper.

Marinak: Bryce Harper played multiple sports. Andrew McCutchen has talked about getting pulled by football and basketball in high school and just gravitated towards baseball, but not until he was really a senior. Tony Gwynn. Dave Winfield. The point is you never know what's going to happen later on in life. You may have an injury or you may grow taller or grow stronger and be better suited for one sport versus the other. So I think that driving home that message is really beneficial.

Learn more about Project Play 2020