An unprecedented number of viewers tuned in to last year’s Little League World Series, captivated largely by the feel-good narrative of a group of black kids from the South Side beating the odds to bring home the national title.
It was a Cinderella tale that made for great TV, a medium that’s developed a strong, symbiotic relationship with Little League Baseball over the years.
Television has become a boon for Little League, boosting its bottom line with lucrative broadcasting rights fees and brand-building exposure.
No wonder the organization didn’t want to admit that the dramatic sports story it had been peddling — one watched by an average of 1.7 million viewers, up 71 percent from the previous year — was built on fiction.
For months, Little League Baseball representatives repeatedly shot down accusations that the Chicago team violated residency rules to form an all-star team of ringers. Those accusations, kept very much alive by DNAinfo.com reporter Mark Konkol, refused to go away. Backed into a corner, Little League International announced Wednesday that the team had been stripped of a title it “won” in front of a television audience measuring a whopping 5.2 million viewers — up 65 percent from 2013, according to Nielsen ratings data.
Chicago’s emotional victory over Las Vegas ranks as the most-watched U.S. Championship broadcast since 2002, the year after Little League “entered the modern era of sports rights fees, signing a six-year deal with ABC and ESPN worth more than $7 million,” according to a 2003 New York Times article headlined “Little League Innocence Fades in TV Glare.”
That deal was followed up by an eight-year agreement with ESPN that put $30.5 million in Little League’s coffers, reported SportsBusiness Journal.
Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Passan points out that the dollar amount more than doubled under the latest pact: $76 million in TV rights fees over eight years.
Television is now a vital revenue stream in the big business of Little League Baseball, whose TV ratings in the doldrums of summer often eclipse those of Major League games.
Sports Media Watch noted that the final game pitched by Mo’ne Davis — a 13-year-old girl from Philadelphia whose story, like Jackie Robinson West’s, drew a lot of publicity last summer — scored a higher rating for ESPN than any Major League Baseball game on the sports cable network since April 2007.
That New York Times article I cited earlier said ESPN started televising Little League World Series games in 1982. By 2000, it was broadcasting a dozen games. That number shot up to 25 in 2001, when the organization struck its six-year pact with ABC and ESPN.
Last year, some 54 games were shown on ABC, ESPN and ESPN2, including the regionals and the championships in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
Television has helped raise the profile of the Little League World Series, and with that, the stakes.
One thing we’ve seen play out over and over again in sports — and in life: The higher the stakes, the greater the motivation to cheat.
“The best thing about here is playing on TV,” said an 11-year-old Little Leaguer quoted in that New York Times story from 2003. “You make a good play, there’s a chance you can get on `SportsCenter.’ ”
In these days of Little League, you make enough good plays — and a good enough story — and you can get in the White House.
Now, Jackie Robinson West is in the dog house. And it must feel like the whole world is watching.