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Youth Leagues Play the Sponsorship Game

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cash-hungry youth leagues and their powerful corporate sponsors are now asking parents to buy more than peanuts and Cracker Jack when they bring slugger to the ballpark for a weekend youth league game.

Borrowing pages from marketing game plans crafted by pro teams and collegiate programs, youth leagues are expanding their sponsorship rosters to include credit card companies, airlines and health plans that are eagerly staking claims to the last open territory in sports.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Apr. 04, 1998 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday April 4, 1998 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Foreign Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
NFL TV contract--A story in Friday’s paper misidentified who the NFL has contracted with for broadcast rights. ABC, Fox, CBS and ESPN have agreed to pay a total of $18 billion for those rights during the next eight years.

In their scramble for dollars to defray costs, leagues are doing more than simply inviting sponsors out to the ballgame. They are offering national sponsors access to a valuable asset--millions of names and addresses generated each year that are top-heavy with families with upper and upper middle class incomes. Those rosters provide a direct channel into households, allowing marketers of everything from bandages and snack foods to sports drinks and fabric softener to reach families even when they’re not at the ballpark.

Little League baseball now distributes proprietary software that local league officials use to create mailing lists that allow national sponsors such as Lionel trains and Rawlings Sporting Goods to make direct pitches to 3 million players and 1 million adult volunteers.

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American Youth Soccer Organization’s 19-member corporate sponsor team includes leading consumer goods companies such as Lever Bros., Sunkist and Quaker Oats. The Hawthorne-based league, which has access to nearly 450,000 households, is adding sponsorship categories and expanding a licensing program beyond greeting cards and shoes into computer software and trophies.

“There are so many creative things out there to be looked at,” said Cathy Fergeson, marketing director for the soccer league. “And, as far as sponsors [are concerned], I don’t know if there are any immediate limits.”

Marketing Pressure Focuses on Children

Commercialism isn’t new to youth leagues. When Little League’s first teams took to the field in 1939, a local dairy, a pretzel company and a lumberyard each ponied up $30 for the right to stitch their names on uniforms.

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But critics fret that the proliferation of Pepsi-Cola coolers, Dannon water bottles and other logo-covered freebies are sullying one of the last bastions of pure sport. They view the commercialization of the sandlot as the predictable outcome in a society where Coca-Cola and Pepsi bid for “pouring rights” on high school campuses and Saturday morning cartoons are peppered with commercials.

“It’s a logical continuation of the incredible marketing pressure being exerted on our kids,” said Charlotte Baecher, director of education services at Consumers Union. “But there’s a cost to the kids . . . who are being exposed only to choices offered by companies with enough money to be sponsors.”

She said the constant flow of treats sends the wrong message to children by limiting their postgame choices to products being pitched by sponsors. “They need to know what all the choices are,” Baecher said. “And right now, they might think it’s geeky to simply drink a glass of water when everyone else has a Pepsi or Gatorade.”

League officials say they are concerned about overly commercializing their nonprofit organizations. Hundreds of sponsor pitches are turned down each year by leagues. They say players’ privacy rights are protected through strict rules prohibiting the sale of mailing lists to outsiders. (Leagues handle mailings for sponsors rather than turning over the lists, and leagues also reserve the right to reject subject matter deemed inappropriate.)

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And none of the leagues wants to destroy its credibility by turning youthful players into carbon copies of professional athletes who are covered from head to toe with Nike swooshes.

“We’ve never wanted our players to look like race cars,” said Lance Van Auken, a spokesman for Williamsport, Pa.-based Little League, with nearly 3 million registered players.

Debate over the social impact of marketing at the sandlot and soccer field goes right over the heads of many younger players like 9-year-old Torrance resident Matthew Cross. The soccer player isn’t really sure what the American Youth Soccer Organization’s national sponsors are doing--other than supplying the steady stream of tasty treats like Airheads candy and Gatorade during tournaments.

But soccer moms know that the children shape the weekly shopping list. And marketers are betting that brand connections established early on will forge lifelong buying habits.

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“Relationships with consumers--brand loyalty--starts very early,” said John Harris, spokesman for Pepsi, which has distributed 60,000 Pepsi coolers to youth baseball leagues nationwide. “We’re trying to show these players and coaches that Pepsi cares about them.”

Torrance resident Fred Silver, whose 14-year-old daughter, Heather, has been playing soccer for nine years, agrees that marketers can score points.

“If a kid likes Dr Pepper, nobody’s going to change his mind,” Silver said. “But younger kids, aged 6 to 11, are more open to trying new things.”

Promotions evidently have impact on parents. Longtime American Youth Soccer Organization sponsor Nissan Motor Corp. USA once conducted market research that determined that 7% of Quest minivan owners were soccer parents. “We asked [Nissan officials] if that was good, and they said it was tremendous,” said Lolly Keys, the soccer league’s public affairs manager.

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As the world of sports marketing grows more sophisticated, leagues that can refine their databases can broaden the mix of sponsors to include more products aimed at adults, said Andy Bernstein, marketing editor for New York-based Sports Business Journal.

A health issues chat room on American Youth Soccer Organization’s Web page is operated by Nashville, Tenn.-based Columbia Healthcare. And First USA Bank soon will introduce an affinity credit card for families involved with Pop Warner football--which also lists US Airways as a sponsor.

It’s not all smooth sailing for sponsors. Promotions don’t always go as well as they hope--in large part because the leagues are so heavily dependent on volunteers to carry promotions out. Some Little League players probably won’t get their free Pepsi after games because coaches won’t have time to redeem their weekly soft drink coupons. And one recent American Youth league promotion fell flat because a national sponsor did not distribute the branded clipboards to the league in time to be handed out.

Sponsors Now More Selective

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Glitches aside, youth sports marketing is a far cry from yesteryear. Leagues and sponsors were once content to trade minimal sponsorship dollars for minimal visibility on athletic fields.

“It was largely a matter of ‘You give us some money and we’ll put your name in the program or on a sign,’ ” said Jon Butler, executive director of Pop Warner Little Scholars Inc., the Langhorne, Pa.-based nonprofit organization that has enrolled 300,000 football players and cheerleaders.

Now, sponsors are more selective because they no longer can afford to support every worthy cause that comes along.

Warner-Lambert Co. spokeswoman Sandy Horner describes Little League games as “a perfect opportunity for us to reach our core [Bubblicious chewing gum] consumers between the ages of 8 and 14. . . . It probably wouldn’t be a good fit for a gum with an older skew.”

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The funds that corporations funnel through youth leagues represent a drop in the bucket compared to what marketing giants pour into nationally televised events. NBC stunned sports marketers in January by paying $18 billion for broadcast rights to National Football League games.

Little League, American Youth Soccer Organization and Pop Warner Football each generate an annual six-figure revenue stream from marketing ties with national sponsors such as Reebok International, Pizza Hut and American Honda Motor Co. The sponsorship dollars don’t go far: Little League says its marketing programs cover just 10% of its annual budget.

Chicago-based IEG Sponsorship Report estimates that corporations pump $5 million into sports marketing programs associated with youth leagues. But that figure doesn’t include the millions of dollars that mom-and-pop companies, local real estate offices, soft drink distributors and the occasional liquor store spend each year to sponsor local teams and leagues.

Though comparatively meager, the funds are a welcome find for nonprofit youth leagues. Officials say the money raised helps to avoid dreaded fund-raisers, the only other option for covering escalating fees. Pop Warner spends more than $300 to outfit a football player, not counting insurance and field rental costs.

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Given rising costs, sponsorships are “smart business sense,” according to Irvine resident Joe Linik, whose son, Michael, gets a free can of Pepsi after games played with the Diamondbacks of the South Irvine Little League. “Commercialism is a fact of life these days,” he said.

Leagues say there are more than monetary benefits from being associated with powerful marketers. American Youth Soccer Organization got a boost when a sponsor included league registration information in a nationwide advertising campaign--something the league couldn’t afford to do, Fergeson said.

On March 21, Little League coaches lugged Pepsi coolers into dugouts at Irvine’s Harvard Park. And the soccer organization’s marketing partners raised banners and handed out Dannon water bottles and Quaker Chewy Granola Bars to players at a soccer tournament at Conejo Creek South Field in Thousand Oaks.

Torrance resident Jeff Wilson, who refereed games during the Thousand Oaks tournament, welcomes handouts from national sponsors. “It adds to the experience, but we could never afford to do that on our own, not even if we raised the fees.”

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And although there’s always a good chance that players simply won’t have a taste for what sponsors are pitching, some players welcome sponsors’ pitches.

“I think kids like to try new things, and if they like it, they’ll want more,” said Heather Silver, a goalie for nine years in a Torrance soccer league. “It’s like [American Youth Soccer Organization sponsor] Sunny Delight. I’ve always liked drinking that, and I’m glad they’re a soccer sponsor.”


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