When Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred took office last year, one of his major goals was to attract younger audiences to baseball. To do that, MLB is starting at the source, encouraging the next generation of fans to pick up their bats, oil their gloves and take the field.
This weekend is Play Ball Weekend, an effort by MLB and its 30 teams to engage young baseball fans by celebrating youth participation in baseball and softball. The effort is an extension of MLB's Play Ball initiative, which launched in 2015.
All 30 MLB teams will support Play Ball Weekend with various events, including instructional clinics and events at home games. This week, kids are taking the field with players from the Boston Red Sox before each game, and a Little Leaguer will be given the opportunity to deliver the lineup card, be a bat kid or a grounds crew helper and assist Wally the Green Monster with his mascot duties. On Saturday, the Los Angeles Dodgers will host a whiffle ball game at the beach with kids from the Boys & Girls Clubs.
The players' involvement in Play Ball Weekend helps inspire more kids to play ball, said Noah Garden, executive vp, business, at MLB. "We had 20 players under 25 in the All-Star Game last year. It's an unbelievable crop of young players that kids look up to. Getting them closer to that, and getting our teams back into the communities, pays dividends for them and brings them closer to the game."
The effort also includes a weekly show on MLB Network, Play Ball. Todd Frazier, 1998 Little League World Series champ and current Chicago White Sox third baseman, will be the show's guest this weekend, and youth reporters will contribute questions in episodes and at MLB events throughout the season.
Brands sponsoring the effort include Scotts, which has pledged to help MLB refurbish youth ball fields around the country over the next three seasons, and Chevrolet. Since 2006, Chevrolet has been supporting baseball at the youth level in communities across the country through a grassroots, community outreach program called Chevy Youth Baseball.
"Chevy Youth Baseball has been going on for 11 years, and we're pretty proud of the program. We've donated 9,000 equipment kits and renovated close to 10,000 parks, and affected more than 5 million kids with these efforts. It's a great fit for us to partner with MLB," said Steve Haener, senior manager of media strategy, experiential marketing and partnerships at Chevrolet. "Baseball's the national pastime, and Chevy is an all-American brand, so it's a natural synergy for the audiences we're trying to reach."
The latest stats on youth participation actually show a positive trend. According to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, baseball participation was up 4.3 percent year-over-year in 2015. Nonetheless, MLB would like to keep that trend going. "We want to take that momentum and accelerate it," Garden said. "We hope to ride that wave and continue that momentum into the next few years."