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Is it time to pay players at the Little League World Series? Of course, it is

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports


Skai Jackson is 11 years old. She is an actress with a starring role on the Disney Channel show "Jessie." She's not hard to find on television.

This is the month where a lot of kids her age appear regularly on a national channel owned by Disney, Inc. It's just most of them are playing Little League Baseball over on the ESPN family of networks.

Among the differences is this: Jackson gets paid for her appearances, which Disney sells advertising around and makes a lot of money. The baseball players do not, even though the ad rates, cable subscription fees and sponsorship partnerships are all a lot higher than for a sitcom.

Like "Jessie," Little League Baseball is marketed as wholesome family entertainment. The baseball games' most prized commodity, the thing that sucks in and retains the viewers, is the raw emotion of some kid from, say, Dubuque celebrating joyously in victory while some kid from, say, Amarillo bawls his eyes out in defeat.

That's the Rockwellian package. That's the product. That's the moment. And that's what Little League Baseball and ESPN have masterfully figured out how to sell to the American public.

And then quickly sold a lot of commercials around it.

It's August so it's time for my occasionally annual column repeating the same argument that, in reality, while unpopular and unlikely to ever gain traction remains worth pointing out: Little League players deserve some cut of this action.

There may be only a few of us who see it this way. Doesn't mean we're not correct.

The term "pay the Little Leaguers" tends to send those incapable of seeing nuances into intense anger. Take a deep breath. This isn't about paying every kid who's playing ball in your neighborhood, just the ones who reach the big stage and are put on television. This isn't going to cause the formation of a union with an inevitable strike or contract holdout.

And no one is really getting "paid." Call it "prize money" or a "scholarship" or something if it makes you feel better.

The players deserve something from this booming, expansive event, even if it is just a few grand that go directly into a college scholarship fund or some kind of trust (if they don't go to college) that can't be accessed until age 18 or 21. A similar system could be worked out for international players based on their own cultural norms.

The players aren't worth millions of dollars. Their value as an economic generator doesn't command it. They are mostly interchangeable. It's the same way Skai Jackson can't demand A-list actress money. It doesn't mean she works for free or that Disney would ever dream of asking her to do so.

The Little League World Series is a great event and the players are treated extremely well while there. All their travel costs are picked up.

It doesn't mean this isn't big business. Little League Baseball, Inc. is a non-profit based out of Williamsport, Pa. According to its most recent federal tax filings, it turned a $2.8 million profit in fiscal 2012 on $24.5 million in revenue. It finished the year with $78.5 million in assets.

ESPN is paying $4 million to broadcast 32 games this year. If each player earned $750 every time their team appeared on television – all 14 players get the same amount – then it would cost just $672,000. That's less than one quarter of the Little League's profit. And that's not even if Disney – $42.3 billion in revenue last year – covered it in some kind of a "do the right thing" move.

You can argue that having a financial reward for a child's game turns innocence into industry. That's merely because the games have been marketed as innocent and amateur, however. The games may start that way back home, but by the time they get to Pennsylvania, they are commodities.

From the Disney corporate perspective, there's absolutely no difference between showing hours of Little League games on one network and hours of "Jessie" re-runs on the other, except sports is more lucrative.

Otherwise, it is all the same: This is content aimed at a critical demographic the company can profit off, while also making marketing and branding inroads. ESPN isn't showing these games out of the goodness of its heart. If it weren't profitable, it would show something else.

The Little League World Series generates an additional $6.1 million in non-broadcast revenue, according to tax filings. Some of that comes from nearly two-dozen major corporate sponsors, including Honda, Hilton, Chiquita Bananas, Gatorade and New York Life.

Paying the players wouldn't commercialize the event. The event is already commercialized. Just about everyone is making money here except the players.

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Matt Brown of Westport, Conn., and Sammamish, Wash., catcher Cameron Bowers probably wouldn't mind a scholarship …

The idea that money would make the entire enterprise too competitive is ignoring those HD close-ups of 12-year-olds wailing in disappointment from a loss or embarrassment at an error. You know, the images that sell. And Little League has long had to guard against age violations and ringers from other communities. There's always been corruption.

It's true that a million boys dream of playing on national television and would gladly do it for nothing. So what? There are millions of young actors and actresses in community productions all over the country who would gladly take a role on a Disney Channel show for free … except there are adults who have properly measured their value, and demanded they get it.

In Little League, it's the opposite. Families spend huge sums on youth sports these days and as wonderful as Williamsport is, it doesn't equal that investment. Neither would a maximum (six TV games) of $4,500 into a college fund, but it sure wouldn't hurt. And that doesn't even factor what money like that would mean to these families from Panama and Mexico and other places with lower incomes.

The Little League says it opposes any such plan, but it certainly could enact it almost immediately. The only practical obstacle is that taking prize money, even in the form of a college donation, could make a young athlete ineligible for an athletic scholarship down the line. To cite that as a reason however is to let the NCAA and its dated and decrepit definition of amateurism wag the dog here. That's about the last group that should be the arbiter of morality around here. And this is actually something the NCAA may not oppose. Who is against a 12-year-old getting a college fund bump?

The Little League World Series is promoted as just a sweet, simple baseball tournament. In many ways it is. To the people counting the money, though, it is way more than that. It's entertainment. It's product. It's content. It's business.

Disney, Inc. realized that these kids' talents, their efforts and their raw, pristine emotions are something valuable.

Just like all the child actors they employ elsewhere across their entertainment empire. And just like Skai Jackson, these players ought to be able to walk away with more than just some memories.

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