It’s the dog days of August, which for a network like ESPN means there’s quite a bit of time to fill across a whole bunch of still-profitable linear networks and, of course, the limitless array of streams that ESPN+ offers up. When colleges are in session, it’s easy for supply them with more than enough live content to make even the most addicted sports fan happy. But this time of year, as most schools are still weeks away from being in session, the cupboard’s a tad bare.
Fortunately, ESPN has figured out something which their ancestors at ABC Sports had discovered decades ago during their programming of WIDE WORLD OF SPORTS. There’s a unique appeal and charm to Little League baseball. In many years, one of the most-viewed live events they would offer up would be the championship game of the Little League World Series, putting the charming hamlet of Williamsport, Pennsylvania on the map. When the series expanded to include international teams, especially those from Taiwan and Japan that would regularly win the title, it served as much as a cultural touchstone for the efforts of world diplomacy and tolerance than it did a showcase for potential future major leaguers.
And for anyone who has spent any time raising a child who has participated in youth sports, or may have done so themselves, the ability to truly empathize and connect with the emotions of the players and their families as they battle through truncated six inning, pitch-count limited, tension-filled contests is in many ways an even more personalized experience than merely watching professionals or even college or high school competitors. They may not be us, but they are our friends and neighbors and classmates. They have real jobs and hail from both metropolises and hamlets. And there are a LOT of games being played that are leading up to that championship, and since last Thursday ESPN is embracing it as aggressively and completely as ever, as THE SPORTING NEWS’ Edward Sutelan attests:
Every Little League player dreams of the chance to play in Williamsport, Pa., with a chance to be a world champion. Every state has its representative, but the field in Williamsport still needs a few more tournaments to get rounded out. There are a total of 53 teams that will be battling it out in the qualifying tournaments across the country. The teams will not be headed to Pennsylvania until advancing past their regions, with Bristol, Conn., Whitestown, Ind., San Bernardino, Calif., Warner Robins, Ga. and Waco, Texas all hosting tournaments. One team from each of the 10 regions will emerge to head to Pennsylvania to play in the Little League World Series.
Sure, at times coverage is exploitative. With this sort of exposure, often in prime time on a school night (yes, public schools are already back in session in quite a bit of the country), often comes the complaints that tweens should not be subject to the kind of scrutiny and attention that older athletes and especially professionals are. And the behavior of many of their parents are, at times, appalling.
But then consider the story of one such parent which made best seller lists earlier this summer, and which can still be purchased online (or perhaps even at a bookstore near you) for what I believe would be an ideal companion piece to remind all of us of why the appeal of Little League baseball (and softball, for that matter) is an strong as it is. Per USA TODAY’s David Oliver:
Teresa Strasser’s mom died exactly four months to the day after her brother died, sending her into a complicated, compounded grief spiral. Three years later, she and her father watched her son play Little League baseball – and saw how the sport proved an apt metaphor for grief faster than you could say “strike.”
“There’s something eternal about baseball that seems to tie the living to the dead, that seems to tie the past to the future,” Strasser says, discussing her new memoir “Making It Home: Life Lessons From a Season of Little League” . “And that might be inherent to the sport itself. Because theoretically, a game of baseball could go on forever. It has no clock. So up until the final out, anyone could win, and that fills the sport with hope, because your team always has a chance to come back.”
Full disclosure: I’ve known Teresa for years, and there are few more talented and lovely moms out there anywhere in Little League, or in the free world, And no, sorry to say, her boys’ team didn’t qualify for this week’s games. But take a look-see at this little breaking news from a nearby city as an example of what you can see, per FOX5 Las Vegas:
For the first time ever, the Henderson Little League baseball team won the Nevada State Championship and has a chance to qualify for the Little League World Series.
Before the team starts packing their bags for Williamsport, Pennsylvania, the team must first win the Little League World Series Regional Tournament in California. And, they’re one step closer to doing just that.
On Sunday, the team played their first game of the tournament, taking down Montana 6-1. Moving on, the Henderson 12-year-olds will now face Utah at 6 p.m. Tuesday in a game that will be shown on ESPN.
And there’s dozens more stories out there waiting to be told. Perhaps not as eloquently as Strasser was able to tell hers, but potentially as uplifting. And certainly, a far better option for most sports fans than a whole lot of other MLB games, including ones involving any underperforming teams we may otherwise root for.
And do notice an awful lot of quality advertisers will be in those games. Probably not Bud Light. But Frosted Flakes, to be sure. And some ads clearly aimed at moms and kids. Because unlike a lot of other ESPN fare they tune in. Together, in fact. And they might even pony up for an extended subscription to ESPN+ in the month where D23 will offer the lowest bundle price possible for their family of networks and yes, that even includes Hulu.
Eventually something else will be on those platforms that will capture more of your attention. It’s just not likely to be this week.