In the Northern European Republic of Finland, where ice hockey largely dominates the youth landscape, Little League® is proudly welcoming its first chartered leagues.
“For many years, we have been working with the national federations affiliated with the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) Europe,” said Beata Kaszuba-Baker, Little League Europe and Africa Region Director. “We offer the Little League program as a youth development tool to provide more opportunities to local teams, especially for international tournament play.”
Jukka Ropponen, Finnish Baseball and Softball Federation CEO of and WBSC Europe Marketing Director, said that the Finnish Sports Federation will operate local leagues in Southern Finland in the spring of 2023.
“We will divide southern Finland into Eastern and Western teams, and if enough players are available, we will also establish Northern teams in the district,” said Mr. Ropponen. “We expect interest to grow via Little League’s international exposure and opportunities to play international games.”
Like in the United States, Finland’s Little League program will be operated by parents and volunteers and will provide the local leagues with the opportunity to compete in the Little League International Tournament each summer.
“The Little League International Tournament is, without a doubt, a very strong motivation for Little League programs across Europe,” said Mrs. Kaszuba-Baker. “To participate as chartered leagues, play a regular season, and experience international postseason games creates additional opportunities for teams, coaches, umpires, and volunteers that previously had not been possible in baseball and softball.”
The local “federations” will provide funding to cover the cost of league operations, including the purchase of playing equipment. Currently there is one company in the Helsinki region that offers playing equipment but there are no other baseball or softball equipment distributors in Finland.
“Our biggest issue is resources,” said Mr. Ropponen. “Baseball is a small sport here. We are starting a Nordic cooperation that focuses on coaches training and recruitment, where we will organize clinics to teach Nordic baseball coaches and administrators.”
In this first Little League season, Mr. Ropponen said the country’s Little League leadership will focus on youth baseball players, ages 11 to 14. “It is our hope to expand the following year and also charter a Little League Softball program in 2024 or 2025,” said Mr. Ropponen.
Although playing equipment and educational opportunities are both currently limited as the program begins to develop throughout the country, the expectation is that playing a regular season and having a presence during the Little League International Tournament will provide valuable exposure throughout Finland.
“Each country has the opportunity to send their representative to any of Little League’s Europe and Africa Region Tournaments each summer,” said Mrs. Kaszuba-Baker. “In May and June, all participating countries in Europe hold their national Little League tournaments to determine winners in different divisions of baseball and softball. This year, Finland is expected to hold its first Little League national tournament with teams from each chartered Little League.”
In the next few years, the long-term goal is to have multiple teams in each age division, including softball, while continuing to provide more experiences and memorable opportunities for children and families all across the country.