Identifying ways to recruit and retain players for the upcoming season is always a challenge for local leagues, but Little League® International understands that this challenge is even more difficult during the coronavirus pandemic. As leagues learn and review the flexibility provided to local leagues through approved rulings to Little League official regulations and playing rules, there are other opportunities to bring families together at your Little League fields.
To assist local leagues with their 2021 player recruitment and retention strategies, Little League International has created some opportunities and guidance to explore what can be used now and in the future:
- Building Community Relationships – The best place to start looking for potential new players and parents for your league is to establish and develop your relationships with other youth programs, schools, and parent-led organizations (i.e. PTA Organizations, after-school care facilities, other youth sports organizations, etc.) within your community. By establishing those connections with other organizations in your community, you will be able to educate parents and other potential adult volunteers on the programs you offer and create opportunities for additional children to participate in your league.
- Utilize Local Media Opportunities – Working with the media outlets (TV and radio stations, print and digital newspapers, and bloggers) throughout your community is a great way to help spread your word, whether it be in the form of a story/flyer announcing registration dates or a feature story about the great offerings your league is providing. If you share registration dates or other information on your league’s social media pages, be sure to let those media outlets know as well so they can share from their platforms. Creating and establishing this relationship with your local media will not only assist with player recruitment, but also serve as a great resource for future announcements for your league.
- Explore Local Advertisements – Along with the media in your community, explore other local opportunities (i.e. libraries, rec centers, etc.) to help spread the word through advertisements such as flyers or posters. In addition, due to the limited in-person opportunities available from the coronavirus pandemic, be sure to explore digital advertisements and paid social media postings to help spread the word throughout your community. Additional digital marketing guidance will be available early in 2021 for local league volunteers.
- Create Affordable Opportunities – As your league does its financial planning, understand that registration fees may be more difficult than ever for families to afford. As a reminder, no local league can turn away a family because they are unable to afford a registration fee. Leagues are encouraged to find additional ways to raise money to help keep these fees at a minimum. Local Little League families in need may also be eligible for registration fee support through the T-Mobile Little League Call Up Grant. Leagues utilizing Sports Connect for their online player registrations can also take advantage of payment plans and their Waitlist feature, to allow for registrations to take place in the face of uncertain scheduling impacts due to the coronavirus pandemic.
- Establish Business Connections – One of the most important things a local league can do, both for player recruitment and future needs, is to establish positive relationships with the other businesses in the community. Not only can this assist with potential sponsorship opportunities throughout the season but having other businesses in the community be able to talk about the benefits of your program can also help spread the word to new families.
- Entice the Adults in your Community – By making a concerted effort to connect with the adults in your community you can help to encourage enrollment in the local Little League. With the help of parents who already have children in the league, think about organizing a community awareness campaign that promotes the unique benefits of the league in such a way that parent(s) with younger children will recognize the importance of signing their children up to play. In addition, find ways to make participation in your league all about the family experience, highlighting the importance of the life lessons learned on and off the field and how parents can be involved within their child’s Little League experience.
- Host Skills Development and Training Clinics – Hosting clinics at your local league’s field, when safe and appropriate based on local and state guidance, is a great way to encourage children throughout the community to come out and experience what your program is all about. Be sure to utilize experienced players and coaches as instructors and allow them to serve as role models and mentors for new players coming into the league. These types of events are most effective when they are held prior to player registration in order to generate interest from those families who have not decided if they will register in Little League this season. When creating these events, be sure to find ways to showcase the league and its structure/divisions of play, connect with parents and players, and answer questions.
- Take Advantage of Surveys – Understanding what the players, parents, coaches, and volunteers in your community want goes a long way, so taking advantage of structured surveys is a great opportunity to learn those needs. Explore different surveys that target the former, current, and prospective players/parents to identify what a player would like to see from the league in order to keep a player-centric mindset. In addition, send a survey to current parents and volunteers to identify potential challenges or opportunities on the volunteer side which will help as you look to recruit and retain your league’s volunteers. Most importantly, be sure to communicate findings from the survey and any direction the league may take based on those results in order to show transparency at every level of your program.
- Focus on Fun – The most important thing when thinking about player retention is to ensure your league is focused on fun, not winning. Little League believes in the power of youth baseball and softball to teach life lessons that build stronger individuals and communities, and that all starts with the players having fun. Understand what your league’s participants enjoy and find ways to provide those and new opportunities to keep them entertained, active, and most importantly, involved.
- Let the Kids Lead – One thing that we have learned over time is the importance of letting the kids take charge and making sure they have a chance to get involved in a variety of experiences during their time in Little League. Remember, Little League is where we learn life’s fundamentals and allowing the players to take on a leadership role is a great opportunity to let them experience life’s lessons first-hand. Explore opportunities that allow the players to lead, such as Little League Sandlot Fun Days or other games they may want to create. Allowing them to serve as the umpires and coaches also exposes them to a different side of the game that will allow them to understand a new perspective and potentially grow interest in volunteering later in their lives.
- Keep Practices Active, Especially Early On – Little League stands for a deeper level of human connection by bringing people together through shared experiences around healthy, active, family fun. In addition to providing unique player-led opportunities, it is important to focus on ensuring your league’s practices and other league activities offer a fun and active atmosphere for your players and that you understand the impact of activity on the physical and mental health of children at an early age.
- Maintain Positive Team Dynamics – Team means everything here. Ensuring that your players have a positive team dynamic from the first pitch to the final out goes a long way in ensuring they come back for another season. Little League is focused on the importance of sportsmanship, both on and off the field, and it’s important that coaches, parents, and volunteers all serve as role models and work to leave a legacy of time spent together. From initial registration and tryouts, to celebrations like Opening Ceremonies and team parties, it is important to find ways to extend those team moments outside of the dugout throughout the year and ensure inclusion for all members of the league because here, everyone plays the same game.
- Establish a Positive Coaching Experience – One of the biggest factors in a player returning for another season is having a fun, positive experience with his or her coach. Be sure to work with your league’s coaches to make sure they are dedicated to helping develop not only the skills, but also the enthusiasm and character of their players. Throughout the year, be sure to direct them to the tremendous resources offered by Positive Coaching Alliance, Changing the Game Project, and Little League University to help develop their skills as volunteer coaches.
- Educate Parents – While it is important to make sure the players are enjoying their experience in Little League, educating their parents and guardians on the offerings of the program is equally important in ensuring the players return for the next season. Be transparent with parents throughout the season and provide them with insight and opportunities to get involved. Share with parents the great resources available on Little League University, such as Backyard Tips, to help keep the kids active when they’re not on the field. Above all, make sure that parents see that their children are having fun and making friends. Little League not only allows the children to make friends but is also a great way for parents to grow their social circle and get involved with the community.
- Stay Connected – Most importantly, be sure to stay connected with the players, parents, and volunteers within your league throughout the year. Find ways to stay in communication with them, from weekly updates and newsletters to monthly check-in calls. When the season is over, reach out to those players who are eligible to return for the next season to find out if they’re thinking about coming back.
As you look to continue to bring back children to your league year after year, also consider checking out The Aspen Institute – Project Play’s award-winning #DontRetireKid campaign, focused on keeping kids from dropping out of sports too early. In addition, Project Play also identifies eight promising strategies to help every child become physically active through sports, which will help your Little Leaguers enjoy the game while also staying healthy and active.