At the 2017 Project Play Summit, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred highlighted the potential of professional sports leagues, who ordinarily compete with each other, to collaborate in building healthy kids and communities.
In the event’s keynote conversation, Manfred specifically pointed to the shared interest in promoting multi-sport play among youth. He said he had spoken with the NBA, NFL and NHL commissioners and they all agreed that the best athlete is a kid who played multiple sports.
“Multiple sports give body parts rest, which is a really important issue in today’s youth participation market,” Manfred told more than 400 people at the Newseum in Washington D.C. on Sept. 6.
Manfred’s comments came on the heels of the announcement of the Aspen Institute’s new Project Play 2020 initiative, the first time that major industry and non-profit organizations have come together to set shared goals around growing sport participation and related metrics among youth. Multi-sport sampling is a key area of focus for the collaborative, which includes MLB and 16 other groups.
The specialization of youth sports has been felt heavily in baseball, with kids often playing on multiple teams for most of the year – and at the exclusion of other sports. Two years ago, MLB had a rash of younger pitchers who needed Tommy John surgery to correct elbow injuries, which typically occur due to overuse going back to their youth.
Orthopedists who studied the issue told MLB, “you are getting damaged goods in the draft, and you’re getting damaged goods as the result of overuse of pitchers, in particular when they’re young,” Manfred said.
MLB started Pitch Smart with USA Baseball so youth coaches understand the appropriate number of pitches and when pitchers should start throwing certain types of pitches. Most importantly, Manfred said, coaches simply need a way to track how many innings a kid is pitching since they’re playing in multiple leagues.
The travel-ball phenomenon – and all of its time and cost demands — is often viewed as the best way for kids to be scouted by colleges and professional baseball. MLB isn’t ignoring travel ball.
“You can’t change that piece of the world,” Manfred said. “So we’ve responded to that by scholarshiping kids into programs that we know are doing a great job and actually paying for them to participate.”
MLB has created youth academies for underprivileged kids to participate. Manfred said the goal is to eventually have 30 academies around the country.
On the other hand, Manfred said MLB has embraced informal play opportunities through its Play Ball program. Play Ball is a one-day community events in which kids do baseball-related activities. Casual play associated with baseball has increased 18 percent, according to Manfred.
“I take that as a really good sign,” he said. “It’s focus, it’s investment, it’s making great partnerships in the youth space. … We had unusual partners like the U.S. Conference of Mayors. You have to have partners who believe the game can be played on an informal basis.”
Manfred recalled how as a child he would go to a local park in the morning, resurface for lunch, and come home for dinner without any adult worrying.
“My kids grew up dramatically different than that,” Manfred said. “But I do think in a different environment that if you have community-based activity, those activities can be structured in a way that promotes a form of informal play that can exist in a more complicated society.”
Manfred said getting parents to understand the benefits of kids playing multiple sports will be an education process. He pointed to John Smoltz’s recent Hall of Fame speech on the topic as one way parents can understand that many elite athletes played multiple sports as a child.
Earlier in the day in his 2017 State of Play address, Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program executive director Tom Farrey called for a new approach to evaluating success in youth sports. He encouraged sport providers, coaches and other stakeholders to focus more on creating a “new scoreboard for sports,” based less on the traditional measure, whether a team won a competition, and more of metrics like participation rates, churn rates, and percentage of coaches trained.
Manfred said youth coaches are always going to want to aggregate the best athletes on their own teams, but that they could be convinced to better appreciate the value of multi-sport sampling.
“Competitive people are attracted to coaching,” Manfred said. “(However) I do think you can make coaches understand the argument that you’re going to get a better athlete over the long haul if he’s playing three sports.”
Watch the full conversation here.