MLB and Urban Youth Academies: Reversing the Growing Gap in Youth Baseball Opportunities


This is Part II of a two-part series on MLB and Youth Baseball. Part I, which can be found here, focused on general challenges for MLB when working with youth baseball, from sports specialization trends to coaching challenges at the youth level, to cooperating with various organizations to promote the game. Today focuses on the specific challenge of improving the game’s diversity and increasing participation numbers in the African-American community, in a “travel-ball culture” where money is increasingly spent to train young athletes. 

Lorenzo Cain and Andrew McCutchen are two of the biggest stars in MLB in 2015. Both centerfielders started in the outfield in this year’s All-Star Game. As fate would have it, they also were born less than 6 months apart, and grew up in Florida less than 250 miles from each other: Cain in Madison County near Tallahassee, and McCutchen in Fort Meade in the central part of the state. Their paths to major league stardom are vastly different, yet possess some of the same obstacles.

Lorenzo Cain’s path is virtually unheard of within baseball. As detailed by Andy McCullouch of the Kansas City Star last year, he never played organized baseball before his sophomore year in high school. His father had passed away when he was 4 years old, his mother worked two jobs, and Cain did not play team sports as a child because he did not want to add to her burden. His favorite sport was basketball, but when he got cut from the team his sophomore year, he went out for baseball. Madison County didn’t have enough players to fill out a junior varsity roster, and he got his opportunity almost by default. The first day, he showed up in jeans and borrowed an old glove (which happened to be left-handed).

McCutchen, meanwhile, did play youth baseball at an early age, starting with tee-ball. Writing in the Player’s Tribune, McCutchen said “I was crushing balls off the walls and running around the bases like crazy. I was good.” McCutchen’s issue wasn’t early exposure to the game, like Cain, but rather the challenges of a family that could not afford the expensive competitive teams outside his small town, on a travel circuit that so often leads to recognition and opportunities. For McCutchen, it was coaches and mentors who paid for many of the expenses associated with high-level baseball, bridging the gap of what his parents could afford, that allowed him to showcase his talents.

Not every player is going to have the freakish skill to overcome an eight-year playing deficit, like Cain; Not every player that flashes some talent, but cannot afford all of the extensive expenses of tournament baseball, like McCutchen, is going to find others that help along that path. If MLB’s increased focus on youth baseball has any impact, players who may not have gotten the full opportunity in the past will join them in the future.

Reversing Decades-Long Decline in African American Participation in the Sport

On Opening Day of this year, African Americans made up 7.8% of players on major league rosters. In 1986, that number was 19%. The sport has seen an influx of international players over the last two decades, but the percentage of domestic-born Caucasian players has not shown similar declines.

The reasons for this decline are multi-faceted. Comedian Chris Rock gave his humorous take on the issues with the sport and why it no longer resonates in the black community, in an HBO video. “It’s the game, it’s old-fashioned and stuck in the past,” Rock opined, “it has an old-fashioned code, too.” When it comes to the unwritten rules, where players often take offense at individuality, Rock said of the code: “Play baseball the right way … the white way.”

While Rock was more dismissive of economic–rather than cultural–issues driving the decline, those are likely just as strong of factors. According to Tony Reagins, former Angels GM who was appointed as MLB’s senior vice president for youth programs in April, “in our research, what we’ve found is that the financial barrier is an important barrier to participating.”

The Financial Costs are a Big Factor in Youth Baseball 

Those financial barriers can be large for all families around the country, and have a disparate impact on the African-American community. The early barriers can include equipment costs. For soccer or basketball at the early ages, the financial outlay may include just the cost of a ball and shoes (and a relatively inexpensive pair of shin guards for soccer). For baseball or softball, those costs can include a bat, a fielding glove, multiple pairs of pants, batting gloves, shoes, and a batting helmet, and a bag to manage and transport all of it.

Once in the sport, the financial barriers for continuing in competition can escalate even more. This is particularly true as kids get to the 12 and 13 year old age groups, when baseball begins to see the participation decline as discussed in Part I. Local community-based leagues may have a relatively affordable entry fee.

Once tournament baseball becomes a bigger part of the equation, fees escalate. Tournament fees for a team can be in the $300 to $500 range, practice time might need to be reserved and rented, and uniforms become a separate fee. As Andrew McCutchen stated, “It’s about the $100-a-night motel room and the $30 gas money and the $300 tournament fee. There’s a huge financing gap to get a child to that next level where they might be seen.” You can add in other hidden fees like tournaments that, after already charging the large team tournament fee that parents are subsidizing, charge each family member a gate fee each day (and spread games over multiple days). And that doesn’t even get into the potential cost of private lessons or tutoring in this age of specialization.

Part of the pain of Jackie Robinson West being stripped of the Little League American title last year is that it went against many of these trends. Other organizations outside of Little League (which is one of many organizations around the country) don’t have the various boundary rules; teams are put together privately and players change teams frequently. It was a public face of opportunity to showcase the Little League revival in Chicago. As Andrew McCutchen said:

"The kids from Jackie Robinson West had a really bad day yesterday. But you know what? Somebody probably watched their Little League World Series run and saw one of them make a smart play in the field or hit a perfect line drive up the gap. That kid might not have been the best player on the team. But somebody saw something in him, and they’re going to reach out and say, “Hey, I want you on my team.” They’re going to become like a second father or mother to that kid. Hopefully that kid has the courage to travel away from his family and the patience to become a great baseball player."

The NCAA’s Baseball Scholarship Limit Affects Diversity in the Sport

The NCAA’s limits on college baseball scholarships is another big financial barrier for the sport. As detailed in this ESPNW piece, while Title IX often gets blamed, baseball doesn’t get any fewer partial scholarships than women’s softball (11.7 versus 12). The NCAA sets those limits and has decided to limit baseball and softball in favor of “revenue” sports of basketball and football. Thus, college baseball teams are left to divide 11.7 partial scholarships as they see fit among up to 27 players.

“One of the reasons why we struggle in some demographics, the best athletes are going where the college scholarships are,” Chris Marinak, MLB senior vice president, league economics and strategy, said. “The college scholarships are not in baseball, they are in football, basketball, some of the other sports. One of the reasons why we are looking to do these programs, because it hopefully provides an incentive for kids to play baseball and develop their skills, that allows us to compete with some of the other college sports that kids look to in terms of playing while in high school as a way to get a college scholarship.

“The biggest issue is the college scholarship structure itself,” Missouri head baseball coach Tim Jamieson said. “It’s not good for anybody that plays any other sports. If you do the math, and if you are not from a strong financial background, it’s hard to make that work.”

Speaking in the New York Times, Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia set forth how those issues affect personal decisions. “If I hadn’t been a first-round pick, I would have gone to college to play football, because I had a full ride. All that factors in. How are you going to tell a kid from the hood that I can give you a 15-percent scholarship to go play baseball, or a full ride to go to Florida State for football? What are you going to pick? It’s not even an option.”

Super agent Scott Boras has even come out saying that MLB should consider subsidizing college scholarships if the NCAA is going to maintain the scholarship levels. Speaking to USA Today, Boras said, “I don’t think anything will change until Major League Baseball and the NCAA wakes up. Until we get this remedied, the Jackie Robinsons of the world aren’t going to come to college to play baseball.”

MLB is Making an Investment for Its Future By Trying to Reverse These Economic Trends

In the face of these issues, MLB under Rob Manfred has made a renewed commitment to promoting youth baseball, and to specifically investing in programs that open up the sport to all kids and foster diversity. This includes sizable investments in the RBI program and the Urban Youth Academies. MLB and the MLBPA also announced a joint $30 million initiative at the All-Star Game to improve “the caliber, effectiveness and availability of amateur baseball and softball programs across the United States and Canada.” According to the release, funding will go to “training and recognition programs for coaches, grants for youth baseball academies, MLB’s new ‘<a href="" style="box-sizing: inherit; margin: 0px; padding: 0px; border: 0px; outline: 0px; font-weight: 600; font-style: inherit; font-family: inherit; font-size: 18px; vertical-align: baseline; text-decoration: none; color: rgb(21, 122, 175);">Play Ball’ initiative</a> and programs for players and former players who desire to work with youth baseball programs in their communities.”

The various programs are not charity. They are a recognition by the top levels of baseball that the investment is necessary for the future health of the sport, and to compete in the current sports climate. In the free market specialization climate where families are spending money for travel and exposure and training, MLB is trying to keep it as a sport open to all. Also, because the research shows that early exposure to the sport is a key indicator for remaining a fan, MLB knows that the twin goals of maintaining the overall popularity and allowing for opportunities to the best future players to help diversity are tied together.

“We look at development as a funnel. You have to get into the funnel if you are going to have a chance to get out of the funnel,” Marinak said. “The end of the funnel is the major league player. You can’t be a major league player unless you’ve played baseball at some point.”

“We think that getting people into the funnel at a young age helps us in both areas. Helps people get into the game and drive them toward fanhood, but also helps them get into the funnel, with a chance to be a major league player.”

That requires financial investment to make sure more kids enter the sport, and then can continue to receive that support once the financial commitments increase.

“We need to set up structures at baseball that help support that opportunity,” Marinak said. “If you are a wealthy family and you can afford to pay for a tutor, then you can do that. But if you are not in a wealthy area, or you are in an urban area where access is more difficult, there are alternatives for you that are cheaper, that provide more access. So that’s kind of where we are focusing.”

The RBI Program (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) has been around since 1989, but has seen a renewed focus in recent years. In 2009, the program expanded to younger ages, and has grown by nearly 80%. It now serves approximately 230,000 children. “If a kid cannot afford to pay our entry fee, which is not very costly, we let that young person play at no cost,” Reagins said. “The idea of RBI is to go into underserved areas and have young people playing baseball, and we are in over 200 cities around the country.”

RBI is the broader-based program to provide exposure and opportunity to the sport. The Urban Youth Academies are a place where children in urban communities can get both initial exposure, and more detailed instruction as they age. In 2006, MLB began the first Urban Youth Academy in Compton, California. A new one opened in Philadelphia this year, and there are now five academies (also in Houston, New Orleans, and Cincinnati).

The Urban Youth Academies serve more than 7,000 youth annually in those communities. The financial commitment from MLB is greater per child, with physical facilities within those communities, and training typical proved by former players at the major league, minor league, or college level, according to Reagins. Children can start as young as 5 or 6, and continue up through high school ages. There is no entry level tryout or requirement to get instruction. “There is no cost associated to coming to the Academy and being a member,” Reagins said. “All you need is a desire to want to play baseball. All the equipment is provided, all the tutoring or instruction is provided, it’s really a young person’s desire to come and want to play baseball.”

Marinak would not discuss the specific costs for MLB in running the two programs, but to illustrate the level of commitment that MLB is making to the Urban Youth Academies in trying to balance the scales and provide training for kids to compete with competitive travel programs, he said that MLB makes the same central contribution to the RBI program (for 230,000 kids) as for the Urban Youth Academies (with 7,000 kids).

Does baseball have specific plans to expand the program? In June, President Obama announced that San Francisco would be getting an Urban Youth Academy in the future. According to Reagins, other MLB clubs are becoming more engaged and wanting an Academy in their cities, and they are looking at 2-3 more in the next few years.

Former Players and Coaches Can Be a Valuable Resource

While the expansion of Urban Youth Academies has been a focused goal, the vast majority of children will not live within a short distance of one. There are 23 MLB markets that do not currently have one, not to mention the myriad other cities around the country where kids play baseball at the youth level. Reagins was asked if there were other initiatives that could subsidize coaches and former players who wanted to provide opportunities for high quality instruction to kids that might be able to otherwise afford it.

Citing the recent $30 million agreement with the player’s association, Reagins stated “camps and former players around the country that are doing things the right way, and are engaged with young people around the country, I think there’s an opportunity to help those programs grow and provide assistance where needed.”

“Each person, former player that has a camp, we’ll go through an evaluation process to vet the situation and make sure things are being conducted a certain way, and are being done for the right reasons,” Reagins said, “We’ll take a strong look at that, and if they are, and fit the criteria, we definitely would like to assist and be part of the growth in whatever region that is.”

MLB just announced that deal last month, and the protocols and procedures are still being developed, but former players and coaches who embrace the MLB goals should keep an eye out for further public announcements in this regard in the near future. As Chris Marinak stated, MLB recognizes that its former players are a valuable and unique resource in promoting the game.

“Something that’s unique about baseball is that you probably have more former professional players, given that we have such a big minor league system. We have a huge pool of former professional players, probably moreso than any other sport domestically, so we should capitalize on that. We should create opportunities for former professional players to give back to their communities and train the next generation of players. We should provide opportunities for former professionals to transition back to the community, and use baseball as a way to do that. I think that’s the type of program that we’re looking at that will provide a lot of value and reach across the country.”

Hope for the Future

As USA Today noted at the start of the season, there are several encouraging signs that African American participation in the sport can rebound and return to where it was two decades ago. 65% of the African-American players were 30 years old or younger at the start of this season. ESPN’s Keith Law ranked 14 African Americans among the top 100 prospects before this year, including Byron Buxton, Addison Russell, and J.P. Crawford in the Top 10.

In this June’s MLB Draft, 9 of 36 first rounders were African-American, which represented the highest percentage in the first round since 1992. Dillon Tate, the fourth overall pick of the Texas Rangers, is an alumnus of the Compton Urban Youth Academy, the highest pick ever to come out of that program. His selection is important for several reasons, including that the pitching position has been particularly underrepresented as the overall numbers have declined.

Dominic Smith and J.P. Crawford, also in Law’s Top 100, were Urban Youth Academy alums as well, and several others have started to trickle into the majors (Khris Davis, Anthony Gose, Aaron Hicks, Efren Navarro, Jon Singleton, and Vincent Velasquez). Over the last 4 MLB Drafts, 46 players who have come through an Urban Youth Academy have been selected.

I asked Reagins where he hoped to be with the programs.

“In Year One, hopefully, we can start to flatten out the numbers as far as a decline, if we can do that, then we are making progress. And then just gradual improvement, we know that this is not going to happen over night. We are committed to it financially. We are definitely committed to it emotionally and spiritually.”

[photos courtesy MLB; Lorenzo Cain photo via USA Today Sports Images]