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Little League CEO: We'll consider compensating players in future

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports
Little League World Series - Nevada v Pennsylvania
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SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, PA - AUGUST 20: Mo'ne Davis #3 of Pennsylvania pitches to a Nevada batter during the first inning of the United States division game at the Little League World Series tournament at Lamade Stadium on August 20, 2014 in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

If Steve Keener truly wants to run a progressive organization like he says, sooner than later the CEO of Little League Baseball will do what he suggested to Yahoo Sports could be possible in the future: give back some of the $76 million in television rights fees the organization is reaping over the next eight years to the kids whose names, images and likenesses fill up flat screens every summer.

After years of staunch opposition to the idea, Keener's consideration comes on the heels of the historic O'Bannon v. NCAA ruling that could have far-reaching effects on amateur athletes everywhere. In the future, if you're like Mo'ne, you may get some money.

"I've always felt we need to be as progressive an organization as we can," Keener told Yahoo Sports. "We don't know what's coming. If at some point in time that would be deemed to be appropriate, we'll consider it. At the moment, I don't see the necessity and don't think we should be compensating kids right now.

"Whether at some point down the road any funds could be put aside to help them with college I don't know. Down the road that's something we might take a look at even if it's feasible."

Doing so would right a wrong decades in the making. Little League has grown into a business with more than $80 million in assets and nearly $25 million in revenue, and every August it runs out a fresh batch of kids in hopes of captivating the country. Mo'ne Davis, the 13-year-old from South Philadelphia, did just that, and the last game she pitched drew a higher rating for ESPN than any MLB game since April 2007, according to Sports Media Watch.

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Autographs from Mo'ne Davis are already selling on eBay. (AP)

Autographs from Mo'ne Davis are already selling on eBay. (AP)

For this, Davis received transportation to Williamsport, Pa., lodging, meals and a uniform. Her Taney Little League team gets to keep its equipment. And that's it. As Mo'ne Davis juices ratings and gives Little League a recognizable name and memory against which to sell corporate sponsorships next year and those thereafter, she sees not a penny of it. Instead, she gets something else to cherish.

"The experience we're providing them," Keener said.

Here is where Keener lapses back into antiquated thoughts and public-relations drivel. The experience is wonderful. It is great. It is far from commensurate with what the kids provide, almost belittling considering ESPN sees the event worth nearly $10 million a year because of those who play in it.

As the kids enjoyed their experiences, Keener made $430,844 in salary and benefits between October 2012 and September 2013, according to tax records. Over the last decade, his compensation package nearly has doubled from the $228,869 he made in 2005, a number far closer to that of other nonprofit CEOs. An analysis by the Nonprofit Times showed CEOs for similarly sized organizations to Little League, which operated last year with a $23.5 million budget, averaged $184,926 in pay. In its most recent study, Charity Navigator said the median salary of a large-sized nonprofit CEO in the Mid-Atlantic area was $267,724.

Keener, whose salary is set by Little League's board, was one of seven employees with six-figure compensation packages, according to Little League's 2012 tax filings. Little League is technically a charity, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, though perhaps more accurately it is a business wearing charity clothes. True charities take everything offered them. Little League paid a Connecticut company called SJX Partners $472,062 last year for a "corporate sponsor search," according to its tax filings. Charities don't spend nearly half a million dollars so a company can find which multinational is willing to pay the most to be the exclusive whatever-it-may-be of the Little League World Series. Businesses do.

Know what else businesses do? Pay their labor. And during the two weeks of the World Series, the kids playing the games are just that: the stars of the show, the alluring unknowns, the raison d'être of the event.

Every day, Disney talent scouts comb the world for the next 13-year-old they can manufacture into a star. Even though plenty of teenage girls would do a TV show for free, Disney knows the industry doesn't work that way. So the kids get paid, often quite handsomely.

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DJ Butler and Chicago advanced to the U.S. championship game by beating Mo'ne Davis' team. (AP)

DJ Butler and Chicago advanced to the U.S. championship game by beating Mo'ne Davis' team. (AP)

Somehow sports never got the memo and abided by the romantic, if entirely misguided, idea of amateurism, as though value for a talent exists only at a certain age. Disney owns ESPN. If only it applied the same standards to its uniformed stars as it does those who sing, dance and act.

There is a market for a girl like Mo'ne Davis, a big one that would love to pay her lots of money because she compounds her talent with a combination of personality and wonderment that enthralls people. The specter of the NCAA ruling her ineligible half a decade down the road dissuades her from cashing in now, and it's a policy behind which Keener hides as well.

"We wouldn't want to do anything that would jeopardize any of these kids' future eligibility," he said. "We're always cautious that we're not going to do anything the NCAA would deem as compensation."

During the O'Bannon case, the NCAA attorneys brought up Little League during questioning, asking the former UCLA basketball star whether he believed the kids should be paid. He said yes. O'Bannon later backtracked, regretting his words. He shouldn't have. Right now, Little League hands out $8,000 total in scholarships to five girls and five boys who played baseball or softball. Surely it could afford a $1,000 educational grant for all of the players with $2,500 each going to those who play in the finals and a $10,000 bonus for the MVP of the final game. The total cost of that would be $276,000 – or less than Little League paid for a "computer consultant" last year, according to its tax records.

As the NCAA's stranglehold on college athletics crumbles, the next few years will test Keener's commitment to progressiveness. Right now, he is a highly paid CEO whose organization is taking in more money than it ever has and using it to lower league affiliation fees, from $18 to $16 to $13 next year. And while that does impact the 7,500 leagues around the country Little League oversees – in the same way a major college football program subsidizes non-revenue sports – it ignores the next Mo'ne Davis.

"Little League Baseball is a public trust," Keener said, "and we should justify what we're doing."

Considering his salary, the country-club membership that comes with his job and the years of dismissing the pleas of playing for pay, Keener doesn't fit the profile of the CEO likely to put his money where his mouth is. Then again, the right side of history is sitting here, waiting for him, hoping he's the first to grab the reins. All it takes for Steve Keener to ensure Little League remains a public trust is the great sense of fairness and a check with a few zeroes at the end, each loop more than deserved.

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