The images remain quaint — kids sprinting around the basepaths, fans watching from grass hills, Norman Rockwell-like scenes abound at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., that culminates Sunday with the championship game. But make no mistake, Little League is big business.
Little League Inc. reported revenue of almost $25 million and assets of more than $85 million in 2012, according to the most recent publicly available tax return it must file to maintain tax-exempt status as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.
Over a five-year period, compensation for Little League Inc.'s CEO, Steve Keener, nearly doubled to $430,000 a year. And in 2012, the 100-person full-time staff made almost $7.5 million in salaries — a year before ESPN agreed to more than double broadcast fees as part of an eight-year, $76 million contract to televise the games during the two-week tournament.
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"That's a lot of money when all the grunt work is volunteer," said Randy Stevens, president of the Little League in Nashville, Tenn., whose all-star team qualified for the World Series each of the past two years. "Now I'm wondering where it's all going."
Keener, elected as CEO in 1996, said revenue has grown at a steady pace and said new money is going back into the program.
"I'm not going to apologize for generating revenue to support the programming issues of this organization," he told USA TODAY Sports. "But I would apologize if I felt we were not using it to the best of our ability in a prudent manner and getting the most out of the money to benefit this program."
Keener said the majority of the organization's costs stem from maintaining the national headquarters in Williamsport, five regional centers — in Connectcut, Georgia, Texas, California, Indiana — a full-time facility in Poland and offices in Hong Kong, Puerto Rico and Canada.
When Little League signed its contract with ESPN in 2007, Keener said, it lowered affiliation fees for the local leagues. He also said Little League pays for 125 criminal background checks for each local league and provides training program for coaches.
"Those are ways we try direct the funds right back to the local programs," he said.
Little League also pays for travel, lodging and food costs for 16 teams, each of which include 13 players and three coaches. But Stevens, affiliated with the Nashville-based league, said families of the players should receive financial help for travel costs.
He estimated the parents of his players needed up to $35,000 to cover those expenses. A father with the team from Chicago said parents were unsure how they would pay for the trip until five Major League Baseball players offered to cover all travel expenses for the parents.
Keener said the idea of travel assistance is not under consideration.
"I've learned never to say never, but it's unlikely at this point," he said. "Our responsibility is to provide the travel, the accommodations and all the expenses related to participating in the World Series for the players and the coaches and the umpires who are here working the World Series."
Keener said giving the players money that could be used for scholarships is not under consideration.
"Anything we would do for one group of kids, we would do for all of the kids. And it's just not feasible to think that they're all going to head off to college when they're getting out of high school, particularly with the kids from the international region," he said. "It's just not something we feel is necessary for us to be thinking about when they're 12 or 13 years old."
Little League does not charge admission for games at the World Series, but officials do solicit donations while passing around cans during games.
"Whatever money they're getting, they're looking for more," said Ellen Siegel, affiliated with the team from Philadelphia.
But Keener said the $25 million a year pales in comparison to organizations such as the Boys Scouts of America, which reported revenue of $240 million in 2012. He said Little League could not operate without the support of about 1,250,000 volunteers in 7,500 communities.
As far as his salary is concerned, he declined to comment other than to say his compensation is set by a committee of Little League Inc. board members.
Davie Jane Gilmour, Little League International Board of Directors Chairman, said Keener's salary — and that of the other senior staff members, who in 2012 earned between $100,000 and $250,000 apiece — are in line with salaries at comparable non-profits.
"To be perfectly honest with you, there are many board members on that (compensation) committee who think that our senior staff, and in particular Steve, are underpaid at this point in time," Gilmour said. "There's a a pretty strong feeling on the compensation committee that they are highly marketable based on their success here in their work here at Little League."