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Little Leagues, big money: Series draws dollars

The Little League Baseball World Series, which holds its championship this weekend, has entered the big leagues of sporting events.

Little League World Series tournament at Lamade Stadium on August 20, 2014 in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
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Little League World Series tournament at Lamade Stadium on August 20, 2014 in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

This season's series is the first under a contract between LLBWS and ESPN, which will pay more than $60 million through 2022 for broadcasting rights. The previous agreement, signed in 2007, stood at $30 million. ESPN is a joint venture between Disney and privately owned Hearst.

In 2013, the organization earned just over $4 million from broadcast fees; that figure will almost double to $7.5 million starting this year.

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And then there's the merchandise sales: Every year, the Little League World Series sells thousands of T-shirts, hats, pins and other novelty items to fans both in the stadium and around the world.

Brian McClintock, a Little League World Series spokesman, said total merchandise and concession sales data for this year's LLWS was not immediately available, but "we do know that sales are up over last year." Forms that the nonprofit organization submitted to the Internal Revenue Revenue Service indicate that it sold more than $1.6 million in inventory last year.

Mo'ne Davis of Pennsylvania pitches during the United States division game at the Little League World Series tournament at Lamade Stadium on August 20, 2014 in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
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Mo'ne Davis of Pennsylvania pitches during the United States division game at the Little League World Series tournament at Lamade Stadium on August 20, 2014 in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

Last year, it was the Perth Metro Central Little League team that sparked a merchandise sellout after becoming the first Australian team to take the field at Howard J. Lamade and Volunteer Stadiums. This year, much of the buzz is around a team from Philadelphia, the Taney Dragons.

McClintock said that the organization this year decided to "freshen up the colors" of the athletes' uniforms. The Dragons are now decked out in maroon and powder blue, the same colors as Major League Baseball's Philadelphia Phillies.

Coupled with those spruced up uniforms is breakout star Mo'ne Davis, a young pitcher for the Dragons. She's one of only 18 girls to play in the 68-year history of the Little League World Series, and the first female pitcher to hurl a shutout.

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The stadium sold out of approximately 1,500 Mid-Atlantic T-shirts in advance of Taney's game against Texas last Sunday.

McClintock said that when items run out, LLBWS staff "get on the ball, pun intended" and reorder as quickly as they can. The organization had new stock available for Wednesday, when the Dragons took on the Mountain Ridge Little League team from Las Vegas, Nevada. Admission to the event was free, but tickets had to be issued for stadium seating, as more than 34,000 people arrived to watch the game.

As early as Monday, unauthorized merchandise was seen selling online. Ebay accounts began offering baseballs, hats, and photos signed by Mo'Ne Davis. Most of the bidding remains below $200 but some merchandise is going for up to $450.

The profits that the Little League World Series brings in between concession and merchandise sales, their ESPN contract, and corporate sponsors go back into local communities. The organization's main goal, McClintock said, is to keep affiliation fees as low as possible. This year, charters—the fee that team pays for affiliation with LLBWS—cost $16 per team. Next year they will be reduced to $13.

"If we could make it free, we would do it," McClintock said.

The organization offers free online education tools and resources for umpires, coaches, and parents as well as benefits for their abundance of volunteers and programs designed specifically for Little League players.

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The Urban Initiative is one such program that seeks to provide assistance packages for eligible leagues that aid the local volunteer group with equipment acquisition, cash grants, field renovation and development, and networking. This initiative began in 1999 in Los Angeles and the Harlem section of New York City. It has expanded to more than 200 leagues in nearly 85 cities.

The Little League Baseball World Series international and U.S. Championship games will be held on Saturday, August 23 at 12:30 pm ET and 3:30 pm ET, respectively. The overall winner will be crowned Sunday.

—By CNBC's Sarah Whitten

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