LLWS expanding tournaments, renovating complex

Davie Jane Gilmour, Little League International Board of Directors; Hugh E. Tanner, Little League International Board of Directors Chairman; Stephen D. Keener, Little League President and CEO; and Steven P. Johnson, Little League International Board of Directors Vice-Chairman; from left to right, talk about the future of the LLWS and the softball LLWS during a press conference at Lamade Stadium on Saturday.

The Little League Baseball and Little League Softball World Series will expand beginning in 2021, and the Little League complex in South Williamsport will undergo a $15 million facelift, Little League President and CEO Stephen Keener announced at a press conference Saturday.

Following unanimous approval during Friday’s board of directors meeting, Little League International made the announcement Saturday morning prior to the International and United States championship games at Howard J. Lamade Stadium. Keener said the announcement was made so quickly because demolition and construction on a merchandise building, parking upgrades and upgraded concessions will begin next week in order to be completed for the 2021 World Series.

Also included in the facility upgrades is a new dormitory to house the four new teams which will quality for the tournament, as well as new laundry facilities and a new infirmary. The $15 million is being funded by Little League Baseball through a reserve fund it has built up over recent years. Keener said there will not be a fundraising plan to come up with the money needed for the upgrades. And currently, there are no plans to use any public money through the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program.

Keener said it has not yet been determined whether the current concession stands will merely be upgraded or demolished and rebuilt, but the $15 million cost estimate includes both options. Neither Lamade nor Volunteer Stadiums will receive significant upgrades. New playing surfaces were installed on each field within the last two years.

The goal is to have the expanded field and facility upgrades done in time to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the Little League World Series.

“Probably two or three years ago, we started having discussions about could we accommodate 20 teams and what kind of physical facilities would we need to do it,” Keener said during the press conference. “Then we looked at the regional alignments and how we could get four new teams.”

The expansion of the Little League Baseball World Series means two teams will be added to the United States field and two will be added to the International field. The Mid-Atlantic and New England regionals will be divided to include a new Metro region. The Metro region includes New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Connecticut. The West and Northwest Regions have been divided to form a Mountain region which includes Nevada, Montana, Idaho and Utah.

On the International side, three countries will rotate two automatic entries into the field. Panama, Puerto Rico and Cuba will gain two automatic qualifying spots on a rotating basis into the Series. During next year’s tournament draw, it will be decided which two teams will gain the initial automatic entries. The third team which does not receive an automatic berth can still qualify through the Caribbean tournament.

The additional teams in the tournament will force Little League to begin the World Series one day earlier. Keener said four games will likely be played from Wednesday to Wednesday, and Volunteer Stadium will be used more than it currently is. The 20-team tournament will add eight games to the schedule.

Currently, the world final is the 30th game of the tournament. Beginning in 2021, the world final will be the 38th game.

“The heart of this expansion is providing more children and more volunteers with a once-in-a-lifetime experience at our World Series tournaments,” Keener said in a release. “The only impact this will have on our local leagues is that there are more opportunities for more teams to participate in Williamsport and Portland. Our leagues’ regular seasons and earlier tournament games will not be impacted.”

The Little League Softball World Series will grow by two teams, both of which will come in the United States field. The East Region, which this season was represented by the South Williamsport Little League, will be divided into the New England and Mid-Atlantic Regions. The West Region is going to be divided into the Northwest and West Regions.

“As the governing body of the largest youth sports organization in the world, it’s our duty and our responsibility to grow the organization,” said Hugh Tanner, chairman of the Little League International board. “We take it very seriously to study and grow the game and we spent a great deal of time studying how to expand the World Series and how important that would be. We’re really pleased as a board to approve this first step.”

This will be the first expansion of the Little League Baseball World Series, the organization’s signature event, since 2001 when the tournament expanded from eight to 16 teams. Little League International hired BaAM Productions, the company which oversees the MLB Little League Classic at Bowman Field, to come to the Little League complex and assess the upgrades which needed to be completed in order to host an expanded event.

Some of the improvements had been planned for previously, but with the goal of expanding, Keener said it was prudent to just do all the upgrades at once. The enhancements are as much about improving the fan experience as about improving the experience for the players and coaches.

“We want to create a family/fan plaza where people can gather just to eat a hot dog, if that’s what they want to do,” Keener said.