Tony Korson was an aspiring teenage baseball player at Walt Whitman High School in the late 1990s, searching for the coach who could turn him into the next Derek Jeter.
He couldn’t find him.
“I did not think coaching in this area was up to par,” Korson said. So the teenager hired his own coach, eventually becoming a star at Whitman and earning a scholarship to Florida Gulf Coast University, a prestigious baseball factory.
Now 32, Korson has taken his baseball experience and turned it into a sprawling group of suburban sports leagues called Koa Sports, which grossed $1.5 million last year.
Koa’s niche is providing organized sports for kids who often are not ready for elite leagues or high school teams.
“Our number one objective is fun,” Korson, the chief executive, said. “Most parents and players are pursuing scholarships. We are pursuing camaraderie and good values.”
This is civilized stuff. Everyone gets their names on the back of their uniforms. Every kid gets to play — although not always long enough to suit the helicopter moms and dads who are hovering. No screaming parents allowed.
“We expelled the parents of one kid because the father had an out-of-body experience, screaming at the ref, sending e-mails to the entire team and inappropriately yelling at his own kid,” Korson said, adding, “You try to be as positive as you can.”
The positive vibe doesn’t come cheap.
Some Koa baseball programs run as high as $1,200 per player, which can double or triple in a year if they play from spring through fall. Girls’ field hockey ranges between $150 and $800, basketball is about the same, and a six-week baseball clinic runs a modest $150.
Most of the kids live in the leafy environs of lower Montgomery County — Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Potomac. Many are the sons and daughters of well-heeled executives, lawyers, business owners, lobbyists and private-equity maestros. Some parents are journalists, Wall Street financiers or national association bigwigs.
Koa’s board of directors includes prominent local names such as lawyers Nick Christakos and Mike Lefkowitz, Potomac entrepreneur Todd Levitt, former television producer Julie Andrews, Jeff Karton of Booz Allen, and job consultant Laura Labovich.
Although a few kids hail from elite schools such as Sidwell Friends, Korson has built strong bridges with five Montgomery County high schools that feed him most of his customers: Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Whitman, Wootton, Churchill and Walter Johnson.
The key, Korson said, is getting kids to start early — from 4 to 8 years old — and turning them into long-term customers. The jerseys go a long way toward creating happy players.
“The kids like the swagger, looking good and feeling good.”
Nobody is getting rich here. Korson owns a townhouse in Cabin John, Md., and expects to earn about $92,000 this year. The rest of his full-timers earn between $40,000 and $60,000 and are eligible for health care.
Part-time coaches earn $15 to $20 an hour.
The company since 2013 has leased 3,300 square feet for $5,000 a month in Kensington, where it has offices, a batting cage, a throwing lane and a video-analysis lounge to see whether the young athletes are on track to be the next Mickey Mantle — or not.
Baseball is the big driver of revenue, with a share of 35 percent. Next is field hockey at 22 percent, flag football at 15 percent, multi-sport camp at 15 percent and basketball rounding out the revenue at 13 percent.
Korson has devoted most of his life to baseball since high school. In college, where he led the country in ERA and games won for a brief spurt, he studied business finance.
After he graduated in 2005, he reentered Whitman’s circle of baseball junkies, made up of parents, alumni and hangers-on who love the game. He started doing some one-on-one coaching at the request of a parent. Then another parent asked. And another.
He remembered the professional coach he had when he was 13, recalling how much more fun baseball became when he knew how to play the game better.
“This guy made the game more fun,” Korson said. “Sometimes, parents forget that sports are supposed to be fun.”
Korson had a day job selling mortgages, but he went out and bought a bucket of baseballs for $60, made some business cards on Vistaprint.com for $10 and drove his Jeep Cherokee to every baseball event he could find, pitching his new, for-profit coaching business with the boring name Next Level Baseball. A lawyer friend helped him fill out the paperwork.
He found 10 kids by the first winter, in 2005-2006, charging $30 for group training and $75 an hour for private, one-on-one lessons with anyone who would have him. He worked seven days a week, staying with his parents and living on less than $1,000 a week.
“I was a one-man band running a bootstrapped business,” Korson said. “I had no idea what I was doing.”
He would drive to any playground or county field that was unlocked, and he and his players would shag groundballs, practice batting and play catch.
Many of his clients were castoffs, not good enough to make the local organized club teams. By the summer of 2006, Korson had cobbled together 16 clients to form a team, calling them Next Level Legends.
Parents paid him $800 each, which covered uniforms, coaching, equipment and the fees to play in tournaments within an hour or so of Washington.
As Next Level’s number of participants grew, Korson started camps to train novices. As the number of teams grew, he booked games with any team he could find.
He discovered efficiencies such as putting coaches on an hourly payroll and concentrating his teams in one place to play against one another, rather than having 10 teams travel to 10 locations, with players all over the place.
Korson rebranded Next Level with the more distinctive name of Koa in 2010 and diversified from baseball into other sports, which gave him a year-round revenue stream from many of the same players.
Not everything went according to plan. He lost thousands of dollars in 2011 and 2012 on a girls’ softball league that fizzled when he overestimated the demand.
“I learned you can’t create demand in the sport when the kids don’t want it,” he said.
In 2013, he grouped his four baseball teams into a league, which he called the Bethesda Area Baseball League. The idea was to create a competitively balanced league that gives everyone a chance on the field in a community atmosphere.
Last year, more than 200 fans, mostly parents, turned out for the league’s 12-and-under all-star game at Cabin John Regional Park, featuring a popular spoof YouTube star throwing out the first pitch.
“It was the kind of experience under the lights that you can only dream of as a 12-year-old,” Korson said.
Or as a parent.