A lumber company, a pretzel factory and a dairy donated $30 each, roughly $525 adjusted for inflation, in 1938 to sponsor the first three teams of Little League baseball. With the Little League World Series now a staple of summer, the NBA is set to launch a youth championship tournament of its own and some youth sports advocates have concerns.
The Jr. NBA World Championship, as reported Monday by The Post’s Tim Bontemps, will draw teams of 13- and 14-year-olds from the United States and countries around the world for a nationally televised playoff at Disney World near Orlando each August. One immediate advantage the league sees: the event’s utility in cultivating young fans.
“We have an appeal that’s clearly unique in the youth basketball space,” David Krichavsky, the league’s vice president of youth basketball development, said in a phone interview. “We don’t shy away from that. We certainly want kids to become fans of our players, of our teams of the NBA, but that hasn’t been the driving force.”
What has is finding ways to increase involvement in the elite youth levels of the sport, Krichavsky said. Evaluators begin sifting out the nation’s top players into future stars around ages 12 through 14, a process that can lead to issues such as rules violations and claims of overexposure.
Youth sports advocates and experts have been slow to hail the Jr. NBA World Championship as a long-needed improvement in the world of youth sports, especially basketball.
Mark Hyman, a George Washington University professor who has authored three books on the business of youth sports, has concerns about the effect that playing before a large audience has on children, and the role those kids play in the NBA’s business.
“If you have a world series of anything, you have spectators, corporate sponsors, economic development, hotels, restaurants, you might have a TV rights deal and exposure on network television,” Hyman said. “I don’t know of any kid walking a picket line demanding a world series of any sport. It’s a function of what adults want and need of youth sports.”
And when adults get involved, said Bob Bigelow, a former NBA player and a youth sports activist, it’s hard to ensure even a tournament conceived with the purest motivations remains unimpeachable.
“Professionals play for money and championships. That’s fine. But when that ethic gets polluted down to kids, what’s going to happen to the intent of these leagues and the kids their serving?” Bigelow asked.
Krichavsky said the NBA sees an opening to offer a different kind of youth basketball that’s both competitive, but grounded in fundamentals. The tournament’s age range coincides with a critical juncture for advanced young players, coaches say, as families search for the right high school program, club team and even sometimes a skills coach.
“We really believe that there’s an opportunity to create a better model for youth basketball,” Krichavsky said. “At least part of the current delivery system for youth basketball doesn’t always prioritize health and wellness, skills and development and more. We see an opportunity and really a responsibility to step in there.”
The NBA wants to install its Jr. NBA leagues for players in these age groups to promote physical activity, skill development and coach training. That involvement would also deeply and permanently embed the league as a gatekeeper to the game’s higher echelons.
“Ultimately, what this amounts to is the NBA taking control of its pipeline,” said Tom Farrey, executive director of the Sports & Society program at the Aspen Institute, a nonprofit think tank. “The league will just need to be careful about how low [in age] it goes with these world championships.”
Players’ ages, Hyman said, are a major reason the Little League World Series has such commercial success each summer — “It’s the perfect age to watch kids do adult things,” he said.
Little League World Series pitcher Mo’ne Davis earned a Sports Illustrated cover story for her success on the mound during the late-summer classic. Highlights from the series routinely dominate the “SportsCenter” Top 10 plays. The league believes Jr. NBA World Championship highlights could easily do the same, especially with the help of a major broadcast partner.
“We believe the storytelling is what will really make this a terrific property from a media perspective,” Krichavsky said. “The story of kids from around the world, divided by geography and language, but united by their love of basketball is something that’s unique and compelling, and something that we think our fans will want to see.”
The league placed a high-profile event in August because the NBA lacked an event during the month, Kathy Behrens, the NBA’s president of social responsibility and player programs, told The Post. In recent years, the NBA has searched to make the league a year-round newsmaker. AAU basketball, the top national league for elite high school players, wraps up in late July.
Spreading attention for the NBA’s tournament and the league’s brand of professional basketball could run counter to the progress young basketball players and their leagues need, said Chris Dial, the president and founder of sports diplomacy nonprofit The Basketball Embassy.
Young basketball players need more practice time than games, he said. International programs, where the league sees long-term growth potential, need to focus on fundamentals and ball movement, not recruiting better athletes.
The NBA agrees, Krichavsky said. The Jr. NBA drew up 48 practice plans across four age groups in recent years for youth sports leaders to take around the country and leagues around the world. Those plans emphasize more practice time, something Dial said developing basketball programs need.
“When the NBA comes over with a new idea, with a junior league or a tournament like this, it perpetuates some of those problems,” Dial said. “It’s just not sexy to say the Jr. NBA is going to set up great practice structures for you guys.”
Though the league is putting an emphasis on skill development and coach training — tournament coaches must be USA Basketball or FIBA certified — some coaches and parents are still likely to view the Jr. NBA World Championship as a gateway to the game’s top ranks.
“They look at Jr. NBA leagues as access. They look at this tournament as access,” Dial said. “There’s going to be a lot of people trying to do a lot of things to be one of these teams, and some of them are going to be pretty ugly.”
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