2022 – Landscape of Club Baseball

This post provides a perspective on the current landscape of baseball “club” programs across the country.  This perspective is based on my 15 years experience running the Gamers (stlgamers.net), where we admittedly have a narrow view on the right way to do things.  We have extreme focus on player development and relationships, and have primarily stuck with 2 teams per age group for 15 years.   Our retention rate is > 80% year after year and over time 90% of our 17u players have gone on to play college baseball.   

But, this is not the only way to do things in club baseball.

Baseball programs across the country have a lot of different business models, driven by lots of factors such as climate (warm vs. cold), geography (city vs. suburb vs. rural), coaches’ experience (MLB vs. MiLB/College vs. HS), investment profile (facility/assets vs. none), age group focus (HS, MS, Elementary), player targets (college-bound, high-school, recreational), etc…  

All the differences above impact the choices baseball programs make in how to structure, manage and coach. What is right in suburban Florida may not work at all in Western PA or St. Louis, MO.

But, there is one defining choice that is currently driving the landscape of club baseball across the country.  Ultimately EVERY baseball program makes a choice on how they are going to get players.  Where do their players come from? 

There are fundamentally two options: 

You can Develop Players, or you can Recruit Players.  Or, you can try to do both.  

Developing players is hard work.  It requires you to commit a lot of time at practices, invest money in assets and technology, educate coaches and develop relationships with players/parents that retains them in the program year after year as the young man develops into a baseball player.  Development takes time. This choice in youth baseball is well understood and has decades of history in the sport.  This development experience between coaches and players and between teammates is perhaps the greatest long-term value of playing youth baseball.  

Development Programs hold open tryouts, select players from the tryouts and respond to players/parents reaching out to them for a roster spot.  They do not make cold calls, send cold emails and spend time and effort targeting and selling to specific players.

The other choice is to be a Recruiting Program.  Recruiting 9-17u players is really hard work too.  You have to constantly be on the lookout for players that are more talented than your current players and deliver the right sales pitch at the right time to attract them (and their parents) to your program.  You see these guys watching other teams’ games, talking to parents on other teams and closely following rankings and showcase results.  Perfect Game/PBR and social media have made it easier to find players over the past decade. Email/text marketing tools are now relatively easy to implement.  So you can find 50 players to target and send individualized messages to each of them now with a few clicks.  But, at some point, you have to spend hours on the phone convincing players and parents to join your program and jump ship from XYZ.  This is a lot of talking and selling.  That is the hard part.  And it has nothing to do with developing baseball players.  That is why this is a clear choice.

Recruiting Programs have exploded over the past decade, fed by showcase/recruiting organizations, social media and the broken structure of the D1 college recruiting process.  And, for whatever reason youth baseball has attracted a lot of really good salesmen that understand how to promote a brand to feed the social media frenzy and egos of parents.

Fifteen years ago, there were maybe 10 programs across the country that made this choice.  Currently there are too many to count. 

Some programs say they do both – develop and recruit.  This is possible but quite rare for four reasons:

  • As a coach, you cannot commit to developing a kid at the same time you are constantly looking to replace him with a better player.  Maybe in pro ball, not in high school or middle school — way too emotional and requires you to be dishonest with kids!
  • Not many individuals are good salesmen and good coaches.  It is practically impossible for the same person to be good at both.
  • Development takes hours, time and facilities and creates a fundamentally different cost structure that is not a good fit for the Recruiting Model, which is all about games and getting other people to pay the bill for talented players to play (see below).
  • Target players in the recruiting model are often not local.  It is hard to develop a young baseball player if you are not actually with him.  Zoom cannot replace coaching relationships, eyes and body language.  Didn’t work for schooling and hard to make work for coaching.

This development gap for Recruiting Programs has been filled over the past decade with independent baseball training businesses.   Essentially, Recruiting Programs outsource player development to these local independent training business.  So, the program coaches do not see the players train and the instructors do not see them play.  This is obviously sub-optimal. Furthermore, independent trainers have limited motivation to actually challenge and push the players to get better.  This has contributed greatly to “atta-boy” training businesses where players rarely fail and are not held accountable for their own progress.    Unfortunately, this is how the development gap created by Recruiting Programs is currently being filled. 

So, that is the choice: Development vs. Recruiting.  The choice made by individual programs is relatively easy to observe.  Where do the leaders and “name” guys in the program spend their time? Where are the kids on the roster from? Do the teams practice during the summer?

Over the years, four types of Recruiting Model Programs have emerged, although there is such high growth in this segment that it is changing constantly.  

Single Event Teams.  This is where the Recruiting Model started decades ago.  For big national events like the East Cobb WWBA, Jupiter, USA Baseball, Area Code among others, it has been relatively common for players to be recruited to play.  Sometimes they pay, sometimes they don’t.  But, the idea was relatively simple — recruit the most talented players at a given time and compete against other top talent.  The teams and coaches are together for a couple of weeks at most. For several months in advance of the event, the focus is on recruiting — phone calls, networking, emails and texts.  At the event, coaches primarily focus on handing out uniforms, writing out lineups and managing game strategy.  Player development is not even an after-thought.  These events are usually fun for everyone, although the relationships are short-term and shallow. 

Fly-in Programs.  These emerged as a natural evolution of the highly recruited Single Event Teams.  If you are going to go through all the effort of recruiting for a Single Event, why not recruit the same top players to play all summer long in a series of high-end events.  Some of these programs have been incredibly successful recruiting extremely talented players to play for the summer.  

At the 15-17u level, it is not uncommon for all the recruited players on a true Fly-in roster to already be committed to large D1 schools.  So, ongoing development is not necessarily a high priority for these players.  They have already “made-it” in their minds.  Fly-in Programs do not practice during the season or off-season.  They just fly-in talented players and roll them out to play.

The sales pitch is straight forward “Come play WITH other very talented players and WIN A LOT of games and GET RECOGNITION playing mostly against teams with less talented players”.  These teams usually cruise through pool play at big events until they eventually face other teams with talented players.  

Last year at the 17u WWBA, eight of the final 16 teams where Fly-In Programs, with players from multiple states on 30 man rosters.  Fly-In Programs have won the past 5 straight 17u WWBA events.  

As Fly-in Programs have succeeded and built their brands around winning, they have expanded the number of teams and players to well beyond just the elite players.  The emerging model is to have 3-8 teams at each age, where the lower level teams are comprised of a combination of fly-in, drive-in and local players.  These programs use the lower level teams to fund the top teams, which allows them to add a new element to their sales pitch for talented players “you do not have to pay, the less talented players are paying for you”.   

Drive-in Programs.  These programs are similar to Fly-In Programs in many ways, but they are more regionally focused where players typically drive 4 hours to play games.  In strong baseball markets like Georgia, Florida, Carolinas, Chicago, Texas and California, there are enough elite players within driving distance to compete at the national level.  Most Drive-In programs do not practice during the season or during the offseason due to the driving distance.   Players are on their own for development. Five of the final 16 teams at the 2022 17u WWBA were Drive-in Programs – from FL, GA, MO, NJ and Southern CA.

In many cases Drive-In Programs are competitive with Fly-In Programs.  It is common for Drive-In Programs to have 3-10 teams at each age group with the lower level players paying the bill for the “Scout” or “National” Team.  The most talented players are the least likely to pay.  Also, a recent trend has been for national Fly-in teams to add regional Drive-In teams to their programs across the country as a way of expanding nationally and growing revenue.  There are probably now a dozen or more Fly-in programs that have expanded nationally with multiple regional Drive-in “franchises” to grow revenue.  

Buy-in Programs. This is the latest evolution of the Recruiting Model.  Unlike the Fly-in Programs, these programs do not have a history for winning elite events.  The have emerged primarily to compete against Development Programs by offering lower costs travel baseball since little investment is made in player development.  Instead, they recruit players to play in games, at a lower price than development programs.  The typical structure is 3-6 teams at each age, with the top team usually competitive at a regional level but not competitive with Fly-In Programs.   Teams 2-6 are usually not very competitive, with many players not even starting on their high school teams.

This is why I affectionately call them “Buy-In” Programs.  At a relatively low price, a player can buy-in to be part of a club that has a handful of good players on the top team and feel good about the brand affiliation, despite personally playing a level of baseball that is closer to recreational baseball than top tier Fly-in programs.  Buy-In programs are low priced because most of their teams play in $800  tournaments instead of $3k tournaments AND they have skeletal player development programs (i.e. they do not practice during the summer).  Any significant player development activities are outsourced to independent baseball training organizations.

To make it work, Buy-In programs need to be really good at playing the rent-a-player game on their top teams, bringing in different players each weekend and managing the player free agent market.  This is usually done locally or regionally. It is common for players to combine 4 weekends of Buy-In Program baseball with 4 weekends of Fly-In baseball with a different program.  The primary focus for these programs is getting enough quality players on the field on their top team to attract enough players to fill another 3+ teams of buy-in players that pay full price.  It is a financially opportunistic business model that is becoming common across the country.

So, that is the current landscape of club baseball from my perspective.  The primary differentiating choice is Development vs. Recruiting, with lots of implications for players and parents falling out from that fundamental choice.  It is important for players and parents to understand the landscape and options to make informed decisions.  Part of the sales pitch for Recruiting Programs is to blur informed decisions. In baseball, player development has been and always will be the core of the sport and the tools for player development are getting better every year.  There is no sales pitch, no matter how good it makes players/parents feel, that overcomes that fact.

Footnote — this Development vs. Recruiting choice is also playing out at the college and pro levels too. A separate topic though.

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