Saturday, December 16, 2017
Business

Inside i9 Sports, the American youth-sports empire where everyone wins

RIVERVIEW — The first thing you notice is the hugging.

Child outfielders clump in embrace at Baseball Field 2. A long soccer-player hug is broken up to start a game. "He just ran up to his coach, hugged his leg and held on," Tanja Cebula said of her son, Logan, 3. "We told him you can't hug everyone."

The competition was not fierce at i9 Sports' recent Saturday "jamboree," the winter opener for 500 football, soccer and T-ball players between the ages of 3 and 14.

Nor is it ever. In i9 leagues, there are no drafts, no tryouts and, sometimes, no scores. Everyone plays; everyone gets a trophy. Just about everyone hugs.

It's a strangely sedate model for a sports league. But some parents love it. Since its founding in the Tampa suburbs a decade ago, i9 has become an empire, the biggest, fastest-growing youth-sports league franchise in the country.

Its 115 franchises span 28 states, from New York to Hawaii. More than 10,000 kids have run its fields in the last year across Tampa Bay, and half a million have played nationwide.

As budget cuts squeeze school teams and public rec leagues, i9's privatization of youth sports, an estimated $5 billion industry, has boomed. And the firm continues to win over protective parents with an unconventional playbook: Inclusive, low-conflict sports are in; heated competition is out.

This is the point where generational cynics kvetch about the wussiness of parenting today, the everyone-wins culture where children get gold stars just for showing up.

But the company has struck a chord with parents worried about injuries and tired of the stuck-in-the-'70s trappings of the typical kids' league: The clipboard guilt trips to volunteer at the concession stand; the candy-bar fundraisers; and the overbearing dads shrieking curses at the coach.

"We understand what the marketplace truly wants: They want their kid to have fun playing sports," said founder Frank Fiume, 45. "They know their child is not going to be the next Peyton Manning. But they want their kids to have a great experience … and they want to do business with somebody who makes it very easy for them."

• • •

As a boy in Long Island, Fiume had destroyed his back yard creating a Wiffle ball field. By 2003, the former medical-device salesman had turned his sports zeal into a business, awarding i9's first franchise. His fledgling company, an outgrowth of his on-the-side softball leagues, hosted games for kids and adults, and he was eager to expand, telling a reporter soon after, "Amateur sports is the greatest secret in American small business."

When team parents and adult teams didn't like sharing a league, Fiume refocused on the lucrative youth market, where kids' camps, after-school programs and other "child-related franchises" were exploding. Unlike adults, kids play multiple sports, play all year, and can wheedle their siblings and classmates to join.

More than 20 million boys and girls play organized sports in this country — more than the population of Florida — but their options are a mishmash of school, volunteer and parks-and-recreation leagues. Fiume saw dollar signs. "All those highly disorganized" clubs, the i9 biography states, "were profit centers disguised as sports leagues!"

In the last five years, the company said, the number of kids playing in i9 leagues has doubled. The private company, which does not release revenue figures, has 800 employees, 2,136 independently contracted referees and scores of volunteer coaches. Next year, it's looking to add 375 positions and 33 new locations.

Owners, or "area developers," pay between $41,000 and $69,000 to launch their own franchise, and i9 says leagues can earn revenues of $200,000 to $500,000 a year. Owners are expected to run day-to-day operations with the guidance of i9's corporate playbook, marketing and central efficiencies. When, for instance, a soccer mom in the Midwest phones her franchise, she is redirected to a call center at i9's sprawling headquarters in Riverview.

Those communiques from the i9 mothership wind back to the franchise owners, who have included everyone from former company executives and pharmaceutical reps to retired Marine sergeants and the manager of an Enterprise Rent-A-Car.

Everyone — area developers, program directors, site managers, sport instructors and coaches — is run through a background check. But visibly absent from the leadership ranks are "sports guys" with a history of running a league. Executives say that's by design.

"Those people tend to come in with preconceived ideas of how they should run their sports, and it's very much about the sport, very much about the rules of the game, very much about the score," i9 president Brian Sanders said. "That really is not what our model is about."

• • •

The "i9 Sports Experience," as the company calls it, is defined by a few key values. Every sport, and almost every team, is co-ed. There's one game and one practice a week. Every team member plays the same amount, regardless of talent. Most children end up playing every position.

Each week players are taught a different sportsmanship value: "hustle," "teamwork," "helping a buddy." The child who showcased it best is celebrated at game's end; to protect the other children's self esteem, there are no MVPs. Every player is given a sportsmanship award, a participant award and a celebratory icon in their online i9 "Trophy Case."

To ward off concussions, the kids are prevented from heading the ball in soccer or making contact with others in i9's most popular sport, flag football, which allows kids to "learn the fundamentals of the game without exposing their young brains to the violent collisions" of tackle football. Even before most states had signed "youth concussion" laws, i9 was flexing its "When In Doubt, Sit Them Out" policy, benching any young athlete suspected of suffering a head injury.

Parents, who pay $120 to $160 per sport and season, aren't conscripted into running concessions, and their kids are given preprinted, standardized i9 jerseys, helping them dodge equipment fees. To keep team parents from forgetting a game, they're sent email reminders. Snack schedules are tracked on i9's website and glossy mobile app.

For their part, parents are required to sign pledges promising they won't use "negative language," and that they "agree that the most important outcome of any game is for my child to have fun."

The most abrasive spectators are tut-tutted by site managers, shown their Parental Pledge or escorted out of the stands. To strengthen that mandate, i9's fields are mapped with military precision, with specific zones for parents to unfold their soft-backed chairs on the sidelines, away from the players' bench.

Fiume said strict guidelines are crucial to ensuring the "i9 Sports Experience" stays consistent. "It's no different than McDonald's. They have a certain formula in the way they construct a hamburger, done in a certain order," Fiume said. "We do the same thing."

Perhaps because of its size, or perhaps because of its ambition, Fiume doesn't compare i9 to other leagues. He talks about it being "the ultimate in convenience," a la giant retailers like Amazon, and how franchisees scouting for new neighborhoods assess demographics like an Outback Steakhouse would.

It's perhaps a coincidence that i9's name (based off nine company tenets: "inspirational," "inclusive," "integrity-driven," you get the point) sounds like it could be sold in an Apple store. But Fiume doesn't back away from connecting his sports upstart to the ubiquitous tech behemoth.

"Companies like Apple have made it more of a challenge for us because, this, the iPhone, the way it was designed, that is what has created the level of expectation for people," he said. "You do anything short of that, you're not good."

When asked if parents ever miss the charming quirkiness of disorganized youth sports — the messiness of it, the surprises, without standardized jerseys and trophy icons and apps — Fiume laughs, lifting his iPhone.

"Would you like to go back to a flip phone? A brick phone?" he said. "It's very charming, the brick phone."

• • •

When the 3-year-old soccer players of the i9 Wildcats take the field one recent Saturday morning for their first game, many of them seem more interested in running feral and free through the grass. Several parents buzz onto the pitch, attending to spontaneous falls and crying jags. A few standouts toddle the ball downfield to score.

"Super-competitive parents don't sign up for our league," program director Tyler King says, standing among the crowd. "Succeeding for some of these kids may be stopping the ball. That's their goal for the year. But we do our best so that every kid gets to score a goal."

That's not to say every player needs help — or is less interested in training than stickers and hugs. Many of the 500 players that morning in the fields outside St. Stephen Catholic School showed promise, including a crop of teens in blue jerseys throwing mean spirals near Practice Zone A.

Even some of the younger kids, like Owen Hersey, 6, seemed prepped for play in a competitive league. His dad, Chris, said he amped himself up that morning with music — he likes Bob Seger and Bon Jovi — before chomping down on his blue mouthguard and drilling plays with his new coach.

But even with their potential, Chris Hersey said, the teams are unlikely to beat themselves up over a bad game. "They like to win. But even if they lose, it doesn't seem to faze them," he said. "Half the time after the game, they're asking if they won or lost."

So is all this rubber-edged gameplay coddling the kids?

Fiume, whose 12-year-old son, Frankie, has played basketball and flag football with i9 since he was 3, said he is all about healthy competition. But he argues that too much of youth sports today is over-aggressive and burnout-inducing: elite clubs and clinics promising unforgiving training schedules, college scholarships and professional stardom.

It's not just that "realistically, just percentage-wise, it's in the hundredths of a percent" that a child will win fame on the JumboTron. It's, as i9 president Sanders says, "adult sports, played by kids," and it's damaging, physically and mentally. Why not sell a sport that gives time for other things, stays safe and improves self esteem? What's so wrong, he argues, with building a kid up?

Mileena Elliott, 3, had been given a choice — T-ball or dance — and so on Saturday morning she stepped up to the plate for her first i9 practice at-bat. Her mother, Amber, had driven them 45 minutes from Lakeland for the jamboree, lured by the idea that "there's no winners or losers, we're all just here to have fun."

Mileena had been sluggish to get up that morning. But once she realized she was on a team, she had wanted nothing more than to take the field with her pink glove and frilly socks. "Okay, mommy, I don't need you," she yelled, as she bounded to join her team.

Her curly red hair swallowed by a batting helmet, Mileena lifted a bat nearly taller than her and swung sheepishly at the ball. It didn't fly, just sort of bobbled onto the grass. Mileena could barely hide her smile.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Drew Harwell can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8252.

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