1. Business

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

Mileena Elliott, 3, and her mother traveled 45 minutes for the i9 Sports’ jamboree, lured by the idea that “there’s no winners or losers.”
Published Jan. 4, 2014

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 or (727) 893-8252.


  1. Tech Data's CEO Rich Hume (left) shares a moment with former CEO Bob Dutkowsky during a send off celebration for Dutkowsky earlier this year. JIM DAMASKE   |   Times
    A private equity firm has agreed to buy Tech Data.
  2. Joseph Erickson, 53, looks out the window at the gulf-[front condo he thought he won at a foreclosure auction last year.t JOHN PENDYGRAFT   |  Times
    "There have been serious allegations,'' Judge Keith Meyer said.
  3. Sam's Club fulfillment center manager Nick Barbieri explains to a shopper how the new Scan & Go shop works at 5135 S Dale Mabry Highway. SARA DINATALE  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Shoppers in Tampa Bay can now skip the line and cash out alcohol on their own phones.
  4. Which cars hold their value best in Tampa Bay? Pictured is traffic in Tampa Bay in 2017. [Times file photo] ELLIOTT, LOREN  |  Elliott, Loren
    For the top spots, think big and rugged.
  5. A rendering of the planned Pinstripes bowling, bocce and bistro space that is planned to open at International Plaza alongside a Cinemex in spring 2021. Pinstripes
    In addition to upscale bowling and movies, there will also be bocce ball and a bistro.
  6. Tech Data's headquarters in Largo. TD AGENCY  |  Courtesy of Tech Data
    The company is being sold to a private equity firm.
  7. St. Petersburg's new 26-acre Pier District, with components that will include a coastal thicket walking path, marketplace, playground and pavilion, is nearing completion. Shown is the tilted lawn in front of the Pier head building that is being created  with Geofoam, soil and grass. SCOTT KEELER  |  Tampa Bay Times
    St. Petersburg hopes to sell naming rights in the Pier District — available for annual payments of $50,000 to $1 million for 10-year terms — to help offset taxpayer subsidies.
  8. Tech Data chief executive officer Rich Hume talks to company employees about the pending acquisition of Tech Data for $5.4 billion at a global town hall meeting on Wednesday morning. David Kiester | Tech Data
    Apollo Global Management has offered $130 per share of Tech Data stock. If shareholders approve, the home-grown company will remain based in Pinellas County.
  9. Isabella Yosuico of Safety Harbor with some of the Mighty Tykes wrist and ankle bands she invted to help her son Isaac, who has Down Syndrome, and other children with weak muscles. SCOTT KEELER  |  Tampa Bay Times
    A product to help special needs kids leads to big loans, a lawsuit and a bungled bankruptcy
  10. The Pinellas County Commission moved closer Tuesday to granting a total of $20.6 million to three museums: the Salvidor Dali Museum (top), the Tampa Bay Watch Discovery Center (bottom left), and the St. Petersburg Museum of History. Photos courtesy of Pinellas County
    The Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg Museum of History and Tampa Bay Watch are on track to receive bed tax dollars for expansions.