Little League baseball is growing up.
The Little League World Series (search), once a Saturday afternoon TV oddity, has quietly crept into the hearts of millions of viewers and created a cult following.
"It's just kind of cool to see the pure spirit of the sport," says Steve Herz, an agent who represents sports/media personalities.
On Friday, the Little League World Series play-off tournament begins in Williamsport, Pa. No longer satisfied with a single, final game, ESPN will air 25 games, split between the main channel and ESPN2.
Then ABC will air the U.S. Championship game and the grand finale, the Little League World Series, between the U.S. champs and the international champs next weekend.
Twelve-and-under baseball is suddenly big business. On average, each of the playoff games will be seen in nearly 1 million homes — nearly as many as an average National Hockey League (search) game.
"In an age where everybody is so jaded that [all-star pitcher] Randy Johnson (search) makes millions of dollars a year and will only be traded to one team, you still have these kids with their unbridled enthusiasm for the game, it's a little touch of 'Field of Dreams,' " says Herz.
It was the 2002 series — which starred an improbable Bronx team lead by the over-age Danny Amonte — that seems to have hooked people on Little League.
That was the high-water mark. On ABC, the 2002 championship game was seen in about 6.1 million homes. It dropped to 4.5 million homes last year.