The Little League World Series is back to its old self, and more.
After no tournament in 2020 and no international clubs in 2021, both due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the youth baseball tournament has expanded to 20 teams from around the world that will play ball in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania, starting Wednesday.
This year’s series marks the 75th anniversary of the first tournament, which has become a staple of life in central Pennsylvania, not to mention an economic boost for South Williamsport — where the Little League complex is actually housed — and Williamsport, just across the West Branch of the Susquehanna River. Together, the communities of about 35,000 people have been looking forward to the return of fans and families.
“It’s been a tough few years here. Last year we had a limited World Series, of course, but there’s nothing that can take the place of a full World Series,” Williamsport Mayor Derek Slaughter said. “It’s hard to really quantify, or even qualify, what that means.”
In 2021, only family and friends were allowed into the Little League complex’s two stadiums for games. Missing were the traditional big crowds in lawn chairs on the hill behind Lamade Stadium, which will be the site of the championship on Aug. 28.
Slaughter estimated the 2022 World Series will bring 85,000 people into his city, while he added that having the tournament back in full swing could have a $40 million to $50 million impact on the community.
The mayor expects this year’s attendance to exceed the success of pre-pandemic events. A number of factors play into that, including the return to a sense of normalcy and the excitement that comes with a benchmark like the 75th anniversary of the first tournament in 1947.
But a reorganization and expansion of the tournament field may also have an impact. The Little League World Series consists of 20 teams for the first time ever in 2022, after previously welcoming 16 teams.
Two new regions were introduced in the United States: the Metro Region including Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island, and the Mountain Region including Montana, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming. A pair of new regions were also introduced internationally, with Panama and Puerto Rico earning bids to this year’s tournament.
A Little League World Series spokesman said the decision to introduce four new regions was intended to reflect areas with the highest levels of Little League participation. More teams, however, means more parents and family members in attendance at a minimum. And in the case of the Metro Region, specifically, the Northeast now houses three World Series bids instead of two.
“I think (expansion) absolutely will increase the attendance,” Slaughter said, “just because of the geographical location of that Metro area. Clearly, it’s not that far away from Williamsport, so folks can easily drive here.”
If a second goal for expansion was to get more states represented in the Little League World Series, the newly formed Mountain Region quickly cashed in on that.
It’s hard to name a favorite in a double-elimination competition among players who aren’t even in high school, but it’s notable that Honolulu, the 2018 champion and third-place team last year, is back again, and once again coached by Gerald Oda.
Meanwhile, some of Slaughter’s expected 85,000 attendees have begun trickling into Williamsport. They’ll fill the seats in restaurants and other businesses around town throughout their stays.
“It’s hard to really put in words,” Slaughter said. “I feel fortunate that we’re able to host it here in Williamsport and that our businesses and industry will get some relief over these next two weeks. That is well earned, given what we have all gone through these past few years.”
Max Ralph is a journalism student at Penn State.