With the Little League World Series finals upon us, it’s the end of a nearly two-week run for the ESPN production crew. I spoke with senior coordinating producer Matt Sandulli, 47, about what makes Little League work on television and how to tell the story without exploiting the miscues of 12-year-olds.
Times Herald-Record: What makes Little League coverage on ESPN so successful?
Matt Sandulli: I think the biggest thing that makes the telecast successful is we’re able to capture the atmosphere of what this tournament is all about, and that’s family entertainment. I mean these kids are out here paying ball but this is a family event. People come (to Williamsport), they bring their families … there is no admission charge. A hot dog costs $1.50 or $2, which is where it’s supposed to be. So this is actually a great destination for families to come and finish their summer off. We capture the essence of that, around a baseball game.
The atmosphere is what sells it. I hear from people that loved our little story about the kids from the West (region) third baseman and his twin brother … I hear more things about that than the games themselves, unless someone is throwing the ball ridiculously hard or hitting home runs ridiculously far. It’s truly the atmosphere, and we are able to capture this.
THR: So you folks do the job of relating these kids to other 12 year old boys in the country?
Sandulli: I also think there is the family aspect to it, too. We do brothers and sisters together and moms and dads. Even just seeing the moms and dads in the crowd, kind of living and dying with their kids out there playing ball and just really capturing that, too. I think that is also a highlight of what we do here, year in and year out.
THR: How do you feel about exposing kids to the harsh glare of TV. Kids make mistakes. What do you do to not pound that home?
Sandulli: Our approach is when something like that happens, say, for example, I did the Eastern Regionals where the second baseman made a pretty big error. We use the opportunity to teach. You have to replay it because it was a very telling moment of the game, and so we use the opportunity to teach what he did wrong or why he did it wrong, and how to do it the right way. We certainly don’t go overboard. We are very conscious of when somebody makes a mistake or when someone has a problem on the field, obviously we document it in its relationship to the game but we certainly don’t’ exploit it, we don’t overdo it in those instances. You might see one replay. We don’t linger on tears. We’re moving on. We’re not here to shine that spotlight on someone who makes a mistake.
THR: Your announcers realize they are not covering a Major League Baseball game, and need to show these kids in a kinder light.
Sandulli: Yeah, exactly. Our approach to our announcers at the beginning of all the tournaments that we do involving the kids is as someone analyzing these games … when you analyze games at the Major League level, you are being critical, you are paid to have an opinion and be critical. We tell our guys when we go out to do the amateur games here, in all the divisions of Little League, you are no longer really an analyst at this time. You’re becoming a coach. We want you to teach the game. The games themselves and how they play out, that is the venue you have to teach with. We certainly talk about that a lot, not being critical, but using mistakes to teach the right way to do things.
THR: You and I are of an age where the only World Series action we saw was one or two games on ABC’s Wide World of Sports with Jim McKay. Now there are 16 teams in Williamsport and every game is televised. Are you shocked at how this whole World Series expansion has taken off and been received well?
Sandulli: I guess I would say yes and no to that. This is really family entertainment. I have two boys, 12 and 10, and this is in their wheelhouse. My 10 year old records every game because he wants to watch his peers play baseball at this level. It really has become family entertainment. I hear from older folks, like my mom and dad’s generation, how much fun it really is to watch it. Again, the kids love it. So I am a little bit surprised that it went that nuts, but I also think in a day where you turn on your TV and you can watch any Major League Baseball game that you want now, and quite honestly quite a few people are frankly turned off to different aspects of what’s going in Major League Baseball … Here it is, baseball at its purest form, 12 year olds playing baseball. That really has big appeal to people these days.