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Sickly-sweet deals at the Little League World Series [Commentary]

The Little League World Series opened in Williamsport, Penn., last week. This year, the vital statistics are about the same as last year and the year before: 10 days, 30 games, 16 teams representing the U.S. and eight countries around the globe. And this year, a rarity: A U.S. team (from Philadelphia) whose star 13-year-old also happens to be a girl.

There are more numbers, and though they probably won't be mentioned on ESPN, they matter, too. There are 21 "national sponsors" listed on the Little League Baseball website. These are corporations that pay sizable sums for the right to hitch their products to the wholesome Little League brand — products like Heinz ketchup, Subway sandwiches and Gatorade, the ubiquitous sports-drink brand.

Gatorade's deal is especially sweet. It supplies the drinks that will be served to players in the dugouts throughout the World Series. Talk about a sports marketer's dream: It's the ultimate product placement on the biggest stage in youth sports.

The money extracted from Gatorade and companies like it helps Little League to pay the bills. But there's something disquieting about the relationship. And the more you know about kids and health, the more disquieting it becomes.

Too many kids in organized sports are consuming sports drinks.

Your child's pediatrician probably would offer that advice if you asked. In 2011, America's children's doctors actually put that opinion in writing, collectively weighing in on the side of water over sports drinks for most situations. The recommendation came from the American Academy of Pediatrics, in a clinical report titled "Sports Drinks and Energy Drinks for Children and Adolescents: Are they Appropriate?"

"For the average child engaged in routine physical activity, the use of sports drinks in place of water on the sports field or in the school lunchroom is generally unnecessary," the report noted. Water, it said, is "generally the appropriate first choice for hydration before, during and after most exercise regimens."

Sports drinks are more than just not needed. They can harm kids. According to the AAP report, many sports drinks contain high levels of sugar. If they are consumed too often in sports and with meals, they can lead to problems that plague a lot of kids: dental decay, weight control issues, even childhood obesity.

The AAP isn't anti-sports drink. It acknowledges that these beverages have their place. It's just highly limited. They're appropriate when kids are "engaged in prolonged vigorous sports activity — primarily to rehydrate and replenish carbohydrates, electrolytes and water lost during exercise." The routine stuff that happens most evenings and weekends at the neighborhood field or gym does not meet that standard. (Energy drinks such as Red Bull and Monster should never be used by children, the report states.)

It would be unfair to single out Little League for accepting dollars from the snack-food and sports-drink industrial complex. Many national youth-sports organizations are doing the same. USA Football, the governing body of youth football, has its own deal with Gatorade. (Gatorade is an advertiser on, of all things, USA Football's "Health and Safety" blog.)

In fact, the issue is much broader. With more than 40 millions kids playing in the U.S., lots of companies are throwing money at youth sports to lock up different sorts of real estate. (While Gatorade has the dugouts this week in Williamsport, Kellogg's Frosted Flakes actually has its name appended to the iconic world series itself.)

"The problem is that most of the food and beverages marketed and sold in these settings are not healthy for kids or their families," said Toben Nelson, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota who has studied the eating habits of youth athletes.

In the past, I've spoken several times with Steve Keener, Little League Baseball's CEO. The conversation hasn't varied too much on this issue. I ask whether Little League has qualms about taking money from companies that make stuff that might not be good for kids. Mr. Keener responds that he doesn't look at it that way, pretty much as he told the Harrisburg Patriot-News last month: "I will never apologize or be ashamed of generating revenue to support this organization. What I would be ashamed of is if we did not use it the right way."

We all agree that someone has to pay the bills for kids' sports. As we watch the home-run balls fly this week in Williamsport, let's think about who's picking up the tab now and at what cost to children.

Mark Hyman is an assistant professor of management at the George Washington University. He is the author of three books on the problematic state of youth sports. His email is mhyman@gwu.edu; Twitter: @gwsportsprof and @sportsparents.

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Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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