For the Love of the Game

by | May 27, 2020 | For Organizers

Craig Keilitz, executive director of the American Baseball Coaches Association, hosts conventions dedicated to fostering excellence among amateur teams

On June 29, 1945, more than two dozen college baseball coaches convened at the New York Athletic Club to share ideas and insights on elevating baseball at the collegiate level. Seventy-five years later, the group that eventually became the American Baseball Coaches Association (ABCA) still gathers every year to learn from and support one another.

Education, community, legislative advances, and professional development are goals many associations hold in common, which is why professional and trade associations provide so much value.

The mission of the ABCA

Headquartered in Greensboro, North Carolina, the ABCA provides training and professional development for baseball coaches who coach amateur players from youth leagues, high school and college teams. Membership benefits also include $1 million in personal liability insurance, subscriptions to industry publications, and legislative initiatives to protect players and coaches.

The association has grown from its 140 charter members to 13,000 members from all 50 states and 25 countries around the world, more than half of which attend the annual convention held in January each year.

Craig Keilitz
Craig Keilitz

At the helm of the ABCA is Craig Keilitz, who has served as executive director for nearly six years. Keilitz played on different teams in high school but preferred baseball. In college, he played ball for Central Michigan University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree. He went on to earn a Master of Sports Administration from Ohio University.

He has carried his love of the game into his professional career.

“After Ohio University, I interned at FSU for a year,” says Keilitz, “which led me to four years at the University of Michigan where I was the assistant compliance director and later director of compliance.”

Keilitz then spent 12 years in three different athletic director roles for Wake Forest University. Prior to ABCA, Keilitz spent nearly seven years as vice president of athletics at High Point University, a Division I school in North Carolina. His involvement in collegiate athletics has been a family affair; his father, Dave Keilitz, was also an athletic director and past executive director of the ABCA.

A coach’s highest calling

According to the ABCA website, the association believes that a baseball coach’s highest calling is to teach life lessons and model essential character traits such as honesty, integrity, respect and personal responsibility. Included in the educational programming are the mental aspects of coaching young men and women.

“Each year, a coach at our convention will mentions the effect they have on young lives,” says Keilitz. “The speaker will say, ‘Be the type of coach you’d want to play for,’ or ‘Be the type of coach whose athletes will invite you to their wedding.’ Coaches are often the most influential person in a young person’s life, holding them accountable and asking them to do things they didn’t think possible, or just reminding them to pay attention to academics or respect their parents. In little ways like that, coaches teach kids far more than just baseball.”

One of the sports industry’s largest conferences

Every year, nearly 8,000 ABCA members attend the association’s annual convention — one of the sports industry’s largest conferences — which fulfills ABCA’s central mission to educate, equip and empower baseball coaches of amateur teams. Over three days, more than 50 speakers offer dozens of keynotes, clinics and workshops on different skills and drills for hitting, pitching, catching, in-field and outfield play, base running and practice planning, as well as different philosophies and approaches to coaching.

Around 2,500 exhibitors and vendors set up shop on the trade-show floor, which spans 200,000 square feet to hold all the goods coaches might need for their teams that year.

“Whether it’s bats, balls, uniforms, pitching machines, championship rings, travel bags, or hotel partners — you name it — it’s there at the show,” notes Keilitz.

Chris Merritt, regional sales director for Groups360, originally attended one of ABCA’s annual conventions to meet coaches he knew would benefit from guidance and support in their team travel planning. After meeting Keilitz and his staff, Merritt also realized Groups360 could advise the ABCA in ways that would increase their opportunities and save them time and money.

But when Groups360 reached out to Keilitz to offer their services, he was doubtful.

“At first, I just didn’t think they could do what they were claiming they could do,” he says. “But we eventually took a leap of faith, and it’s been one of the best decisions we’ve made. They’ve kept our costs down and allowed us to make better decisions based on their understanding of the business. It’s like playing poker—they know what everybody else’s hand is. They know what the going rates are. They know what the occupancy rates are year after year for a given hotel in a given market at a particular time. It’s good to negotiate with Groups360 on your side.”

A better way to source venues

The ABCA plans conventions 15 months in advance, sourcing sometimes eight years into the future. Prior to partnering with Groups360, Keilitz and his staff organized their events the classic way — sending RFPs to hotels in a few key cities — without a clear and efficient way to truly compare “apples to apples.”

They’ve been working with Groups360 since 2015, when Keilitz needed to find a replacement venue for their 2019 convention.

“Groups360 has been such a tremendous help for us,” says Keilitz. “I can’t imagine doing business like we have over the last few years without them. They’ve been absolutely incredible, and they’ve saved us money. They certainly help during the most stressful part of the year as we’re securing more and more hotels as the group continues to grow. I can’t imagine doing business without Groups360. They’ve been fantastic.”

A casualty of the coronavirus: in-person community

ABCA’s 2020 convention, held in Nashville, Tennessee, narrowly missed the emerging coronavirus pandemic that has derailed sports events, conventions, trade shows, and meetings of all sizes for much of the year.

ABCA plans to host its 77th annual convention in Washington, D.C., on January 7-10, 2021. Amid ongoing uncertainty, however, contingency planning remains par for the course.

“Right now, it’s just first things first,” says Keilitz. “Our seasons were scrapped. We’re still scrambling through legislation and the major league baseball draft. In the coming weeks, our staff will discuss how to handle various scenarios that might emerge if there’s another wave of infection this fall and next winter. But we’re not quite there yet.”

In-person meetings matter

Many meeting and event planners are looking to add virtual components to create hybrid events or pivot entirely to digital if the coronavirus pandemic continues indefinitely. Keilitz and his team continue to weigh the options for next January.

“We’re still working on basic logistics, but we have to consider what we’ll do under certain circumstances,” he says. “Do we cancel the convention? Do we live-stream the speakers to coaches’ communities? It wouldn’t be that difficult to go virtual, but it also wouldn’t be the same.”

Keilitz points to the unique benefits of in-person interaction that take place at the ABCA conventions.

“Coaches get so much more out of the show by being with one another,” he says. “There’s just as much learning that goes on behind the scenes — in the hallways, lobbies or restaurants — than there is during the sessions. That networking, seeing friends, learning from the clinic, talking in the halls, the connections, all those types of things would be greatly missed if we went to a virtual convention.”

Above all else, it’s the relationships that matter most.

“Coaches come every year to see their friends,” notes Keilitz. “We have retired coaches who have been in the association for 50 years. They love the game and their fellow coaches, and the friendships, the stories, and the grind of elevating college baseball to its current level are all what make this convention so rewarding. And then seeing the younger coaches develop throughout their career to become top-level head coaches. You get to witness greatness. Those are things I cherish most about our convention.”

Sports fans across the world are all asking when sports will return, with or without fans in the stands. With major league sports and college ball all sidelined by the novel coronavirus, no one can say for sure.

But given how fundamental baseball is to American life at all levels of competition, we can trust that pitchers will once again stand atop the mound in the months and years to come, guided and mentored by coaches who have spent decades raising the professionalism of baseball at all levels of the game.