Executive Director Retires on Top
March 29, 2019
If you played youth sports or had children that participated in youth sports in Minnesota over the past 28 years, there is a good chance you played in an event or program created by Dan Klinkhammer, the Executive Director of the Minnesota Youth Athletic Services (MYAS), who is planning to retire on March 29.
As a member of the Baby Boom generation, Klinkhammer grew up in rural Wisconsin with three brothers and two sisters. Without the daily distraction of modern technology – since it was still 30 years away – Dan filled his summer days on the baseball diamond, fall evenings on the football field and winter nights on the basketball court when he wasn’t working long hours in his father’s cheese factory. A four-year letter winner and captain of the Bloomington High School (WI) baseball, football and basketball teams, sports came naturally to him and he knew it was his calling.
Dan cut his teeth in sports administration after returning from a tour in Vietnam and graduating from Winona State University when he accepted a position in Pipestone, MN as the Park and Rec Director in the late 1970s. After a few years in western Minnesota, he returned to Winona when offered a job working under Bob Welch, who would become Dan’s mentor. Klinkhammer eventually assumed the duties of Director and held that position for the next 10 years, and was chosen as Man of the Year in 1989. During his tenure in Winona, he managed to convince his childhood sweetheart, Karla, to accept his proposal of marriage. Their family grew with the birth of son Adam in 1982, followed by Lance in 1985.
Klinkhammer moved his family to Ham Lake in 1989, working briefly for the Minnesota Sports Federation (MSF), and a short time later went on to co-found the Minnesota Youth Athletic Services (MYAS) with Reg Powell as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization based on an educational foundation. In the early 90s, the local youth sports scene was searching for a neutral organization that could provide the service required for proper league administration. The MYAS was created in an effort to fill that need. Two of the first programs administered by the MYAS were the Girls Metro Basketball League (GMBL) and the Boys Traveling Basketball League (BTBL).
The business model created by Klinkhammer and employed by the MYAS is a true profit-sharing model. Every event administered by the MYAS is hosted by a local youth sports organization, which becomes the beneficiary of a significant amount of the event’s revenue. The MYAS philosophy focuses on helping local organizations raise more money for their programs. With the additional fundraising, local programs could rent more gym time, buy uniforms, create new teams and ultimately strengthen the infrastructure of youth sports in Minnesota at the local level. A recent internal study concluded that in 2018, MYAS events generated over $4.1 million dollars annually for groups that host our events.
One of the largest of these fundraisers is the MYAS Grade State Basketball Championships. The first year of the Grade State tournament registered 23 teams that played on four courts at a local high school gym. In 2019, the event registered over 1,500 boys and girls youth basketball teams in grades 4-9 over two weekends in 40+ communities, and is considered the largest youth basketball tournament in the nation.
Over the years in the constantly changing environment of youth sports, the MYAS has been determined to keep the best interests of Minnesota participants as first priority. For much of the organization’s formative years, the MYAS was the Minnesota affiliate for the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and later the United States Sports Specialty Association (USSSA). Klinkhammer served on numerous national executive committees with both the AAU and USSSA and helped Minnesota lead the nation in basketball memberships.
The affiliation with the national governing bodies allowed the MYAS to administer events on a national level. Dan served as the Tournament Director of the 12-Under AAU National Baseball Championship in Burnsville and Lakeville every August for a number of years, with teams participating from across the nation – including Hawaii. The nine-day event kicked off with a welcome party and skills competition, with skydivers delivering the first pitch. Many former Major League players got their competitive start at this tournament including new Twins manager, Rocco Baldelli (Rhode Island Tides – 1995). Possibly even more impressive is that the MYAS was able to win the bid process over Disney, which had built a dedicated complex (Disney’s Wide World of Sports) to host the tournament for the 12 year old teams that are included in Disney’s target market.
Many people may know the MYAS by its major brand, Gopher State. The MYAS baseball program began with its administration of the Metro Baseball League for a period of time under the direction of Klinkhammer. Due to location issues, the MYAS created the Gopher State Baseball League in 2000, offering the league to over 400 teams annually. In addition to a number of other tournaments on the summer baseball schedule, the season typically culminates with the Gopher State Tournament of Champions which awards custom rings to individual players at Target Field before a Twins game. To finish the baseball season, the Gopher State Fall Baseball League is offered to young athletes who want to play a few more games before the snow flies, and typically hosts 450 teams.
Besides the main sports of baseball and basketball, wrestling and swimming events have been the largest additions to the MYAS suite of services and events. In 2003, Klinkhammer asked program staff member, Jeremy Innes, to create a wrestling program. Through working with influential wrestling programs in Minnesota, the Gopher State Nationals were formed and eventually led to the creation of the Midwest Wrestling Tour, a collection of prestigious youth wrestling events held in four states of the Midwest.
The Midwest Regional Swim Meet, the second largest youth swimming event in the nation, takes place at the University of Minnesota each year.
Dan’s latest brainchild is the Trusted Coaches program, a concept that delivers base-level education for all youth coaches. He wanted to create a program that would offer the training required to keep youth athletes safe. Trusted Coaches includes a suite of training programs including a national background check, first-aid training and concussion education to satisfy Minnesota’s concussion law. Since the initial launch in 2015, over 25,000 coaches have completed the training.
Over the years, the duties of the Executive Director have not come without headaches. With the environment of youth sports becoming more volatile resulting in disciplinary issues, Dan will be the first to tell you that bad behavior by spectators and, at times, by the players and coaches, is the biggest problem in youth sports. The abuse is contributing to a significant decrease in the number of umpires and basketball officials across the nation. Once again, in keeping with best practices, the MYAS partnered with local organization, Youth 1st, and rolled out its Good Sportsmanship Initiative at the Grade State events this past March. The movement was recently covered by local news media and over 600 teams have been selected as recipients of the Good Sportsmanship award in 2019.
Despite the trials over the years that forced Klinkhammer to navigate some difficult waters while finding creative ways to run the organization, his philosophy has never swayed. “Do the right things for the right reasons and treat people the way you want to be treated.” Staying true to that moral code has allowed Klinkhammer and his staff to make an impact on the lives of millions of Minnesotans over the past 28 years and create positive experiences that they carry throughout their adult lives. The culture of youth sports in Minnesota would be very different had Dan Klinkhammer not made the decision to create the MYAS and surround himself with smart, capable, and entrepreneurial employees.
It’s fair to say that the state of youth sports in Minnesota is as strong as it has ever been. It’s only fitting that Dan Klinkhammer, the athlete, parent, coach, referee, administrator, and Minnesota’s “Godfather of Youth Sports” walks away from the game a CHAMPION.
MRPA published a piece of this article in their MRPA Minnesota Magazine Spring 2019 edition on page 10.
Photos from the Early Days