Sporting the same shoes as the ones featured on Sharapova or spotted on the hottest new NBA celebrity can definitely make an ordinary pair of sneakers feel a bit more glamorous. There’s no denying the ever-increasing influence of sports on culture and media—the industry is bigger, more multi-faceted, and wealthier than ever. Today’s sports superstars are a canvas for the latest endorsements and pop culture trends.
Behind almost every Great with-a-capital-G sports team or athlete is a community that finds inspiration and hope in them. Many athletes today are discovering that the best way to become more than just “the current face of Adidas” is by becoming the face of something they are more emotionally invested in—an issue important to them and relevant to a greater community. That’s when the concept of “sports philanthropy” came into the picture.
Sports philanthropy, a rather under-the-radar facet of the sports industry, now plays a pivotal role in connecting teams and athletes with their community to foster positive social change. Since its initiation in 1998, the “Sports Philanthropy Project” (SPP) has dedicated itself to tying the popularity and marketing power of the professional sports industry with health and social issues that face communities, such as childhood obesity, tobacco use, healthcare access, education, etc.
The concept is quite ingenious: who wouldn’t want to look like the Mother Theresa of baseball? Leading an effective and successful philanthropic program is a great spotlight on any sports celebrity, and SPP works in essentially connecting professional sports foundations with a network, a vision, and the specific framework to get the most out of their philanthropic endeavors.
Let’s face it, something about a star athlete personally reaching out to a cause is heart-warming enough to spark respect and faith, especially from the community involved, forming the basis for the kind of fan support that will withstand the good and the bad seasons. The personal nature of the program and the way it encourages the community to participate is a recipe for success, proving that the old saying definitely holds true: good deeds don’t go unnoticed.
“Professional sports is big business, yes, but experience has shown that it can also be a big player in driving social change,” said Joe Marx, the senior marketing director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF)—a leading public health group focused on major health issues—in an interview featured in their anthology. RWJF, the figurative “father” organization from which the Sports Philanthropy Project was generated, shaped the initial idea for the project after the success of one of the first notable sports philanthropy partnerships with the Jacksonville Jaguars Foundation. Leveraging sports and marketing to promote health, they utilized the team and its athletes to spread anti-tobacco messages and extensive community programs.