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.
The success of the Jaguars’ Foundation drew a lot of attention, causing many other professional sports groups to get on board with SPP. By recognizing outstanding philanthropic efforts through awards like the Steve Patterson Award, the good deeds of professional sports philanthropic foundations became more prominent, as has the concept of sports philanthropy in general. “Today, we work pretty much as consultants to provide direction and technical assistance to the sports foundations, to partner with clubs and teams to maximize their philanthropic investment,” Van Le, the current President of the Sports Philanthropy Project, described during a recent interview. Le was named President of SPP earlier this year. 
Le emphasized that advising people in achieving a successful, comprehensive, and long-term program is part of the “sports philanthropy” phenomenon, and with the support of a large organization and an established network, the Sports Philanthropy Project is constantly growing. “We had a hand in developing the field,” he noted, “and we’re very proud of what the clubs, teams, and athletes have done throughout the years." 
As SPP looks at the next phase of growth, Le adds, “We can assist teams, companies and athletes as they develop their philanthropic goals based upon our extensive knowledge of the industry and best practices.”