The Power of Social Responsibility in Sports

The Power of Social Responsibility in Sports. By: Sasha Altschuler


Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is a powerful tool used to build and generate the current and future fan base that will positively contribute to the business goals of any sports franchise or property. 

Sports are unique as they can act as a powerful tool to connect people that transcends across race, religion, political beliefs, or socioeconomic status when mobilized in the right way. When connected with sports, CSR has a significant effect on brand reputation, engagement and loyalty, all ultimately and directly impacting a teams’ bottom line. The term “double bottom line” pushes the boundaries for what the bottom line should mean for teams — in my research, it was clear that it is not only about growing revenue — but also about the tangible and sustained social impact a team can achieve in its community. This ability to achieve dual impact is especially appealing to GEN Z (those born in mid to late 90s) who will make up 40% of the consumer base by 2020- and is evidenced in the increase among leagues, teams, and corporations in social impact initiatives in order to appeal to younger consumers.  


CSR in sports has continued to evolve over time. Connecting sports with the community first began with the creation of the Jimmy Fund in the 1950’s as the official charity of the Major League Baseball’s (MLB) Boston Red Sox. The importance of this work was soon after recognized and continued to grow, and in the 1970s, the first league-wide foundation was founded: the National Football League’s (NFL) partnership with the United Way. From there, the National Hockey League (NHL) teams, beginning with the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks, created team foundations in the 1980s. In 2005, the launch of the National Basketball Association (NBA) Cares program established the first formalized large-scale nationally marketed CSR program among the major sports leagues.

CSR as a recognized business imperative has grown astronomically since the early 2000s.  As the impact of sports in today’s culture continues to grow, so does its ability to affect positive change in communities across the country and, likewise, sports franchises recognize the value that adds to their brand. Leagues have assumed a leading role to create consistency and uniformity in their CSR programming. The National Football League has been an extraordinary example of those efforts, “we have a moral responsibility to support communities that are supporting our game and our teams,” said Anna Isaacson, Senior Vice President, Social Responsibility, NFL. As the value of these initiatives prove themselves, leagues are expanding their allocated resources dedicated to this work and ultimately prioritizing CSR strategies and building goodwill among employees, fans, and the public. “Folks will align themselves to the NBA based on programming we activate around,” said Cedric Ikpo, Manager, Corporate Social Responsibility, NBA. 

Leadership among leagues and teams is paying attention and, in some cases, leading the way. Increasingly, CSR leads within leagues and teams have greater support and resources due to top executives recognizing the importance of CSR to their business. “CSR professionals are now acting as strategic advisors for many organizations,” says Christa Stout, Vice President of Innovation & Impact, Portland Trail Blazers, “we know that future fans (Gen Z) care about what companies that they’re supporting are doing to make the world better. CSR used to be a nice to have, and now it’s a critical role at successful teams.”

Why are sports organizations participating in CSR? 

As CSR within sports grows, so too do expectations of fans, communities and executives. “Sports are one of the very few things in today’s social fabric that unite communities,” said Jessica Berman, Former Vice President of Community Development, Culture & Growth, NHL & current Deputy Commissioner, National Lacrosse League. This in turn requires CSR leads to continually seek ways to increase the dual impact of their efforts. Through interviews and surveying more than 40 individuals from leagues, teams and foundations and extensive review of industry efforts, I identified five trends that will shape the future of CSR & Sports.

TOP 5 TRENDS in Sports CSR Today: 

1.  Sports CSR initiatives support core business objectives

We continuously see CSR reflected in brand awareness, reputation and loyalty. The next generation of fans, millennials and GEN Z care about how sports franchises are making an impact on issues facing society. They are more consistently holding organizations accountable. “Our number one objective is social impact…” said Isaacson, but from a business objective, CSR is critical for the reputation of the NFL brand. We have marketing research that shows how cause campaigns make people feel about the NFL and if fans are more aware of a cause or an issue because of its association to us.”In 2009, the NFL partnered with the American Cancer Society to raise awareness and funds for breast cancer. Most memorably, they organized a full “pink out” on and off the field. This eight-year campaign seared neon pink into the brains of millions of Americans who watch football in October and likely contributed to countless people being tested for the disease. Today this campaign, “the Crucial Catch” has evolved to include and support multiple types of cancer and NFL players, coaches, fans, and referees wear apparel help raise funds and awareness for early detection, screening and education. This campaign now includes an innovative digital feature where NFL players talk about cancer’s impact on their lives. This evolution came as a response from former player Devon Still, whose daughter battled cancer several years ago. This is just one example of the power of a sports league making an impact and making fans aware of traditionally difficult conversations to have.

Despite the success of these efforts, it’s clear there’s still work to be done to increase internal appreciation and understanding of the business impact of doing good. Survey data indicates that 37% of CSR leads believe only 50% of their colleagues are aware of the business benefits of CSR. As Calvin Parson, Director, Community & Charitable Programs, Washington Redskins notes, “A majority of the staff are aware… but the struggle that we face is a deeper understanding of exactly what we do, the impact that we have on our local community, and what that means for our franchise. 50% have a good idea of what we do, while the other 50% just know that we are the ‘charitable arm’ of the team.”

2.  CSR has strategic focus 

To achieve greater business and social impact goals, sports leagues and teams are becoming more deliberate in determining what issues to support with their resources. They are evolving away from broad and ambiguous themes, and instead, deliberately focusing on community pillars and developing plans for sustainability. “We used to work with dozens of different organizations each year without a clear strategy,” said Kelly Compton, Director of Monumental Sports & Entertainment Foundation. “This fall, we launched a new social impact initiative that seeks to make true, measurable impact in the community and devotes team and Foundation resources to shine a light on a different organization each month.”

To generate the greatest business and social impact, leagues and teams over the years have taken a more strategic approach to charitable programming and investments. Kevin Moss, Manager of Community Affairs, MLB agrees. “We’ve definitely seen an evolution from the ‘mile wide, inch deep’ to a more focused approach to the CSR plan, in our own league and across the industry,” he said “with our main focuses on health and wellness, education, and youth.”Moss specifically referenced the league’s main charitable partnerships including Jackie Robinson Foundation, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, and Stand up to Cancer.

The key to success in this space is for leagues to create a long-term strategy, while amplifying clubs’ messaging and allowing them to think creatively about their on-the-ground programming. “Teams are embedded in the communities in their various markets,” said Cedric Ikpo, “and we as a league are working to figure out how to move the needle, and increase collaboration between teams, leagues and the community.” Interviewees consistently referenced the importance of individual team buy-in and recognizing how they are present into their local communities. Leagues can create and manage a framework but should allow individual teams room to customize the strategy to fit their needs. “A great example of this is the Future Goals program established by the NHL/ NHLPA and powered by the digital education company, EVERFI,” said Jessica Berman, FormerVice President of Community Development, Culture & Growth, NHL & current Deputy Commissioner, NLL. The NHL aims to engage youth in hockey and teach core STEM concepts covering data analysis, geometry, life science, and physical science while exposing students to hockey careers in STEM. Though all 31 NHL teams participate in the program, each team has full autonomy to create their own communications and event strategy each year including open practices, STEM days, and school visits. This local customization of the league-wide initiative allows teams to have ownership of the project and establish a hyperlocal footprint and impact.

3.  The Rise of Authenticity and Transparency 

The next generation of fans have higher expectations of companies, especially sports teams, when it comes to being civically responsible. With the pervasiveness of social media platforms- Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, Tiktok- there is a microscope on teams and leagues to not just pursue CSR initiatives, but to be transparent and authentic with the causes they support and promote the impact their initiatives have.

 “The GEN Z population evaluates authenticity by seeing how you integrate your claimed cause into your business,” said Berman, NLL. The new age of social media allows consumers and fans to help amplify a platform or criticize it publicly. Because GEN Z is a critical demographic for sports leagues and teams, it is imperative to approach CSR work in a holistic manner (e.g. no “greenwashing”).

In recent years, players have become more vocal in reaction to social and political issues, especially in the NBA. All leagues have found themselves in the spotlight for how teams and players speak out on community issues on social media. “As our players become more vocal on issues that arise,” said Ikpo, NBA, “we have to think critically and be responsive to areas of focus players may address.” During the 2016 Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly (ESPYs), a few NBA players created a powerful moment when they spoke out on violence, racial injustice, and police brutality in America on a national stage. “The system is broken,” player Carmelo Anthony said. The response to this on social media was immediate and intense. The celebrity profile of these athletes mixed with the gravity of this issue put the NBA in a spotlight. In response, the NBA created a strategic CSR plan committed to social justice working with the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) on 70 initiatives surrounding community conversations, building bridges with basketball, and mentoring and economic development. This plan has now expanded to also focus on inclusivity, building bridges through basketball including initiatives focused on women’s empowerment and LGBTQ rights. 

With the success of that moment, the league has migrated to focusing more on current issues. While the NBA Fit program traditionally focused on physical fitness, players have begun to speak out about mental health issues in recent years. As mental health issues rise across the United States, the NBA has incorporated mental health education and awareness into their overall fitness programs. 

4. Importance of Measurement 

While transparency and impact are paramount to fans, there is a real challenge in measuring the success of CSR efforts. Due to lack of longitudinal data, its often difficult to gauge long-term outcomes of CSR programs. Leagues have adapted to focus on short-term outcomes but even then there are different strategies and approaches. This approach is reflected in the survey findings which indicate 71% of sports CSR leads lack data or bandwidth to measure impact.

Some organizations like the San Francisco Giants have been able to overcome the challenges of measurement. Monitoring and evaluation are integral to effective programming,” said Sue Petersen, Executive Director of the San Francisco Giants Community Fund, describing the details of how her team measures the success of the Giants Community Fund’s cornerstone program, Junior Giants. This program, created in 1994, focuses on health, education, violence prevention and character development and annually serves 24,000 youth across three states. The Fund measures the impact of this program in several ways including: in-season and postseason surveys to parents, ambassadors, coaches, and Junior Giants to capture data on participant numbers, demographics and changes in behavior/participation in the core focus areas. The Fund looks at a 3-year impact and review process, beginning Year One with a review and proof of performance, as a baseline report, with additional reports in Year Two and Three for comparison over time. With the exponential growth of the program over the decades, the Fund wanted to make sure it had its finger on the pulse of the expanding operation and that it ensured quality for all the communities and families that were served. 

In 2011, the Fund was able to find a deeper way to show accountability by enlisting the help of an outside organization, namely a university professor and his team, to design and oversee a more formal processes to collect both quantitative and qualitative data.  This involved the Fund creating a Junior Giants Ambassador program to provide a personal approach to facilitating the surveys.  For education, they assessed the literacy improvements for youth involved in the program, for health programs they analyzed the change in nutritional intake/awareness and physical activity, and for violence prevention and character development they looked into parents seeing changes in attitudes and children taking on more leadership roles as a result of the Junior Giants program. Since 2014, all survey data has been collected on iPads- giving the Fund the ability to gather information more efficiently. In 2016, after surveying 15,000 parents with children in the Junior Giants program and over 4,000 coaches, 95% of coaches saw a positive change in confidence levels in their league’s participants and 93% of parents were satisfied with the program. Each year, the Fund puts together a succinct document analyzing achievements and demographic data to share with many internal and external groups including board members, Giants management, community partners and donors. 

Measurement has continued to act as a vital tool to showcase impact. While some organizations evaluate in-house, many teams and leagues are looking for additional support. “Metrics are extremely important,” said Calvin Parson, Director, Community & Charitable Programs at Washington Redskins, “we continue to look to outside organizations for tools to assist in the measurement component.”

5. Increase in Corporate partnerships to achieve CSR goals

The increased desire to achieve greater impact and engagement by companies has given rise to greater collaboration among like-minded and mission-aligned companies on CSR effort. Nowhere is this more prevalent than with sports leagues and team. According to Dan Scheinman, Director of Partnership Sales, Portland Trail Blazers, “Our data shows 78% of fans are more likely to support a Trail Blazers sponsor if it is involved with a cause, charity or community initiative also support by the team.” Corporate partners have seen an increase in sales, higher brand awareness, and internal employee engagement. Lots of large brands have tens of thousands of employees, as millennials and GEN Z are becoming a larger percentage of the employees, companies are attracting better talent if they can prove they are good corporate citizens.

“While working on a partnership deal, it was our community work that made us stand out and moved the deal forward,” noted Lisa Wiele, Manager, Partnerships and Development, MSLE Launchpad. While CSR departments may have before been seen as burden asking for favors for community projects, now there has been a flip of the script. CSR departments are in charge of turnkey activities who are building partnerships for the team.

“It’s almost an assumption that brand will include a community initiative, it’s not added value anymore, but a key component. However,” Dan continued, “companies don’t just want to cut a check anymore, they want to be involved.” One partner the Trail Blazers worked with, Genetech, wanted an impactful way to support a locally based non-profit through its alignment with the team. Thus, during the Block Out Cancer program, they make a donation to the Children’s Cancer Association (CCA) for each Trail Blazers blocked shot, making them part of the fan experience! This type of brand visibility offered exposure to millions of consumers while aligning with their corporate values.

A New Decade: The Future of CSR in Professional Sports 

The importance of CSR in sports will only continue to become an integral part of the business strategy of leagues and teams in the foreseeable future as the consumer demand continues to rise among millennials and GEN Z. Based on the data collected, leagues, teams, and foundations will strengthen their CSR efforts through a more strategic approach with an emphasis on authenticity, transparency, and measurement. The business imperative of doing good will continue to focus on brand reputation, loyalty, and growth, and stronger corporate partnerships. With leagues and teams focus on strategic partnerships and more focused goals, we will see more long-term impact partnerships. 

With the rise of the “double bottom line” we may see more company-wide shifts as top level executives start to understand the true business impacts of CSR “At Monumental, we are

committed to “Raising the Game,” as that is our motto, said Anu Rangappa, VP of Social

Impact, Monumental Sports and Entertainment. “That means that our founder, Ted Leonsis, has

challenged us to look at every aspect of our company and identify ways to re-commit to

becoming the most valuable, most impactful, most socially responsible, world-class,

championship sports and entertainment brand in the world. So, we push ourselves further to

deliver value to our fans and to the communities in which we work, live and serve.”

There is now a need to create CSR initiatives for future forward audiences.

There is now a need to create CSR initiatives for future forward audiences. Recognizing that we’re living in a new digital age, the NFL, NHL, and NBA have all invested in digital programming to support their CSR initiatives. Technology acts as a meaningful and effective tool for engaged and personalized learning, reaching thousands of youth each year. We will also see teams and leagues be creative in their online campaigns to attract the attention and foster the relationship with their fan base. 

The professional sports industry will pursue CSR to engage with their community, grow their fan base, their brand, and the industry, and respond to social issues that arise. Though we’ve seen an increase in awareness and engagement in CSR in the past decade, this is just the beginning of the growth of a new age of CSR in sports. 

You can also catch Sasha’s appearance on the #SportsPhilanthropy #Podcast as she sits down with our host Roy Kessel

Roy Kessel

Roy Kessel

Roy Kessel is the Founder of the Sports Philanthropy Network. Roy has worked in the sports business world for over 20 years including serving as an instructor in Northwestern University's graduate Sports Management Program. Having served as a sports lawyer representing athletes, entrepreneurs and start-up businesses, Roy has extensive experience helping organizations improve their strategy, marketing, communications and leadership development.
Sports Philanthropy Network

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