It was only fitting that New York Yankees legend Mariano Rivera served as the closer – albeit this time for an event that has a major impact on the future, not the present. The impact however, was less about baseball and more about legacy. It was the end of the 30th March of Dimes Sports Luncheon, the brainchild of former CBS Sports President Neal Pilson and some other network heads, and Rivera was making the latest, of not last stop in a post-season tour that has seen him add endorsements and awards to mark the end of his storied career. However this award, the Sportsman of the Year, seemed to be even that much more special, as it honored him not just for his on field accomplishments but for his work with young people, and was helping raise millions for those struggling to get through the first stages of life, and for those parents who are dealing with that type of adversity every day.
“This is helping babies. Babies who come with defects, and they didn’t ask for that. But here comes March of Dimes to help these babies, to help these families,” Rivera said Wednesday at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. “The amount of money we are raising is for a great cause. Me being here is a great honor and a pleasure, because we are giving back. That’s what it is all about — giving back.”
Rivera’s acceptance put the cap on one of the most special days in the sports business community every year; a day where almost 800 people take the time to gather, listen, share stories and donate their support to the March of Dimes, just like they have for 30 years. Maybe the cause doesn’t have the glitz or glamour of some others these days, but this event brings business star power like no other. Now chaired by Sean McManus, President of CBS Sports, the lunch pulls in some of the brightest names in sports and broadcasting to honor, observe and pay tribute on their own dime. From Olympic stars like Mike Eruzione and Tara Hughes to broadcast luminaries like Bob Costas and Michael Kay, one cannot go a few feet in the Waldorf on the day without recognizing a familiar face.
However the stars of the day are really the children and the volunteers of the March of Dimes, who have benefited to the tune of over $10 Million that the lunch has raised, and this year set a record with over $1 Million alone coming in from gifts. The issue of babies struggling, and the challenges everyone share in raising young people to be healthy, was not lost on even the biggest names in attendance. That was made clear during the festivities, when host Ernie Johnson of TNT, himself a cancer survivor, told the story of his adopted son Michael who has muscular dystrophy lives on a ventilator, and when Jon Miller of NBC Sports, the winner of the Corporate Leadership Award, described the harrowing times his family went through when his oldest son was born prematurely. Sportswoman of the year Skylar Diggans, became very emotional in her acceptance speech when she talked of her love for children and how her parents influenced her life as well, and Brett Yormark of the Brooklyn Nets discussed very passionately the need for MOD work to help eliminate premature infant issues in their team’s new home borough of Brooklyn.
The event itself again served as a respite and a time for brief reflection from the craziness of the sports business world. For a few hours, the senior staffs of the Nets and Red Bulls, the Devils and the Sixers, the Mets and the Yankees, all put aside their worries of wins and losses and ticket sales and headlines and were able to mingle and focus on a greater cause, and what the impact of sport business as a motivator for helping those less fortunate can do.
Now the Sports Luncheon wasn’t the only event during the week that helped focus sports business on philanthropy. Thursday night tennis stars Andy Roddick, James Blake and Jon Isner held a Manhattan fundraising exhibition for memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and this past Tuesday the group Sports For Social Change seized on the platform of “Giving Tuesday” to launch “Give An Assist, ” a call to action for fans to help those in need through Donations, Volunteering, Coaching, Fundraising, Shopping for Socially Responsible Gifts and more. Those are just a few of the selfless acts that “brand sport” continue to take on away from the limelight, acts which can and do impact the lives of millions for the better.
While much of what we view “brand sport” as being is clearly based on the results on the field and in the marketplace, the March of Dimes Sports Lunch, and other events like it, serve as a great reminder to all who work in the space that there remains a bigger picture that sport and sport business should aspire to embrace…using the power of all the brands to better the lives of those who watch, spend and even play the games on some level. Wednesday was a great reminder not just of that responsibility, but of the power and impact that sports business can bring to literally change and transform lives. While Rivera’s trademark was the save, his appearance, and the contributions of the other recipients and those in attendance, will be marked down as wins in the bigger picture, wins not for him or the Bronx Bombers, but for thousands of future fans and their families who will be impacted positively from the event.