Many times we in this business get caught up in the hype, the ROI, the buzz and sometimes the routine that we forget about the amazing power that sport has to change lives. Each week my colleague Sab Singh puts out his Sports Doing Good newsletter, which highlights events from around the world and serves as a great reminder of what athletes, leagues, teams and brands are doing that can help move the needle in terms of good will, and how sport can find ways to be a motivator for social change where governments, religion and race cannot.
This past 10 days I have been lucky enough to work with not one, but two organizations that are all about the inspiration to use sport as a motivator for social change, and along the way use the power of the athlete…in both cases the Olympic athlete…to raise funds for the cause.
The first was Right To Play USA and their “Big Red Ball” which was held near Wall Street in Manhattan last week. The semi-annual event is usually held just after the Olympic Games, and celebrates the success the athletic endeavors of Olympians recent and past, who all come together to raise awareness and funds for the organization started 20 years ago by Gold medal speed skater Johan Olav Koss to harness the power of athletics as a motivator for education and getting young people, especially in impoverished environments, involved and active in their daily lives. The event drew over 25 Olympians from Bonnie Blair and Dan Jansen and Summer Sanders to newer faces like Tim Morehouse, Jazmine Fenlator and Kaitlyn Farrington and a full house to meet their supporters and most importantly, to raise money for the cause. It was grassroots, albeit deep roots, fundraising and schmoozing, no huge corporate campaigns or silent auctions of memorabilia, but in three hours the event put $1.5 million into the coffers of Right to Play, a great haul considering the post-Olympic hangover still in the air and the crowded sports schedule in New York that week, which would draw the attention of many passionate high end donors.
Then this past Wednesday in Times Square was the annual “Beat The Streets” gala and wrestling event. While the “Big Red Ball’ was a pretty straightforward fundraiser set in an elegant ballroom; “Beat the Streets” is all about the buzz. For the fifth straight year organizer Mike Novogratz and the folks at BTS and USA Wrestling assemble the greatest American names in wrestling and pair them against some of the elite from around the world in a setting that is second to none; three times it has literally been in Times Square, once in Grand Central Terminal and once on the deck of the USS Intrepid, always followed by a dinner which salutes the young people who benefit from the program. However the night is usually much more than wrestling in a unique location. With each passing year it has become one of the best events on the calendar to show how sport can bridge the gap between countries that have deep differences. Last year “Rumble on the Rails” pulled together teams from the US, Russia and Iran at a time when political tensions were aiming the highest, and set a great example of how the mission of sport can inspire and rally thousands to overcome their differences. This year, a US vs the World format has 11 American elite wrestlers competing against a team from countries like Spain and Canada, but also Kazakhstan, Russia, Venezuela and the Ukraine, nations which don’t usually share a positive spotlight with the U.S. in day to day media coverage. The result again, was peace through sport, with only cheers for all the competitors and a new level of good will achieved.
As for the night, “Beat The Streets” raised over $1.6 million for its grassroots programs, which fund inner-city education and wrestling programs in cash-strapped school districts, again giving young people a chance to excel through sport.
The cynical may say that the two NY-centric events are just a small drop in the bucket, and that Wall Street execs can easily absorb the donations for either. However, the crowds were diverse, entertaining and certainly engaged. Was there a hard sell for cash? Of course, but it was done in such a way that one felt that a greater good was being served through the work of all these elite athletes and their supporters, a refreshing change from what many see as the overhyped and glitzy misogynistic world of professional sports today. Both events highlighted the highest levels of success as a way to reward those less fortunate, making for a great forum to inspire those in the room to do more.
Two nights, less than seven hours, over three million dollars raised for two sports philanthropic endeavors that put their time and effort in for the greater good. Sports as a metaphor for change? We got to see it first hand, times two.