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Playing for charity

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By Michael Easterbrook

With the star power of their athletes, the cache of their brands, and multimillion-dollar budgets, professional sports teams have a powerful arsenal to fight social problems in their communities.

Few do this as well as the Jacksonville Jaguars football team, which recently won the 2006 Steve Patterson Sports Philanthropy Award.

“They take all of this asset base and use it to the hilt,” says Greg Johnson, director of the Boston-based Sports Philanthropy Project, which helped establish the award in 2004. “Their foundation is very focused, generous and I might even say courageous.”

Though it’s unclear how many professional sports teams have launched philanthropic foundations, those who follow sports philanthropy say there are more than ever.

More importantly, these foundations appear to be working more effectively than ever, thanks at least in part to the Sports Philanthropy Project, which provides technical assistance to sports foundations.

SETTING THE TABLE

The project was created by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in 1998 after the Jacksonville Jaguars asked it to help the team manage an anti-smoking campaign.

The relationship convinced foundation leaders that, with a little help, sports teams could do great work in philanthropy.

“Good philanthropy is about bringing others to the table,” says Joe Marx, a senior communications officer with the foundation and a board member of the Sports Philanthropy Project. “Professional sports team are a natural ally.”

In addition to their deep pockets and name recognition, professional sports teams can help support philanthropic projects with ticket giveaways.

Those running the teams are also well-connected politically in their communities and adept at media relations and rallying people around a cause – essential skills when it comes to tackling social problems.

“They are great conveners in any community,” Marx says. “They can bring money, attention and expertise to an issue. In some communities, they can do that like no other.”

COMMUNITY PARTNERS

The Sports Philanthropy Project and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation presented the Jacksonville Jaguars with the award Sept. 18 at a pre-season game in Jacksonville, Fla.

Between 1995 and 2005, the Jaguars awarded more than $9 million in cash grants, and gave away game tickets worth $430,000 annually to local nonprofit groups in the Jacksonville region.

The team has also created community programs, including Honor Rows, an effort that rewards kids with free game tickets for achieving educational, personal improvement or volunteer service goals.

Another is Straight Talk, which aims to prevent teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

“That is not an easy issue to deal with, particularly in the Bible Belt,” Johnson says.

The award is named after Steve Patterson, the star center on UCLA’s basketball team who went on to play in the NBA, and who died of cancer in 2004 at age 56.

Marx says he hopes the award will be motivate other nonprofit organizations to begin working more closely with professional sport teams.

“Professional sports can be an important partner in helping them accomplish their social goals,” Marx says. “It is more than just money, more than just athletic appearances. They can really focus in on issues in a comprehensive way, using all of a professional team’s assets.”

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