I have always been intrigued by the community programs offered by professional sports teams. I think of college and professional sport teams almost like churches or temples (I’m a bit of a jock — can you tell?). Like a local religious institution, a professional team (for better or worse) offers a unique opportunity to instill advice, mentorship, and/or learnings to the community at large. When a professional athlete advises a high school basketball player to stay in school, that athlete has a higher likelihood of taking the advice to heart. And, on the flip side, professional sport teams understand how essential it is for them to form authentic connections with their community. If a sport team is not embraced by their city, that lack of interest will be evident in their ticket sales, corporate sponsorship, and TV viewership.

In an effort to connect locally, most sport teams offer the following: children visit the stadium; nonprofits meet the players; and auction goodies are made available. In addition, most sport teams will provide some funding to the nonprofit(s) they support. However, there are a few teams that go a step further and create programs that offer both a powerful impact in the community and benefit the team in some concrete, measurable way. These win-win opportunities are the ones that sustain and grow, and become an integral part of the team’s overall business strategy. In this blog, we’ll examine two of these types of programs: The New York Knicks Poetry SLAM and the Seattle Sounders Cup.

New York Knicks Poetry SLAM

In 2003, the NY Knicks launched the Knicks Poetry Slam, combining two seemingly unrelated activities: basketball and poetry. To launch the program, the Knicks partnered with Urban Word NYC to create a citywide Poetry Slam, inviting local HS kids to compete to win full four-year scholarships to the college of their choice. Today, over 30,000 students participate in the program nationally.

Urban Word NYC handles the majority of the student training, preparation, and logistics. The Knicks also partner with MSG to film the tournament and air a show that highlights the competition. The Poetry SLAM documentary received 4 Emmy nominations in 2012 on MSG. The program, as a whole, not only serves as a motivational, uniting platform for these communities, but it also allows the Knicks to connect with a broad, somewhat untapped audience of potential Knick fans through a strategic, unique platform (‘Urban Word’). The program also create compelling content that increases ratings on MSG, and allows the Knicks to tap into Urban Word NYC’s existing program and expand it versus create the infrastructure themselves.

The program is creative, out-of-the-box, attractive to sponsors, and has legs! Win-Win-Win: The community/kids earn scholarships and come together through poetry; Urban Word NYC receives both branding and funding; and the Knicks build a deep connection with the community and generate content for MSG.

Seattle Sounders Cup

The second example is the Seattle Sounders Cup, one of a number of Major League Soccer team-sponsored corporate tournaments launched throughout the country. The SCORES Cup program, going into its 9th year, is one I actually helped work on when I consulted with America SCORES, a nonprofit that offers soccer-based youth development programs. Every year, America SCORES hosts a corporate soccer tournament, where they invite their corporate partners to compete in a round-robin day-long soccer tournament. Over the past few years, America SCORES has partnered with local MLS teams to host these tournaments at the stadium.

The Sounders view the tournament as a chance to give back and help the community, while also offering a platform to market to a new audience of potential corporate sponsors. Working in partnership with America SCORES Seattle, the Sounders help promote the event, integrate players into the partnership, and team up in pursuing and cultivating sponsors. And, although all the revenue goes to America SCORES, the Sounders benefit by working closely with almost every major corporation in Seattle (who happen to be playing in their stadium) and partner with a nonprofit who handles the majority of the logistics for the tournament. Again, a symbiotic win-win-win relationship: America SCORES receives funding and branding; the Sounders offer the community an opportunity to use the stadium; and the Sounders corporate sales team is introduced to a very relevant list of potential sponsors.

There are three commonalties that jump out about these two partnerships:

  1. – Both platforms help expand a successful, pre-existing nonprofit program VERSUS asking the Team’s
    Foundation to build the network from scratch

  2. – Both platforms have a tangible, concrete business goal:

    •       The Knicks drive ratings for MSG, while connecting with an urban demographic who may or may not be
      athletes themselves
    •       The Sounders market and connect with potential corporate sponsors

  3. – Each program is dynamic and leverages non-philanthropic marketing dollars:

    •       The Knicks use marketing dollars to promote the contest and series on MSG
    •       The Sounders use out-of-home dollars and in-stadium inventory to promote the Cup

Every professional sport team has some form of a community outreach program. And, most of these programs live entirely within the Foundation, independent of goals such as driving sales, viewership, etc. But, as the Knicks and Sounders demonstrate, the two do not need to be mutually exclusive. And, when they are not, it frees up larger budgets and more internal resources, to make these programs a core business driver and not an ancillary philanthropic obligation.

– Cal Zarin, CEO