- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 9, 2003

A simple $25,000 donation made recently from the National Hockey League Foundation to Children's National Medical Center in the District generated few headlines. How could it, what with the ongoing hockey season, the league generating hundreds of millions of dollars each year and the sport's ongoing labor rancor all causing a constant din?
But that $25,000, granted in the name of Washington Capitals goalie Olie Kolzig, 2001 NHL Man of the Year, helped the hospital provide medical care to needy children.
"It was an absolutely tremendous gift," said Howard Silberstein, director of the Children's Hospital Foundation. The foundation "ensures that all kids in our area have access to health care, and it makes a big difference when you have a person and an organization that is so prominent championing our cause."
Such a situation is common in the four major professional sports leagues and the PGA Tour. The five organizations' charitable groups in 2001, the most recent year for which full tax records are available, combined to make more than $25 million in cash donations.
In-kind services such as free commercial air time and personal appearances contributed nearly $100 million in additional aid.
And when including partnering efforts from individual clubs, players and tournaments, the charity tally from major pro sports reaches deep into nine figures each year. And that places the industry among the leaders in American corporate charitable efforts. Just the PGA Tour and its tournaments contributed $72.4 million to charity in 2002.
The largess stands in stark contrast to widely held and negative notions of pro sports. The cynicism is there after years of franchises holding governments hostage for publicly funded stadiums, price gouging and athletes appearing in one police blotter after another.
"As head of a charitable foundation, you always feel like you should do more," said Bernadette Mansur, executive director of the NHL Foundation. "Having said that, the generosity of the hockey family is enormous. It is a very, very powerful instrument we have."
Pro-sports charities are not without debate, however. For all of the industry's generosity some of it well documented such as the NFL's highly visible support of the United Way the question remains: Are the leagues and teams sharing enough of their vast fortunes? The combined 2002 revenues of the NFL, NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball and PGA Tour are estimated at more than $20 billion.
"What we've seen is a good start, but there's definitely room for improvement," said Hadley Morash, executive director of MVPhilanthropy, a Boston group that helps athletes start charitable foundations. "The economy has been weaker lately, but as a whole, it's not like pro sports has taken a giant hit because of it, like we've seen elsewhere. Salaries and revenues are still rather healthy."
Unrivaled visibility
Sports and charity have formed a compelling and often prominent partnership ever since the former hit television in the 1950s and quickly became the dominant cultural force we know today. The hundreds of United Way ads featuring NFL stars, the NHL's Hockey Fights Cancer effort, and each league's support of the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks helped galvanize public support toward those causes.
In simpler, more personal terms, an appearance by a prominent athlete at a children's hospital resonates far more than a visit by any corporate executive.
"Our fan demographics tend to be rather young, even younger than the other leagues," the NHL's Mansur said. "So when we and our players are out in the community, it can make a real impact."
It's not just large, already prominent charities such as the United Way and Red Cross that receive sports dollars. Smaller organizations in even smaller towns also have received sports donations, in increments as small as $100.
Among the organizations to receive sports funds are the Ridgewood Ice Hockey Foundation in Ridgewood, N.J., Reach Out and Read in Somerville, Mass., and the Roberto Clemente Sports City in Puerto Rico.
The money, as widely spread as it is, focuses on two primary themes: children and the development of sports on a youth level. The NHL Foundation, for one, gave money in its 2001 fiscal year to more than three dozen organizations dedicated to children.
The NFL, along with the NFL Players Association, similarly operates its Youth Football Fund, a foundation working separately from its mainline charitable organization. The fund, targeted to raise $150 million over a seven-year period, grants money to rebuild youth fields, develop flag-football programs for children and other similar grass-roots efforts.
"It's always going to be kids in some way," Morash said. "You're seeing some [sports] initiatives directed toward disease research, some toward homelessness, but the pull toward children is very, very strong."
Both the NBA and Major League Baseball also have made children the centerpiece of their charitable efforts. The NBA, the only one of the major sports leagues not to have a charitable nonprofit, runs its primary community efforts through its Read to Achieve program.
The initiative, involving each NBA team and a large number of players, focuses on boosting youth reading through book donations, player appearances and the development of local reading and learning centers that are specifically for children and designed for after-school use.
Major League Baseball has made the Boys and Girls Clubs of America its official charity, and through that national organization, MLB runs many locally based charity efforts most notably its Rebuilding Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program, which funds baseball youth leagues in disadvantaged urban areas.
"This is a model, working with a national group and tapping into its existing contacts deep within local communities, that we will look to replicate," said Tom Brausell, MLB's vice president of community affairs. "We think we can do a lot using the Boys and Girls Clubs model elsewhere."
The gifts, in turn, raise another question: Are major sports leagues truly driven to give back some of their largess, or are the charitable efforts simply a smokescreen trying to create positive public relations?
None of the leagues denies that promoting one's own good works is an effective promotional tool and creates goodwill. Each produces regular newsletters and releases documenting its community efforts. Visits to hospitals, youth centers and rebuilt playing fields are often accompanied by TV cameras.
But each league insists the sheer magnitude of its charitable efforts can only result from a genuine commitment. The average American corporation gives 1.2 percent of pretax revenues to charity, a figure none of the sports leagues reaches in cash donations. But when factoring in all the donated ad time, personal appearances and other in-kind grants, the percentage is almost certainly surpassed.
"We think social responsibility has been one of the true hallmarks of [NBA Commissioner] David Stern's tenure," said Kathy Behrens, NBA vice president of community relations. "He's literally in this office constantly, wanting to know what else we can do, where else we can get involved. In an era of dwindling resources, we're still trying to do more."
Efficiency embodied
Pro sports also boasts one of the most efficient charitable frameworks anywhere. Much of the money donated by leagues comes from operating revenues, player fines for misconduct and low-scale fund-raisers such as golf tournaments.
Lavish and costly fund-raisers are rare. And in each sports league office are accountants, lawyers and publicists professional skills for which many other charities, including ones that receive funds from sports leagues, often have to hire out.
As a result, the major sports leagues typically boast more than 95 percent of their charity funds actually going to their intended groups and causes, with less than 5 percent tied up in overhead such as administrative costs. Most charitable foundations considered reputable cap overhead costs at 15 percent.
"All of the expertise we need is basically in our building," said Beth Colleton, the NFL's director of community affairs. "It really keeps dollars from escaping our mission."
That efficiency can also come out of internal problems. The NFL, for example, routinely has donated tens of thousands of shirts, jackets and hats with team logos that are outdated, wrongly colored or have other errors that make them unsuitable for retail sale. The items are sent to remote, impoverished and often war-torn areas where clothing is a luxury.
Streamlining hurdles
One glaring weakness each major sports league concedes in its charitable efforts is a unity of purpose with its member teams, tournaments and players. In many instances, each level of sport seeks to give money to or are solicited by the same community organization, something that causes headaches for all concerned.
The NFL is developing a high-end computer database that tracks efforts through NFL Charities, the Youth Football Fund and many other special funds in which it participates, as well as all major team-specific charity activities. Meanwhile, the other major leagues are similarly trying to better monitor their increasingly diverse efforts.
"There is a lot of giving going on within each of the teams, our office, and really, the other departments at the league office as well. It can get very confusing," Colleton said. "We simply had to find a better way to organize it all. But our hope is that through all of this, we can get a better handle on all our resources, and find new and better ways to use them."
Linking with individual athletes and their charitable efforts, predictably, is a particular challenge for sports leagues. More than 400 foundations are run or heavily funded by pro and Olympic athletes, supporting causes as diverse as literacy and animal rights, and AIDS research and rare pediatric diseases.
Several athletes, however, have taken extra care to link their efforts with the league to maximize effectiveness. The Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, led in part by former Baltimore Orioles star Cal Ripken Jr., has received money from MLB Charities and in turn worked with local Boys and Girls Club members to develop youth baseball participation, the key demographic and goal of MLB's charitable efforts.
A similar dynamic exists with former NBA star Detlef Schrempf, whose foundation is active in working with children with reading and language disorders.
"We're definitely trying to coordinate our efforts more," the NBA's Behrens said. "The local teams and the individual players is where the rubber meets the road, so they're an indispensable asset. If everyone speaks with one voice, the impact of that message is so much stronger."

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