While community-relations programs primarily benefit teams and leagues, a focus on community building can achieve even broader goals.
Hurricane Katrina triggered a series of floods. The first waves wreaked destruction and death in Louisiana and Mississippi. The second batch of waves were humanitarian, bringing help and a measure of hope. Some of the aid was provided by America's sports teams, leagues and associations. Within days of the disaster, the NCAA and affiliated conferences were assisting affected colleges and universities as they struggled to maintain their athletic department operations. Among the many gestures from the sports world was the launching of "Home Team," a partnership between the NCAA and Habitat for Humanity that netted a $1 million gift from the NCAA's Division II and a $1 million donation from the Southeastern Conference. National Football League-related efforts ranged from the development of a Hurricane Katrina Relief Fund by New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson to the donation of $100,000 to the relief effort by the spectators, sponsors and teams involved in one Carolina Panthers home football game. This natural disaster offered a small window on an area of growing importance in the sports world - community relations. It also highlighted important distinctions that sport managers and marketers should keep in mind as they develop and administer community-relations programs. Too often, "community relations" becomes a hodgepodge of initiatives lacking clear objectives or attempts to measure impact. In many cases, what passes for "community relations" is little more than a few athletes signing autographs. Such shallow initiatives would have had little lasting appeal to the victims of Hurricane Katrina. What they needed, and deserved, was careful, deliberate and sustained community building, something wholly separate from other components of community relations. Objectives of Community Relations It starts with definitions. Community-relations programs typically utilize player outreach, goodwill and corporate philanthropy to further internal organizational goals such as enhanced public relations or an increase in sales of tickets or licensed merchandise. As Tom Wilson, president of the Detroit Pistons, once said, "If you can show people that the players are committed to the community, you're going to help foster that warm-and-fuzzy feeling that creates fan loyalty." Creating "warm and fuzzy" feelings is fine as far as it goes, but true community-building efforts go much further. Community building by definition focuses on strengthening community assets, which can improve the quality of life for residents, both individually and collectively. In too many community-relations programs, residents of a community are a means to the sports team's ends. Real community-building programs, on the other hand, allow a team to leverage its resources to achieve broader, community-wide goals. While a community-relations program may contain both types of initiatives, it is important to recognize the differences. Building "warm and fuzzy" fan feelings may be more accurately called "community imaging." Any sports program, from the high school level to the major leagues, has a legitimate interest in developing and maintaining a positive community image. At the same time, a growing body of research suggests that American consumers have high expectations that local businesses, sports teams and athletes will support local causes and charities. A carefully developed community-relations program will satisfy both internal and external needs. Assessing Objectives and Impact The first step in determining the balance between community imaging and real community building is to look at objectives and outcome measures. Are the objectives "internal" - that is, focused on organizational success in terms of attendance, merchandise sales, sponsorships and positive publicity? Or are the objectives "external," focused on the needs of the community? The prime determinant in assessing whether a community-relations effort has an internal or external focus is the extent to which objectives or outcomes are clearly defined and measurable. In other words, how will the organization assess the impact of its community-relations program? If the outcome measures only encompass internal goals such as ticket sales, then the program is really about community imaging and not community building. An externally focused program would have clear outcomes that indicate the extent to which the program builds community assets or capital. The Orlando Magic Youth Foundation, for instance, has a clear eye toward measuring outcomes - in its case, the number of kids who the foundation has helped. At the same time, the OMYF is less clear on the specific outcomes of its efforts. The three most obvious categories for building community capital are: Physical capital. This entails building the capacity of physical assets, such as low-income housing, homeless shelters, youth centers, recreation fields and other facilities. This is one of the more popular areas for collegiate teams, which have often partnered with programs like Habitat for Humanity on local projects. As part of its extensive community-service initiatives, the NFL has awarded more than $10 million in grants to help build junior high and high school fields in home cities of league franchises. In these cases, outcomes can be easily measured via the number of homes built, the expansion of field space or the amount of new equipment provided. Human capital. This means enhancing the capacity of individual talents and intellect through initiatives such as reading programs or skills/leadership clinics. An example is the NCAA's "Stay in Bounds" program, which provides training materials and learning guides to student-athletes who then offer character-building education to "adopted" elementary and middle school children. Through role-playing, discussions and mentoring, the collegiate athletes help children grow in their understanding of fair play and sportsmanship. Since its inception in 2000, the program has reached more than 55,000 children. Unfortunately, the NCAA is less clear on the program's outcomes. Children may be excited that a well-known athlete from a local college comes to talk with them about sportsmanship, but does the program have any real impact on building human capital? One assessment might be to work with partnering teachers and coaches, who could monitor samples of children for improvements in their behavior. Similar assessments might work with the many reading programs that athletes offer in "adopted" schools. Do the children show improvement in measurable reading skills? Other measures of human capital building might include the number of certificates awarded, improvement in grades or graduation rates, or reduction in adjudication levels. Social capital. This requires building reciprocal social relationships among and between individuals. In the words of Robert Putnam, author of the best-selling Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, "social capital refers to connections among individuals - social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them." Americans have long believed that membership on a sports team builds social capital among teammates. The larger question is whether sports organizations can help build social capital in their communities. One example is the NFL's "Make the Pledge" campaign. The NFL uses its web site to ask fans to commit themselves to give at least 60 minutes of time per year to community service. As Commissioner Paul Tagliabue says, "Our message is clear: All of us can make a difference. You don't have to be a famous football player. You don't need a lot of money, or a lot of time. All you need is a willingness to help others." In this case, since the NFL gathers the e-mail addresses of such volunteers, they might follow up with surveys to measure how much social capital the program actually generates. Assessing Commitment One hundred thousand NFL fans committing one hour of service might yield a significant payoff in community building. But what if they all committed to five additional hours, for at least five additional years? As noted, too many community-imaging events are short-term and small-time. Real community impact requires longer and larger commitments of time and resources. As one Major League Baseball executive put it, "We're focused on long-term partnerships rather than one-offs. We want to partner with national charities that have a local impact." In this case, it is also clear that long-term investments and relationships have the most positive "image" results for the sports team or league. Successful long-term investments in community causes can create strong brand associations. One need only consider the NFL and the United Way, or the Boston Red Sox and the Jimmy Fund, to see the impact of long-term community-building initiatives. For collegiate programs, this means careful selection of schools, soup kitchens and other agencies that can be partners for many years, not just for one season. Student-athlete advisory committees would be wiser to choose fewer initiatives to which all teams can commit over time. Rather than have six teams provide a one-time reading program to six different schools, why not have the six teams focus on one school in repeated visits? Community "imaging" often requires wide exposure. Community building requires focused attention over time. Time is only one commitment; the other is resources. Since its birth in 1988, the Orlando Magic Youth Foundation has raised and distributed more than $12 million to nonprofits that share the foundation's mission statement, which is to help "every child in Central Florida realize their full potential, especially those most at risk, by supporting programs and partnerships that empower families and change lives." Similarly, the Professional Golf Association is expected to exceed $1 billion in charitable donations since its fundraising efforts began in 1938. PGA Commissioner Tom Finchem has stated that, "What this represents is that slowly but surely, charitable giving is more than something we do. It's part of our culture. It's what the players think about, the staff thinks about and the tournaments think about." Most sports teams could not hope to raise that kind of money. Their athletes, coaches and staff can offer time and talent, but community building often requires additional resources. This is where team sponsors may lend a hand. Teams and sponsors should expand their relationships to include joint community-building projects. Recent studies on cause-related marketing demonstrate that consumers expect corporations to do more than make profits for shareholders, and they also expect sports teams to do more than sell corporate signage. One recent MediaLab survey of 13,200 people in 20 countries found that 50 percent believed sports properties and TV programs were far too heavily sponsored, but only 25 percent believed the same about "causes." This suggests that while traditional marketing outlets have become increasingly cluttered, there is an opportunity for sports organizations and corporate sponsors to develop triangular partnerships with local causes, to everyone's advantage. Examples might include a sports organization partnering with a home supplies dealer to assist Habitat for Humanity, or an office supplies firm providing materials that help teams working in school programs. For college athletics programs, this especially means developing links between marketing/sponsorship administrators and the NCAA CHAMPS/Life Skills coordinator on campus or the student-athlete advisory committee. It's all about finding and nurturing logical linkages. One of the best-run corporate linkage programs belongs to Boston's Jimmy Fund, which raises awareness and money for cancer research. As seen on its web site, the Jimmy Fund offers an extended menu of opportunities for corporate partnerships. Beyond 'Warm and Fuzzy' If a sports organization - team, league or conference - is serious about community building, then its goals, objectives and outcomes should be somehow worked into its vision statement, mission statement and strategic plan. Otherwise, community building will be marginalized. Colleges might consider including community building in the expectations for all coaches, just as professional teams require their athletes to participate in community relations. High school and college programs need to consider making community building a part of every team's activities, even in lieu of practice and conditioning. That may seem utopian, but there is no reason that a well-constructed community project cannot also build team unity (as well as give players a good change of pace). One small pilot program between University of New Hampshire students, local high school athletes and two local causes found that a sacrifice of practice time for community building yielded several positive benefits. (See "No Practice Makes Perfect," left.) Hurricane Katrina reminded us that sports organizations are expected to be true community partners, as well as good neighbors. The resources that sports organizations can devote to these efforts do not always have to be fiscal. Commitments to community building are long-term investments in time, effort and resources. Community-relations programs that focus on community building demonstrate value by creating strong brand associations between the sports organization and its partners. In the short term, this helps achieve marketing goals. The long-term result means that communities are strengthened and transformed - a far cry from the "warm and fuzzy" goals of the traditional community-imaging program.