SBJ/May 27-June 2, 2013/In Depth

Partners for the cause

Sports philanthropy marketing provides a grand stage and a powerful alliance to deliver awareness for nonprofits

Find a cause or charity. Marry it with a high-profile sports league or team. In the best of circumstances, everybody goes home happy. The nonprofit receives media attention it could otherwise never afford, pushing its message to millions of fans. And for the sports properties, the alliance builds good will while conveying a sense of social responsibility.

But, as with any marketing campaign, the perils are many.

“Not only does the cause partnership need to be authentic, and the execution impactful, the message also needs to be easily understood and regularly reinforced,” said Peter Farnsworth, principal at Foxrock Partners, a New York-based brand consulting and cause-marketing firm. “For Timberland and Patagonia, it’s environment. … Whether it’s sports leagues or teams, it’s equally important to constantly reinforce a clearly articulated and simple brand position.”

The NFL's Breast Cancer Awareness campaign began in 2009.
Photo by: Indianapolis Colts
The best examples of sports philanthropy marketing deliver that clear message and take on added impact by involving league or team sponsors and the television networks and websites dedicated to covering games, news and other aspects of a sports property.

Pro football fans know the score on the NFL’s philanthropy emphasis. For active lifestyle, it’s Play 60. For giving back to the military, it’s Salute to Service. And, as anyone who watches football in the month of October, it’s all but impossible to think anything but pink during the NFL’s annual Breast Cancer Awareness campaign.

Breast Cancer Awareness debuted as a signature leaguewide campaign in 2009. Now, heading into its fifth year, it has become a Super Bowl of philanthropy marketing, reaching more than 150 million viewers annually, including 58 million women ages 18 and older.

Along the way, the league has raised a combined $3 million through 2011 for the American Cancer Society. Final results for 2012 are due soon, the league said.

Each year brings tweaks and changes, but a look at the 2012 Breast Cancer Awareness program offers a glimpse into how ubiquitous the NFL has made the pink ribbon and the message of early screening for women older than 40. Last October, the campaign’s features included:

Players wearing pink equipment including shoes, wristbands, sideline caps, shoelaces, chin straps, gloves and skull caps as well as game balls featuring pink ribbon logos and pink kicking tees.

Coaches and other sideline crews wearing pink caps.

Team executives and coaches wearing pink ribbon pins.

Pink ribbon stencils on the playing field at all stadiums, pink wraps on goal posts, and wall banners bearing the tag line “A Crucial Catch.”

Auctions of game-used pink equipment benefiting the American Cancer Society’s breast cancer outreach and screening access to women.

Special pink team merchandise benefiting the same breast cancer programs and sold in stadiums, at Dick’s Sporting Goods stores and on nflshop.com, among others.

Tie-in campaigns with league sponsors raising awareness and money, including Gatorade, Nike, Under Armour, Wilson, EA Sports, Topps, Panini, Riddell, Pro Specialties Group and Longaberger.

As part of the marketing partnership, the American Cancer Society can use the NFL’s pink ribbon shield mark and “A
The cause is made obvious as players sport pink equipment during the month of October, which is breast cancer awareness month.
Photo by: AP Images
Crucial Catch” mark. Team marks are subject to club approval.

Mark Waller, NFL chief marketing officer, said the marketing campaign came together when the league wanted to create an umbrella campaign to enhance what the 32 franchises were doing.

“We wanted something where we could really make a difference, where our female fan base really cared and that had broad interest across the teams,” he said. “And before we started we looked at what every team was doing. The majority of teams six, seven years ago had some sort of initiative around some sort of philanthropic work for the cure of cancer.”
NFL executives liked the idea of working to help prevent or minimize an illness that almost every person, regardless of age or gender, has encountered and wants to see cured or avoided.

From there, the approach the league took was similar to what goes into any marketing initiative, Waller said. The answer, as it almost always does, came back to making the game a major part of the campaign.

Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams, son of a breast cancer survivor, suggested players wear pink cleats. And the NFL gave players the option to wear pink equipment throughout October, which is breast cancer awareness month. The campaign has mushroomed from there.


“What’s particularly notable about the NFL’s breast cancer campaign is the obvious juxtaposition between the physicality of the game and the color pink,” Farnsworth said. “The message pops. And the league benefits from a dramatic reach to female customers.”

The idea started at the NFL offices, then was pitched to the American Cancer Society. For the league, the cancer society could lend insight and expertise as well as a partner to put the money to work with grants to fund outreach and provide screenings to women who might not otherwise be able to get them.

Plans for 2013 are still in the works, but Waller said the NFL wants to shift from awareness to a call to action. Prevention through early screenings is the best current remedy for breast cancer and will become the main message, he added.

To avoid what Waller called “pink fatigue,” the campaign will likely be narrowed to a two-week window in October. Teams that don’t have a home game during the two-week period would be allowed to stage their Breast Cancer Awareness games either a week before or after the broader campaign.

The NFL measures awareness, attitude changes and behavior changes through research of what fans know and think about breast cancer. Waller declined to share results of the surveys but said the league is happy with the results to date.
“For us, wearing pink gear is not the goal,” he said. “The goal is to get more women screened so less women ultimately suffer from breast cancer. There is a real focus on measuring the performance, not just executing the program.”

The American Cancer Society said the “Crucial Catch” screenings made available through the grant program reached 62,000 women during its first five months.

When the NFL proposed the awareness partnership in 2009, “It was an easy ‘yes,’” said Flo Bryan, managing director of corporate marketing alliances at the American Cancer Society. “Look at the NFL. They are the pre-eminent sports and entertainment brand. Their reach is priceless.”



Waller said the additional promotional power of television networks and other league backers has elevated the campaign each year. During game broadcasts, CBS, NBC, Fox and ESPN share personal stories of how breast cancer has affected their colleagues, friends and families. At other times, they interview people in the NFL who can speak to the disease. Waller cites an on-air interview on the subject with Tanya Snyder, a breast cancer survivor and the wife of Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder.

Off the field, Barclays created a campaign to donate up to $100,000 based on customer spending with the NFL Extra Points card during October. Gatorade parent PepsiCo and Kroger worked together on Crucial Catch G Series Thirst Quencher sold only at Kroger stores. Ticketmaster aligned with former NFL quarterback and current Fox Sports analyst Troy Aikman to promote donations of 10 cents from every NFL ticket sold during the month of October. And, yes, the tickets were pink.

Don’t expect this to be a short-lived phenomenon. The NFL has made Breast Cancer Awareness one of its three major causes, along with the Play 60 physical fitness campaign and the military-themed Salute to Service.

“We’ve driven significant awareness for the initiative, for our relationship to the initiative,” Waller said. “And now as we go into sort of the latter years of it, we focus more and more on driving the specific message around, ‘Go get screened.’ You’ve seen our messaging evolve to A Crucial Catch and go get screened. That’s what you need to do, a call to action.”

Erik Spanberg writes for the Charlotte Business Journal, an affiliated publication.


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