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Volume 21 No. 2
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March of Dimes event brings out community

The annual March of Dimes Sports Luncheon on Wednesday will celebrate its 30th anniversary, and over the years it has become the Super Bowl of charitable sports gatherings.

Former CBS Sports President Neal Pilson helped start the luncheon and recalls raising around $100,000 in its first year. This year, when the event honors retiring Yankees great Mariano Rivera and the WNBA’s Skylar Diggins as Sportsman and Sportswoman of the Year, the luncheon will gross a record of more than $1 million. Over the years, more than $10 million has been raised, with more than 80 percent going to the March of Dimes.

The program from the inaugural March of Dimes Sports Luncheon in 1984
No cause or event reaches across the sports media, marketing, advertising and broadcast talent businesses as broadly as this one has, which helps explain its influence and longevity.

“This is one of the rare times the industry gathers as a community as opposed to as competitors,” said CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus, who has chaired the event since 1997.

Pilson has a son who was born deaf, so he was receptive when the New York MOD chapter approached him around 1983 with the idea of a sports-centered benefit. From the beginning, it was an ecumenical affair, with Pilson and former network sports presidents Dennis Swanson (ABC) and Ken Schanzer (NBC) collaborating, Three decades later, it’s still getting support from industry leaders, like 2013 luncheon co-chairs Ken Hershman of HBO Sports, NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus, Turner Broadcasting President David Levy and ESPN President John Skipper.

Anheuser-Busch has always been one of the luncheon’s principal sponsors.

“The NFL has United Way and MLB has the Boys & Girls Clubs,” said former A-B media and sports marketing executive Tony Ponturo, “but this is the one charitable event that brings everyone in sports and media together.”

The first luncheon was at the New York Hilton and it honored figure skater Scott Hamilton’s 1984 Olympic gold medal. Phyllis George and Howard Cosell were the emcees. Then, as now, more than 25 New York-based sportscasters were invited. Cosell used the introductions to roast each sportscaster and the luncheon ran nearly an hour longer than expected.

Advertisers in the inaugural program included now-defunct sports organizations like the original New York Cosmos, ProServ, PSP and the USFL.

Other memories from those associated with the luncheon for decades include the graciousness displayed by NYC Marathon founder Fred Lebow and Arthur Ashe when they were honored. Patrick Ewing got the award at an early luncheon, but that’s remembered for a different reason. Ewing’s stand-in dropped the award upon receiving it and it broke.

Inner Circle Sports partner Steve Horowitz, then at ProServ, has been working on the luncheon since the late 1980s. His first assignment was to find a sculptor to craft an award that wouldn’t break. Marc Mellon and Mellon Studios have been making the awards ever since, and no one can recall one breaking.

For a business that never tires of networking, the 45 minutes of schmoozing before the lunch is as important an event as the 105-minute luncheon, perhaps even more so. “We always tried to make networking an integral part of the luncheon and it’s become that and sort of a holiday season kickoff,” Pilson said. “When I tick off the things I’m really proud of, this is at the top.”

Over the years, the luncheon has been at other venues, including a dinner on the floor of Madison Square Garden the year Marv Albert was honored. However, it has been at the Waldorf for some time, where it draws more than 700. Other than honoring sportsman and sportswoman, top sports business leaders are feted. This year, Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network, is being honored for Corporate Leadership, while Brooklyn Nets and Barclays Center CEO Brett Yormark is receiving the Sports Leadership Award.

Each year, a child who has survived premature birth takes the stage at the luncheon with his or her parents. “If you ask why this had lasted 30 years, it’s because of that poignant moment,” McManus said.

16W Marketing partner Steve Rosner has been working on the luncheon for a decade. His explanation of the program’s longevity and clout are that it’s always been administered by a powerful committee, and it has two potent points of contact.

“Our business is about connecting the dots, and often the media business is the most powerful connection,” Rosner said. “And on a personal level, kids connect all of us.”

Around 20 years after Horowitz initially worked on the luncheon, he and his wife had a child born prematurely. “When it touches you, you get to appreciate the cause that much more,” he said.