Just when I thought sports PR needed a facelift, Believeland brings out the botox

(Blogger’s Note: This post has nothing to do with plastic surgery. I’m just undergoing severe writer’s block and that’s the best title I could come up with. Please forgive.)

In last week’s mild rant about my frustrations with sports PR internships, I mentioned the Cleveland Indians’ outdated PR practices. Today I want to take the time to admit that I jumped to conclusions a little too soon.

Not sure who these people are, but I want to be one of them (photo courtesy of "...Only in Cleveland")

Many of you are probably already aware of the Indians Social Suite (i.e. the first ever social media seating section in professional sports). But if you were like me, you probably weren’t aware how the Tribe’s new strategic plan goes beyond a special portion of the Jake..er..Progressive Field.. and into a full-on campaign that takes PR out of the front office and into the hands of the team’s biggest fans and critics.

For the past few days, I’ve been looking through the schedule for what games I might want to get to and decided to dig deeper into some information about the social media seats. Never did I ever think I would come across an entire press release (coincidentally posted on my birthday) devoted to an innovative strategy for a team that was supposed to be the worst in the league thus far.

Innovation? In something Cleveland sports-related? This can’t end well, right?

Sure, we’ve had a crappy year in sports, but I think the Tribe might be turning things around, at least on the business side.

Per the Indians Website, I give you the main objectives for the Tribe’s 2011 social media strategy:

  • Access to Indians organization unprecedented in Major League Baseball.
  • Club president Mark Shapiro and GM Chris Antonetti to join manager Manny Acta on Twitter.
  • Lauded Tribe Social Deck to be renamed Indians Social Suite and moved from Bleachers to Suite.
  • Indians to launch innovative Social Media Ticket offer rewarding fans for sharing discount.

I started this blog as part of one of my class assignments. As part of another assignment, we had to read The Groundswell, by Josh Bernoff and Charlene Li. The book’s basic premise is how PR and marketing professionals need to embrace new media and use it to build relationships to create trustworthy, word-of-mouth promotion. This type of buzz marketing gives the people the power to sell the brand, rather than having the organization shouting the message. It’s worked for some of the nation’s beloved consumer brands for a few years. Why wouldn’t America’s past-time be the first sports organization to embrace the phenomena?

As Twitter continues to grow and more people receive sports news from the blogosphere rather than traditional routes, it seems only fitting for athletes and organizations to gravitate toward PR 2.0. Ironically, baseball is the one sport that has experienced declining numbers in attendance and viewership, making it the most in need of a PR makeover.

Chief Wahoo finally has reason for this grin again (photo courtesy of examiner.com)

If the Indians were doing as bad as they were supposed to be, I would find it ironic that they were the innovators in baseball PR. Okay, scratch that. Even though they are 11-4 (only the second-best record behind Colorado), I still find it ironic. But as a fan, it doesn’t really matter to me how they are doing so well, it’s that it’s happening. Even if this high is only temporary, the progress the organization is making off the field is truly revolutionary in the world of sports PR, and that is something no one should overlook, especially silly grad students like me.

Pardon my French…

“Fermez vos livres, sous vos pupitre. Maintenant! Vite! Vite! Et Prenez un crayon ou un stylo bleu ou noir et passez les cartes.”

Translation: Close your books, put them under your desk. Now! Quickly! And take out a pencil or black or blue pen and pass in the cards.

Eiffel Tower

I still haven't been to Paris, but I hope to go someday

One of my high school French teachers* used to say that phrase before every single test or quiz. Eight years later, that and everything else I learned in French 1 remain the only things I remember from the language.

On our exams, she required us to write down one or two sentence answers (in French, of course). I always did three to five. People hated me, but it was the first and only non-honors or non-arts class** I took where I didn’t care how many times I got called teacher’s pet because I really liked French.

Before college, being an over-achiever was as far away from cool as the equator is to the Arctic Circle. Post high school, you are hounded about standing out because breaking down norms is what changes the world.

For most of us students, we’re in what I like to call “internship season.” Everyone wants one, but not everybody gets one. When we do get them, we feel like the greatest person to ever walk on planet earth. The only way to get the best ones is to ditch our high school selves and give your intended employer a unique reason to want you. Or so it seems.

As an undergrad I took three unpaid, sports-related internships. I didn’t care if they were unpaid because I thought that was how undergraduate internships worked. I loved my internships and learned a lot about sports media and communication practices in general. As I entered my master’s program, I was under the assumption that sports PR and marketing firms would have an enhanced value for my differences and creativity. I’m different because I chose to keep learning. I like to think my writing style is unique; if I want to get fancy, I could call myself a literary designer. I’m a sports-obsessed female. And if anyone criticizes me I don’t feel like I want to crawl under the covers and bawl my eyes out because at this age, we’re supposed to be different.

Unfortunately, I should know by now what happens when you assume something.

Feel free to converse and debate with me, but in the last three months I’ve found the worst internships for graduate PR majors are in sports PR. I hate to be the one to make the call-outs (or do I…?) but every single sports PR internship I have looked at is not only unpaid but lists the duties in a way that only translates to “follow professionals around, don’t create your own stuff, but HEY, our company looks good on a resume because sooooo many people apply.”

So what do I do? Keep plugging away until I find something sports-related that will embrace my creativity or do I conform to what the firms want, because it’s supposed to be an excellent opportunity?

I’ve decided on neither. I’m not being a sell-out to my dreams, I’m being true to my creativity. If anyone else out there is like me, you’re probably wondering what the point of pursuing non-sports endeavors does for a resume. I say, why try to make something look good on paper if you didn’t really enjoy it. I’m still in the looking/interviewing phase of my internship search. I’ve come across a few agencies that would not only challenge my skills, but allow me to work alongside some of the most creative people in the business. I like what I see from them. I hope they like what they see from me.

That microphone is as outdated as Larry Dolan's PR department.

Maybe the problem with sports PR internships is that sports PR itself isn’t given high regard. Only .0175 percent of bloggers (at most) referenced sports PR in the last 30 days. And most sports organizations handle their own PR rather than using outside assistance from agencies. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but if you’re going to use the same business plan, year after year, season after season, you aren’t really changing with your target audience.

Writing is part of PR, or any other marketing, advertising, communications or design business. It’s the part I like to think I excel the most. If I can’t work somewhere where I can write, in addition to learning new skills, what’s the point of putting in the time? Do I want to work in the sports industry or at least handle sports clients someday? Absolutely. But at this point, I’d rather work on what makes me stand out than fall into a pattern of mediocrity. If there’s anything else I learned in that French class besides how to conjugate a verb, it’s that you should never settle for anything less than your best work, even if you have to take a different path to get where you think you want to be.


*When I transferred my sophomore year, my new French teacher failed to really get me to understand the language past a basic level. She was a wonderful, nice person, but never reached me like my old teacher had. To this day, I’m not really sure who’s at fault for this.

**I say non-honors or non-arts because those were the classes it was okay to try in. These classrooms were the only safe places to excel. We weren’t pressured into mediocrity because the average and under-achieving people were the outcasts. And probably still are.

Nothing Like a PR disaster to top off a season

As much as I prefer good PR moves over bad ones, there’s no way I can please you, the readers, with happiness and positivity all of the time.

Thank you, Geno Ford, for making it possible for me to talk about something in the negative this week.

In case you are unaware (and I’m sure many of you are because many people don’t pay attention to the MAC conference) Ford resigned from his position as head coach of the Kent State men’s basketball team. Ford led the Flashes for three seasons, earning back-to-back MAC coach of year honors and conference titles. However, since KSU would rather shift its athletic funding to the <.500 win football team, his salary clearly wasn’t compensating for his actual worth.

Geno Ford

Geno Ford is about to brave a whole lot of hate

Monday, word got out that Ford accepted a position at Bradley University. Even though the Braves are a *statistically* worse team, his salary is almost double.

I always defend sports as a business so despite differences in talent and caliber, wherever there’s money to be made is obviously where a coach wants to be. Any sports team, be it high school, collegiate or professional, needs to understand how to allocate money based on talent rather than assumed popularity. Kent hasn’t really gotten this.

But the PR disaster has nothing to do with the money. This was a bad break-up. And Ford is all to blame.

As I saw the news scroll across ESPN, I immediately took to Twitter to see what people were saying.

I saw one post. No big deal. People don’t talk about Kent on Twitter much anyway.

The next day in my event planning class- which is mostly made up of sports administration undergrads who have ties with the athletic department- people were talking. As I listened, I realized students were not only upset Ford resigned, but the way he did it. Apparently, everyone involved with the team found out through the media- and Bradley’s website– not from Ford.

Normally when a coach makes a decision of this size, those directly affected (players, staff, etc.) are the first to know. Yes, sometimes the media gets a hold of things before anyone else is aware, but that usually comes with “uncontrollable” scandal. As I mentioned in my last post, the media acted like a pack of wild dogs when it came to “Tresselgate.” But before Tressel said anything to anyone, he spoke to his team and staff to discuss the situation and what would happen in the press conference.

Resignations, however, are usually fueled by the business, not scandal. When one occurs, the coach usually talks to the directly affected parties, then gives a press conference to the university he’s leaving BEFORE giving one to the university he’s going to.

As one of my professors points out, this was not the case for Ford.

Ford gave a press conference to Bradley, without so much as a peep to anyone at Kent, or at least it doesn’t seem like it. If the athletic department was aware, I find it hard to believe they wouldn’t advise him to notify his team and fan-base at Kent before addressing his new followers.

Again, sports is a business. Sports people, be they athlete or staff member, leave teams for more money all the time. But when someone goes about this departure without a sense of class, then it becomes controversial. My biggest wish for sports PR is for people to stop turning natural happenings into scandal. But I guess that’s another unfortunate portion of the business that’s important in fueling its fire. And it gives me something to talk about.




Whatever happened to that credibility stuff?

Tressel's general mood right about now (photo courtesy of Our Honor Defend)

Tressel's general mood right about now (photo courtesy of Our Honor Defend)

I’m an Ohio State grad. You probably know this by now. I converse with many Buckeye writers on Twitter, most of whom have composed some excellent pieces about the recent events concerning head football coach Jim Tressel’s NCAA violations. So instead of me re-stating what everyone else said, I’m going to talk about a matter that’s bigger, or at least should be bigger, to ANYONE involved in the media, on either side.

For those who don’t know what happened, Yahoo! sports reporters Charles Robinson and Dan Wetzel wrote an article Monday claiming Tressel knew about the memorabilia scandal last April. A well-written article, yes. But a credible one, absolutely not.


The way this was written made it appear to be an investigative report, when really ONE inside source was the only provider of content. There were no comments from Tressel, the athletic department, or anyone who could have been somewhat of a credible, non-anonymous entity to make this a more legitimate piece of work.

Mine! Mine! Mine!

Had the source been fake or provided inaccurate information, we would most certainly be ripping Yahoo! Sports to shreds. But because there was in fact trouble in paradise, the website gets a pat on the back for being the first to get to the bottom of this, even if they did it without really adhering to proper journalism standards. Besides the obvious aftermath, this led to the ripple effect of hundreds of news sites and blogs sinking their teeth into the scandal without paying attention to the details of the meal. It was like watching Lake Erie seagulls fight over a french fry. Can you find where this type of sensationalism fits in the Journalist’s Code of Ethics? Because I can’t.

Underneath the “Seek the Truth and Report It” clause, the following statement reads clear:

Make certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.

My Twitter friends and I discussed this briefly. Even a University of Michigan blog came out defending the media attacks on their biggest rival. Watching everything unfold, I was absolutely floored by the lack of credibility these sites were just throwing out there. Here are some examples:

  • My hometown paper, the Sandusky Register, originally ran its Tressel article with the headline “Ohio State may fire Tressel.” This has since changed, but it was eye-catching to the reader and the search engines and probably sparked wide-spread panic over Sand-town Buckeye fans.
  • AOL Sporting News ran a post that over-analyzed a tweet from quarterback Terrelle Pryor. Yes, the tweet was probably referring to the incident, but is this newsworthy? No. Does this make sports journalism look like a joke? Yes. Does it make Sportingnews.com look like they uncovered something big regarding the situation? Yes. Does it violate the previously mentioned section of the ethics code? Duh.
  • Today, the Wall Street Journal ran a blurb titled “Ohio State Paper Wants Tressel Gone.” No. That is false. ONE Lantern columnist voiced his opinion why Tressel should be fired. Not the whole paper. The paper simply was doing what we are taught by the journalism school and presented a fair representation of opinions. Maybe the WSJ should send some of its writers back to school for a few refresher courses.

My Bachelor’s Degree is in journalism. I love and still love writing, I loved being a student sports reporter, and most of all, I loved finding out people’s stories because I love people. But what I didn’t love was how, in far too many instances, a profession that is supposed to be the voice of the people, was really not that at all. Instead, it was just as much a big business and political entity as the very citizens they work so hard to bring down.

By no means do I hate the media, but I hate how so many outlets have abandoned basic principles so they can be the first to get at a story rather than the most accurate. Luckily for Robinson and Wetzel, they were dead on, but they took a big risk in doing so.

Public Relations is one of the fastest growing professions in the media world. So many factors play into this, but for me, I made the switch to learn about both sides of the spectrum. PR definitely has its cons and is not exempt from mistakes or unethical practices, but I’m finding that giving voice to a client that doesn’t have the skills to do it themselves might just be better than being a potential contributor in the ruin of someone’s life. Yes, some people’s lives deserve to be ruined, because they are bad people, but so many of today’s journalists don’t really get to pick and choose who they get to take down. They have to do what they’re told, in the way that they’re told, and they have to be the first to do it, even if they might be wrong.

Buzz Rebuttal: 5 Reasons people DO care about the NBA

Buzz Bissinger, courtesy of Sportress of Blogitude

Buzz Bissinger making his case...for something (photo courtesy of sportressofblogitude.com).

Last week, Buzz Bissinger, author and sports contributor to The Daily Beast, wrote an article called “White Men Can’t Root.”

“What the..?” was my immediate response to the title.

As I read, I found that Bissinger presents some interesting points, but to pull out the race card, with “no hard-core evidence” is a tad bit bold. What’s even more glaring behind the assumption that racism runs rampant in sports (the one place where racial barriers have fallen faster than arguably any other realm of American society) is to touch on the way the league needs to be “modified to regain its popularity.”

Regain popularity?

Just because a crummy economy keeps people from attending games doesn’t mean the sport is any less popular. In fact, I’ve found that the NBA has done a spectacular job at getting ratings and using sports marketing practices that kids like me in graduate school only dream of putting together.

I could compose a miraculous piece of long-form journalism about why I don’t agree with Bissinger, but you don’t have time to read it and I don’t have time to write it. Instead, I’ve narrowed it down to five reasons why people in fact DO care about the NBA, and probably won’t ever really stop.

1. It all started in July…

I’m a Cavs fan. “The Decision” was one of the most painful moments in sports for me. I now hate LeBron James. But as someone who tries to have an objective media mindset, I can’t help but be fascinated with what it did for the NBA’s publicity. LeBron became the subject of hundreds of image management debates. ESPN’s most watched non-NFL program  allowed for a whole summer of heightened buzz about the state of the league. Because of it, season openers across the country experienced record-setting ratings. While it might hurt for us Cleveland die-hards, no one can deny how people who don’t even care about basketball-past or present-talked about July 8th and its aftermath. If that’s not successful brand awareness then I don’t know what is.

2. Young talent emergence

I like to classify NBA superstars into three categories: Old money (basically half the Lakers’ and Celtics’ rosters), Peak players (LeBron, Dwayne Wade, Carmelo Anthony) and young guns (Derrick Rose, Blake Griffin, Kevin Durant, Kevin Love). The young guns are my favorite because they haven’t let superstardom take over, and aren’t too washed up to be “showing their age.” This season, the young talent pool is probably one of the best to ever play. All have unique styles, all are team players and all are fun to watch. These are the players that remind us why we love basketball. And in a year full of egos, franchise inflation and lock-out talk, these guys have kept us from getting tired of it all.

3. Big egos bring big ratings

Unfortunately, some of them will follow the lead of veteran superstars and become whiny, ego-maniacs. As sad as it is, society thrives on drama and athlete drama is not exempt. Sure, we say morality is the correct route, but if nobody decided to be a jerk, wouldn’t the world be a lot less interesting? People want to watch the drama unfold, so when these superstars drag out their trade or free agency decisions, we pay close attention. We give the NBA site traffic, NBA TV viewership, and, if said player goes to our team, we buy their stuff. We could argue this has nothing to do with sports marketing, but once athletes sign professional contracts, they become a brand. They sell themselves to us. And we buy it. Even if they suck as people, they did their job as a business entity, making them the winners all-around.

4. People watch the all-star game and all of its hoopla

Blake Griffin vs. Kia Optima (courtesy of Electronic Urban Web Report)

Most would agree that, unlike the MLB all-star game, the NBA all-star game means nothing. FALSE. The NBA All-Star game is a sports marketer’s dream and does wonders for anyone involved with the league. It’s not just one game, it’s a series of sub-events leading to that game, and it’s attended by about as many celebrities as any awards show. The best PR/marketing move this year had to be the dunk contest. Not only did we get to see this aforementioned young talent on display, but one of them DUNKED OVER A CAR! A Kia Optima to be exact. Talk about advertising without paying for the ad space. Okay, it was advertised a dozen times throughout the main event, but it will always be known as the car Griffin dunked over. Good for the image of the NBA, the Clippers, Griffin and Kia. Also good for the person on the PR/marketing/advertising side who came up with the idea. They most certainly got a raise.

5. There’s ALWAYS something to talk about

People care about the NBA this year because there is always something to write about, talk about or make bogus theories about. Sports media is obsessed with everything that has unfolded with The Decision, the Carmelo trade and the fall of Cleveland, yet again. What these athletes have done may or may not be up to moral standard, but we can’t get enough of it and the league is banking on it. This is the kind of PR you just can’t pay for. This is the kind of stuff we can’t live without. This is the reason why we will never stop caring about the NBA. Why try to pretend otherwise?

Footnotes: Off-topic odds and ends about Twitter spam

Back in December I received a tweet simply saying “Hey, can I see your feet?”


Even "cute" baby feet make me shudder at the sight of them.

Even "cute" baby feet make me shudder at the sight of them.

Little known personal fact: I HATE feet. I think people with foot fetishes are the most sexually disgusting people in the world (besides pedophiles and rapists, of course). Worse than people with foot fetishes are people with foot fetishes that have the nerve to ask someone on Twitter if they can aid in their twisted fantasy. Of course, before I hit the block button, I had to view his 160-character bio. It read “Sean. Foot Lover. I’m new to this thing, but I love beautiful feet. A lot.”

I repeat…eww.

Fast forward to last week. Once again, I had a tweet from the SAME SICK EXCUSE FOR A MAN, asking me to show him my feet. I’m pretty sure his Twitter name was different, and the bio most certainly was. This new and improved description cut right to the point; all it said was “FOOT LOVER.” Once again, the Block and Report Spam button was utilized.

Anyone active in the Twitterverse is susceptible to Twitter spam. At this point, spammers don’t usually phase me. As a sports person, I get sports spammers all the time, as well as other randoms. I just block them and forget who they are the next day. FOOT LOVER took Twitter spam to new heights. As creepy and extreme as it was, he got me thinking: Do people new to Twitter understand what is spam and what is just a friendly follow?

Someone naive to the Twitter game might have found FOOT LOVER so terrifying that it drove them to put that little padlock next to their name (this is called making your Tweets private). While creepers like him are repulsive, don’t go hiding your personal brand behind closed doors just yet!

Those of us who are overactive on the medium can tell you it isn’t as scary as it seems. The site actually has an extensive help center to ease some of your concerns. There, you can find all the boundaries and signs of Twitter abuse, as well as how to detect a spammer and keep yourself from being a spammer. Key spammer trademarks include:

  • Tweets that almost always consist of links, rather than personal updates
  • Automated responses to a particular mention
  • Users who follow thousands but have few followers and even fewer tweets
  • Users who post others’ tweets as their own
  • Unrelated tweets to a trending topic, even though they use that topic’s hashtag
  • Tweets which consistently are false or misleading
  • Users without a picture (Not always the case, but it’s more common for spammers to be image-free than real people)
  • People with names like hottseXXXiibabe are known as porn spammers. I know some of you gentlemen (and maybe some of you ladies) new to Twitter might be fooled into thinking someone like this has something of value to show you, but they don’t. So block them. NOW!

I find the tone of Twitter’s spam section to be more of a “you know you’re a spammer if…” That right there should deter people from venturing into spam territory, yet it still happens. Kind of like the show “To Catch a Predator,” known as #TCAP in the Twitterverse. We all know the show exists, yet pedophiles still try to meet up with children they met in chat rooms, not thinking their faces might be plastered all of TV the next day. Social media guru Jeff Hester put together a pretty good spread of typical spammer profiles. Is “To catch a spammer” in the future? One can only hope.

A graphic from the Twitter blog explaining the decline in spam as Twitter has grown in popularity

A graphic from the Twitter blog explaining the decline in spam as Twitter has grown in popularity

Twitter does its part in trying to minimize the spam crowd, but its never really going to disappear. I’m sure it will be a matter of time before FOOT LOVER resurfaces and asks me his favorite question. By knowing the difference between spammers, creepers and people who really care what we have to say, we can save ourselves the frustrating dilemma of determining who’s worthy of our micro-blogging skills. So don’t be afraid to be yourself. Despite the pests out there, Twitter can be a lot less sketchy than the rest of the Internet and can be of huge benefit to your brand, personal or professional.

Super Bowl not the biggest annual event…

The Black Eyed Peas confusing their image with the cast of Tron (photo courtesy of bittenandbound.com)

…we just make it out to be.

When I sat down to watch the Super Bowl, I was hoping for some type of scandal to provide something interesting for this post. Yes, Christina Aguilera butchered the National Anthem and the Black Eyed Peas probably would have benefited from some auto-tune, but neither were worthy of 500 words.

Despite the lack of scandal*, there was still the usual over-exaggerated hype in the days before the big game, allowing my PR mind to turn on. Most media outlets dub the game the biggest and most elite sporting event of the year.

But is it really?

While some would argue that I’m being just as un-American as Xtina by even thinking to question this, I have to wonder, is it the game itself that we love or is it everything else surrounding the game that makes it so special?

Though the media says it’s the mother of all sporting events, the Super Bowl is actually only one of the biggest, not thee biggest. In fact, in the United States, the biggest event is the Boston Marathon. Each year, more than 20,000 people run while around 500,000 watch. Despite it’s size, I bet few people could name the actual winners.

Aaron Rodgers MVP

Aaron Rodgers says "yay, we won!" Or so I like to think (image via thirdage.com)

Thirty-two teams (53 players on each roster), 16 teams in each conference and 4 in each division of each conference, comprise the NFL. Two make it to the grand finale. Everyone could tell you Green Bay came away victorious in 2011, the Saints in 2010 and the Steelers in 2009. This year’s game featured the greatest enemies of Cleveland and Chicago. Browns fans became “Cheesheads” for the night, while Bears fans proudly waved Terrible Towels.

Whether you were a one-night only fan, a true fan or not a fan because you couldn’t even explain a first down, you probably hosted or attended some sort of Super Bowl party. For non-football fans, you were probably one of those that said “I don’t care about who wins, I just want to watch the commercials.”

Participation and viewership of the Super Bowl are far less than the Boston Marathon, but we can’t deny the relevance those three or so hours in our lives.

The following statistics from squidoo.com show how much really goes into all of the external fun:

  • More than $55 million goes into food sales
  • Eight million pounds of guacamole, 15,000 tons of chips and 4,000 tons of popcorn are consumed
  • Antacid sales go up 20 % in the day following the big game
  • Americans spend $237.2 million on soft drinks at grocery stores the week before the game
  • Year after year, the Super Bowl beats out holiday parties as the biggest reason for Americans to host an at-home event
  • Only on Thanksgiving do Americans consume more food at one time
  • Besides New Years Eve, the Super Bowl is the biggest day for alcohol consumption

And how do we forget about the ads? This year, it’s been reported that the price of one Super Bowl ad was almost $3 million. Companies spend so much money on advertising because people want to see the ads, and maybe buy the product. Yet, how many businesses advertise in a Super Bowl time slot that don’t already bring in billions of dollars? To my knowledge, the last time up and coming businesses bought ad space was the year of the dot.com bust. While many reasons are behind the failure of some of these online corporations, I think part of it can be contributed to unnecessary advertising during the big game. The lesson from all that mess was never to try to mass market your ideas if you’re still a niche.

The Super Bowl is more than a game. It’s an opportunity for our culture to come together in the same way we do for holidays. Whether or not this is a display of American consumerism and invites criticism from other countries, it is one of the biggest ways PR and marketing professionals from a variety of backgrounds can capitalize on exposure.  The average person probably doesn’t think about this, but then again, when do normal people think “oh good PR move.”

*There in fact was a scandal, with the overselling of seats. But we could debate that for days and I wouldn’t want to bore you with my rant 🙂

Philanthropy doesn’t always equal good PR

After 23 years, I’ve finally developed a morning routine. Sure I’m only four weeks in, but that’s more than I can say for any other routine I’ve attempted in my lifetime. I wake up, let the dog out, eat two egg whites and two pieces of 35 calorie multi-grain toast (or a mushroom and spinach omelet if I’m really ambitious), allow Tony Horton to guide me in P90X, shower, let the dog out again, go to campus, spend 30 minutes reading my RSS feeds.

A week ago, as I scrolled through my Deadspin feed, I noticed I missed an article from January 16 titled “Report: Many Dallas Athletes Run Shoddy Charities”. To some, this wouldn’t really stand out. As a person who constantly evaluates the image boosters and blunders in the sports world, I found it quite alarming.

Apparently, the Dallas Morning News reviewed tax records of 22 Dallas sports-sponsored non-profits. While some passed as legitimate, most represented a series of shortcomings that sparked a two-part expose of these athletes’ shady behavior. Some spent more money on overhead costs than charity. Some collected money but never put the full amount toward its intended use. And others left contributions sitting dormant for years.

We all know the sad but true fact that corruption runs rampant in business, and sports is not exempt. It is also a fact that Dallas has a reputation for being a dirty sports town. Much of this was brought to life in ESPN’s final 30 for 30 film, Pony Excess, a play-by-play account of Southern Methodist Univeristy’s football scandal in the 198os. Coincidentally, SMU was also exposed by the Dallas Morning News. In any sense of a scam, it’s one thing to lie about it, but to think the lie will go unnoticed is absolutely mind boggling.

So what happened?

A detailed run-down is present the original article, but here is a quick picture:

• Terence Newman, a Cowboys cornerback, created Newman’s Rising Stars Foundation. Every penny is supposed go toward scholarships for standout student-athletes in the Dallas Independent School District. However, the foundation paid a percentage of donation dollars to Icon Sports & Entertainment, a company that converts good deeds and good publicity into endorsement opportunities.

Newman with his rising stars (photo from the website)

• Former Dallas Maverick Josh Howard uses almost half the contributions to the Howard Foundation on employee salaries, including his best friend’s. Howard said, “I take that as me being charitable.” Howard was eventually released from the Mavericks around this time last year because of a series of poor PR decisions. He now plays for the Washington Wizards.

• Former Cowboys quarterback, Troy Aikman, created the Troy Aikman Foundation in 1992 to raise money for “poor, sick and suffering children.” In 2008, the foundation reported $1.6 million in reserves, yet only $70,000 has been allocated. Aikman said his charity earmarks funds for future hospital playrooms but has no immediate plans to spend the money.

Aikman interacting with children in one of the few playrooms created by his foundation (Website photo)

This practice isn’t exactly shocking when it comes to traditional business, but sports is supposed to be different. Children don’t look at CEO’s and say they want to grow up to sit behind a desk in the top-floor office of a high rise building surrounded by leather bound books that smell of rich mahogany. Instead, they idolize the Troy Aikman’s and the Josh Howard’s. They beg their parents for athlete-endorsed products. And their parents donate to athlete-sponsored charities.

How to tell if a charity is worthwhile

Non-profits are overlooked as being corrupt because we believe they are bettering the world. We see the coin jars for cancer at check-out counters. We watch the commercials urging us to do our part and stop animal abuse. We march in the breast cancer walks and purchase more pink in October. Yet, do we ever question how much of our money actually goes to the kid pictured on the coin jar who’s been battling leukemia for three years? If we do, it’s only when corruption stories such as this one surface, and we’ll probably keep it to ourselves to minimize accusations about our cold-hearted personalities

With athlete-supported non-profits, we feel we have a connection with these superstars, so donating to their charities is a sure-fire confidence booster and a bigger tax write-off. I’m not trying to discount what non-profits are trying to achieve, because most of them do accomplish more for society than any of us could imagine. We just need to do a better job at choosing charities wisely.  In 2007, The Seattle Times broke down athlete-sponsored charities, basically telling readers exactly what to look for on public tax forms so they don’t buy into a scam. Such steps include:

  1. Distinguishing between private foundations and public charities
  2. Finding the size of the charity
  3. Comparing Basic ratios
  4. Knowing what you can’t see
  5. Taking further precautions outside of the IRS

The thin line between publicity and philanthropy

Whether it’s one’s own foundation or a non-profit represented by a series of sports stars, it is difficult to find a pro-athlete that doesn’t identify with some sort of charitable cause. It is almost an unwritten rule that once an athlete enters the big leagues, he or she needs to find a cause to promote or else they are considered cold or uncommitted to the community. According to part two of the expose, agents are ready to sell their clients’ images as soon as they sign their professional contracts. Q scores are typically used in marketing to measure a brand’s familiarity and popularity.

In sports, the athlete is the brand.

In the article, Ivan Blumberg, a lawyer and 20-year sports-marketing veteran, said “Is it good public relations for a high-profile athlete to be perceived giving back to their community? Yes. Is the best way to do that by forming a foundation? Probably not. If you’re creating a foundation for the reasons of positively impacting your image, and thus positively impacting your ability to secure marketing deals, then you’ve sort of missed what should be the prevailing objective, which is to do good.”

So why do so many get involved?

Some say it just feels like the right thing to do or feel pressure from family and friends to give back to their roots. Some think of it as a business move that will lead to opportunities that can’t be given to them by talent alone. Whatever the reason, going into philanthropic work without full knowledge of the commitment to the cause can pose more harm to the charity than good. Not to mention the blow to the athlete’s brand when faulty management and unethical activities are uncovered.

My recommended sixth step to the Seattle Times article is make sure you are able to differentiate charities that athletes are 100 percent passionate about from the ones that are 100 percent publicity ploys. As a budding PR professional, I feel that taking on a cause is an excellent PR move, but ONLY if it’s something the athlete can manage and put their heart and soul into. Saying you want to make state of the art playrooms for sick kids is one thing. Actually making these rooms come alive is what makes the charity a blessing to those in need of its resources and enhances the relationship between the athlete and the community.