Being an elite athlete today involves more than just great feats on the court or the field — it also includes charitable outreach.
High-profile pros such as LeBron James, J.J. Watt and Cristiano Ronaldo are often lauded for their generosity and community-mindedness. But they’re not the only ones out there doing good.
While female athletes are gradually gaining more attention for their winning ways, their contributions outside of sports still garner less attention than those of their male counterparts.
“The [athletic] industry in general doesn’t do enough to highlight female athletes, period, whether it be achievements in sport or on the field,” said Under Armour-backed runner Alison Désir-Figueroa. “It’s important that our stories are heard and shared.”
Since finishing her first marathon in 2012 while raising money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Désir-Figueroa — founder of the New York-based Harlem Run collective — has spearheaded efforts that have raised thousands of dollars for such organizations as Planned Parenthood and Harlem United.
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The runner was also one of several women featured in Under Armour’s “Unlike Any” campaign launched last year, which highlighted athletic ability devoid of gender comparisons.
But historically, attention such as this has been rare. “The spotlight is on male-dominated sports; it’s been that way forever. I couldn’t name a single female basketball all-star, and it’s the same for soccer and other female-driven sports,” said Reebok-sponsored fitness model Ashley Horner. “If female athletes had more media attention, [their efforts] would be spotlighted a bit more.”
Outside of superstars such as tennis icon Serena Williams, alpine skier Lindsey Vonn and ballet dancer Misty Copeland, the noncompetitive achievements of female athletes don’t often make headlines.
According to Désir-Figueroa, that means women must make the most of every opportunity. “We as female athletes need to continue to support each other,” she said, “and jump on moments like this [article], where allies reach out to us and want to post our stories.”
And Horner, founder of the Unbroken Foundation, which aids battered women and children’s shelters throughout the U.S., emphasized that female athletes as a whole could benefit from being more vocal. “A lot of [women] come out for the season and play, [but] they don’t have the personality or the desire to use the platform that they have. They could be doing charitable work, but they just don’t talk about it,” she said.
That’s where partnerships with sports brands can come in, when companies use their marketing heft to elevate a charitable message.
“What brands can do is find folks who are making a difference on and off the field and give them the tools to continue to do that,” Désir-Figueroa said. “It’s more authentic when the message is coming from the folks who are doing the work. The job of the brand is to highlight those stories.”
In March, running brand Brooks teamed up with middle-distance runner Gabriele Grunewald’s Brave Like Gabe foundation, which supports rare-cancer research. Specifically, the label created a logo for its star athlete, provided T-shirts and bibs for her inaugural charitable 5K and helped get her in front of media to share her story.
“We find athlete partners who are a good fit with our ‘Run Happy’ personality and then support the causes important to them,” said Steve DeKoker, sports marketing manager for the brand. “[And] we have our own program, Brooks Booster Club, that gives back to high school track and cross-country programs. If our professional athletes want to participate, they jump in, but it’s not mandatory. There aren’t formal demands on either side.”
Experts pointed out that lending a hand has benefits beyond aiding an athlete’s mission. “The millennial consumer wants brands to share their values, and they should be playing up when athletes are doing charitable things,” explained Matt Powell, senior industry adviser for sports with The NPD Group Inc.
DeKoker agreed that backing charitable causes is beneficial for brands. “It’s very much symbiotic. We’re helping support their cause, and they’re putting us in front of new consumers,” he said. “It provides more of an emotional connection with the consumer versus just: ‘I support this brand because they have fast athletes.’”
For her part, Horner said she is optimistic that today’s gender disparities will soon end. “The media and the public are starting to see that women are just as badass as any man can be,” she said. “Things are starting to change as far as women and their accomplishments.”
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