D.C. teams boosting focus on charitable giving

Ryan Zimmerman with his mother, Cheryl, at a benefit at Nationals Park to raise funds for MS.
Ryan Zimmerman with his mother, Cheryl, at a benefit at Nationals Park to raise funds for MS. (Michael S. Williamson - The Washington Post)
By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 15, 2010

When Ryan Zimmerman was negotiating a contract with the Washington Nationals, the popular third baseman kept insisting on one thing: He wanted to be able to use the ballpark for a charity event.

It was an unusual demand, said his agent, Brodie Van Wagenen, but Zimmerman got what he wanted.

On Monday night, he hosted a concert, auction and dinner that raised about $200,000 for the ZiMS Foundation and gave a $30,000 check to the local chapter of an organization fighting multiple sclerosis. Zimmerman said he hopes the event will get bigger every year, eventually filling the ballpark with donors and spreading the word about the disease his mother has been fighting.

That impulse is part of what experts say is a huge shift in professional sports philanthropy. For reasons idealistic, self-serving or practical, athletes and teams are putting a greater emphasis on donating money, volunteering and helping local communities -- with more commitment to providing real impact rather than just photo ops.

"It has changed dramatically," said Greg Johnson, executive director of the Sports Philanthropy Project, a nonprofit group that studies the impact of charity efforts in the multibillion-dollar industry. "Now it's a central part of the business model of most franchises."

In Washington, the philanthropic push could get a big boost from the arrival of a new slate of stars and genuine excitement about the prospects of all four professional teams. The Capitals have Alex Ovechkin, arguably the best player in hockey. The Redskins traded for Donovan McNabb, a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback. The Wizards drafted 19-year-old point guard John Wall with the first overall pick in June. And this summer the Nationals unveiled pitcher Stephen Strasburg, considered among the best prospects ever.

Their potential success could lead to more than just energized fans, sold-out games and additional revenue for the franchises. It could mean more donors to the teams' charitable foundations, more volunteers for team-sponsored charity events, more corporate partners for charity efforts, more athlete appearances for local nonprofits, and more fan response to team appeals on behalf of local causes. In other words, more leverage, more clout and more benefits to the city.

More than donations

Quantifying those benefits can be difficult, those who study philanthropy say.

How do you put a dollar figure on the influence Ovechkin has when he visits a child with cancer? What about when the Redskins encourage fans crowding training camp to donate school supplies to needy kids, or McNabb encourages kids to exercise?

If a team gives away tickets for charity, is that altruism, a way to fill unsold seats or a savvy tax break? What's it worth to a charity to have NFL-donated ad time during the Super Bowl?

By one measure -- contributions to nonprofits -- local efforts are dwarfed by the biggest team foundations nationally.

The Washington Nationals Dream Foundation, for instance, gave away nearly $400,000 in 2008, a fraction of the more than $3 million the Red Sox Foundation donated. But the fan base of teams such as the Sox, with a century of history, home runs and heartbreak, can't really be compared to a team such as the Nats, with just five years in Washington and a three-year-old foundation.

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