Be Active, Play, Collect: A Study of Sports Philanthropy

Par Fannie Valois-Nadeau , PhD in Communications, PhiLab
28 June 2017

In Montreal, charitable sporting events take place throughout the year. Spring seems to be the prime period for sporting challenges with events such as – to name a few – the Scotiabank Charity Challenge, Cycling for Léger Foundation, the ‘Grand Défi Pierre Lavoie’ (Interview with Pierre Lavoie, PhiLab blog May 2017) and the Urban Duathlon of the Ste-Justine Foundation. It is also during this season that the Centraide Cup, an annual soccer tournament benefitting Centraide of Greater Montreal and the Montreal Impact Foundation, is held. From late summer to early fall there are numerous charity golf tournaments, including those for the Alzheimer Society, the Jean Lapointe and Bombardier Foundation, the Kidney Foundation of Canada, and the highly anticipated Montreal Canadians Tournament. To end the year, the winter season brings the Ste-Justine Foundation’s Winter Triathlon, while also being the privileged period for the Montreal Canadians’ ‘RadioTéléDon’ with the inauguration of the refrigerated outdoor ice rinks offered under their ‘Bleu Blanc Bouge’ program.

This short, non-exhaustive list of events shows the various cross-connections existing between sports and philanthropy. Whether in the form of fundraisers, donations from the professional sports industries or the development of sports programs, these philanthropic activities mobilize both amateur and professional athletes. Although records of sports philanthropy in Montreal can be traced back to as early as the 1920s (Holman, forthcoming), their current proliferation and diversity has led to the need to delve deeper into this particular method of philanthropic involvement. Despite its great popularity and the fact that it appeals to both individuals and ultra-publicized organizations, sports philanthropy remains a little studied subject. For example, the phenomenon has not yet been exhaustively recorded and the total income generated is still unknown [1].

In academia, research in this direction has focused mainly on either fundraising events or questioning the importance of philanthropic activity in building a sports club’s branding. This research, stemming predominantly from North American, English-speaking literature, describes a phenomenon with no precise direction or homogeneity, but with a common thread throughout its components. By identifying certain aspects from the realm of sports philanthropy, the aim here is to present different ways of approaching the phenomenon as well as the stakes and effects that occur throughout its appearance and its practice. Before naming some of the commonalities that can be observed, we begin by presenting an overview of two of the major trends in sports philanthropy.

A ‘Physical Philanthropy’

Much of the phenomenon of sports philanthropy is modeled on what Andrew R. Meyer and Renée Umstattd Meyer (2017) termed “physical philanthropy.” This form of sports philanthropy, which is carried out through physical effort (many fundraisers use the term “challenge”), can be considered equally as “activist entertainment” and as an expression of solidarity with regards to individual suffering (as it is not usually in the context of larger, social struggles). While the intensity of the physical performances varies according to the target participants [2], the sport challenge becomes a privileged method of financing in that, besides being fun, it is an embodiment of the healthy lifestyle currently promulgated in public discourse. As the organizing principle of many public interventions, the current trend in what Caroline Fusco (2012) calls the ‘healthification’ of social life legitimizes the idea of “getting active for the cause” while also rendering it an obvious choice. For Samantha King (2003, 2004, 2012), who was particularly interested in breast cancer walks, this form of “healthy” social participation also highlights the decree for individual (and community) responsibility, which now rests on the shoulders of the runner / collector in this case. Exacerbated by the decline of the welfare state, citizens resort to this active method of participation, for the good of all.

If the current proliferation of “physical philanthropy” events can be justified through the sociological and biopolitical readings mentioned above, it is important to mention that this type of event was not born out of the neoliberal conjuncture of today. As suggested by Andrew R. Meyer and Renée Umstattd Meyer (2017), physical philanthropy has its roots in a Christian socialist / religious movement, which was popular from the Victorian era until the mid-20th century. This movement, which was the foundation for the development of modern-day sports practiced among men of different social classes, was based on the idea of using and training one’s body “for the good of others”. In finding traces of the values promulgated by this movement in the philanthropic activities of Lance Armstrong and his Livestrong foundation, these authors see a historical continuity in the way sport is used to “protect the weak and promote good causes”.

Lastly, it is important to mention that “physical philanthropy”, in its event format and collective aspect, is also conducive to the sharing of painful experiences and the creation of new connections between the participants (Nettleton & Hardey, 2006). In numerous workplaces, many colleagues participate in these events and receive the support of their employers.

Philanthropy in the Professional Sports World

Although philanthropy in the professional sports world is inspired by the same logic that drives “physical philanthropy”, it is nevertheless marked by the specific principles of the ‘sport as entertainment’ environment. Particularly abundant since the turn of the millennium, the philanthropic activities of professional sports teams have been standardized and professionalized thanks to the mass arrival of foundations issued from these same teams (Valois-Nadeau, 2017). With the introduction of corporate social responsibility (CSR) discourses in the 1990s (Godfrey, 2009) and the emergence of experts in “sport management” in the 2000s, philanthropic activity became a means of retaining audiences and legitimizing the role of these millionaire industries in the social and cultural life of host cities (Babiak et al., 2012). In Montreal, for example, even though Montreal Canadian players have been involved in the community since the 1950s, the Montreal Canadians Children’s Foundation was only born in 2000 (91 years after the establishment of the Club). With the creation of programs such as ‘Canadiens à l’École’ and ‘Bleu Blanc Bouge’, philanthropic activities have now become part of their strategic planning and contribute to further affirming the position of the hockey club in the philanthropic community. The surge of philanthropic activities emerging from professional clubs thus leads to question their growing place in the public sphere and highlights the transformation of their own role, one that is no longer confined to the sports amphitheater. With already enormous visibility, coupled with significant financial resources, professional sports teams are certainly participating in the transformation of current methods of social involvement.

Physical philanthropy and philanthropy initiated by the professional sports community are the two main axes that currently make up sports philanthropy. By comparing the specifications of both, it can be said that these two axes not only interconnect but both nourish each other and rest on certain common bases.

Constants of Sports Philanthropy: Mediatized and Based on Experience

Although not yet covered by the literature documenting the phenomenon, the process of mediatization is a key element in the development of sports philanthropy. Indeed, philanthropic activities resulting from professional sports are greatly indebted to the presence of ‘traditional’ media. Various formulas, which mirror on a smaller scale those of mega charity events, have been set up to reach different sports audiences. For example, by producing a year-round charitable tour with matches starring its former players and by organizing an annual radio-telethon, the Montreal Canadians have developed a form of charity based on the consumption of entertainment. These spectacular charitable events, which were invested in by various players of the cultural and sports industries, contributed to the development of audiences who were both philanthropic and sports- loving. The success of these fundraising activities, one that is repeated year after year, is also due to the presence of (ex-) star players, who have already been the subject of media attention. Just like celebrities from the cultural milieu, many of whom act as spokespeople for foundations or set up their own, several sports celebrities participate in the phenomenon of “charitainment” (Goodman & Barnes, 2011).

With the development of “physical philanthropy”, runners / collectors also have the opportunity to be in the spotlight of the mediatized sports spectacle. Although participants in charitable sports events do not receive the same media attention as sports stars, their philanthropic actions can nevertheless be published and commented on, on various platforms. In fact, the proliferation of social media makes it possible to spread the experiences of the runners / collectors as well as to solicit donations on a larger scale than previously possible. For celebrities and runners / collectors alike, these new media platforms are the ideal venues for broadcasting photos of the event and commenting on physical performance stories. These new media platforms become arenas for self- reflection about individualized charitable acts (Nickel, 2012) and contribute to making sports philanthropy a form of “conspicuous giving” (Anderson, 2011).

New Directions to Avoid Concluding

Obviously, given the plurality of events that make up sports philanthropy, the elements presented here deserve to be studied in more detail and separated into unique case studies when need be. This brief overview, however, sheds light on new actors (or at least on those who are taking up more and more space) and professionals in the philanthropic milieu, such as professional sports teams, organizers of major charity sports events and event specialists. By focusing on sports philanthropy, the question arises about the transformations of the types of social participation that occur at the intersection of leisure and communications. Furthermore, while sports have long been perceived as a place for social change, sports philanthropy gives it a new political dimension. Finally, if only because it puts some causes rather than others at the forefront, generates an important capital and puts forward a means of festive participation, sports philanthropy disturbs the usual relationships that exist between sports, public involvement and politics.

For further information
  • Anderson, L. A. (2011). Conspicous Giving. Texas A &M University.
    Babiak, K., Mills, B., Tainsky, S., & Juravich, M. (2012). An Investigation Into Professional Athlete
  • Philanthropy: Why Charity Is Part of the Game. Journal of Sport Management, 26(2), 159-176.
  • Fusco, C. (2012). Governing Play: Moral Geographies, Healthification, and Neoliberal Urban Imaginaries. Dans D. L. Andrews & L. M. Silk (Éd.), Sport and Neoliberalism. Politics, Consumption, and Culture (p. 143-159). Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Temple University Press.
  • Godfrey, P. C. (2009). Corporate Social Responsibility in Sport: An Overview and Key Issues. Journal of Sport Management, 23(3), 698-716.
  • Goodman, M. K., & Barnes, C. (2011). Star/poverty space: the making of the ‘development celebrity’. Celebrity Studies, 2(1), 69-85.
  • Holman, A. (À paraître). The Depression Hockey League in Montreal, 1932-1960: Sport and MAsculine Civic Performance before the Quiet Revolution. Dans A. Holman & A. Blake (Éd.), The Same, but Different: Hockey in Quebec (p. 18-60). Toronto: Toronto Press University.
  • King, S. (2003). Doing Good by Running Well : Breast Cancer, the Race for the Cure, and New Technologies of Ethical Citizenship. Dans J. Z. Bratich, J. Packer, & C. McCarthy (Éd.), Foucault, Cultural Studies and Governmentality (p. 295-316). Albany: State University of New York Press.
  • King, S. (2004). Pink Ribbons Inc: breast cancer activism and the politics of philanthropy. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 17(4), 473-492.
  • King, S. (2012). Civic Fitness. The Body Politics of Commodity Activism. Dans R. Mukherjee (Éd.), Commodity Activism. Cultural Resistance in Neoliberal Times (p. 199-218). New York & London: New York University Press.
  • Nettleton, S., & Hardey, M. (2006). Running away with health: the urban marathon and the construction of « charitable bodies ». Health:, 10(4), 441-460.
  • Valois-Nadeau, F. (sous presse) Quand le Canadien de Montréal devient philanthrope : des pratiques caritatives spectaculaires en transformation. Dans A. Lambelet et Lefèvre S. (dir.), Ethnographie. No spécial Philanthropie & CO
Notes de bas de page
  • [1] Audet, I. (2017) Philanthropie sportive. Un véritable engouement, La Presse +, cause.php).
  • [2] Preparation and training will be minimal in the case of cancer walks that host “survivors” and can span over weeks in the cases of climbing the Kilimanjaro and the ‘Grand Défi Pierre Lavoie’