The 12 Leagues Behind ‘The Real Heroes Project’ and Their Many Pandemic Relief Efforts

From donating millions of dollars in cash to producing PSAs and launching special programs

Highlights from The Real Heroes Project
Major League Baseball, the NFL and Nascar were among those that came together for 'The Real Heroes Project.' MLB, NFL, Nascar
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Most of the professional sports world came to a screeching halt in early March in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. But instead of sitting idle, well-known athletes, their teams and leagues got busy. Not on competitive courts, stadiums or fields, of course, but in their communities and through their charities.

Early standouts include Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love, who created a $100,000 fund for furloughed arena workers, and Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and his wife, Ciara, who donated 1 million meals to local food banks.

The 12 pro leagues that came together for “The Real Heroes Project” (see main story) quickly followed suit, becoming leaders in the drive to prop up the country’s nonprofit groups and feed, educate, entertain and engage with the quarantined public during the Covid-19 crisis. They’ve equipped front-line medical personnel with lifesaving gear, and their efforts have run the gamut from massive multimillion-dollar contributions and network television specials to virtual meet-ups with fans over Zoom and kid-friendly video series.

Here’s a snapshot of how the prime movers of “Real Heroes” have given back:

NFL

The National Football League has donated more than $100 million in Covid-19 relief funds to organizations that include the American Red Cross, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Meals on Wheels and United Way. Its Draft-a-Thon, held during the recent three-day ratings bonanza of its annual televised players draft, raised funds for and paid tribute to essential workers. Early in the pandemic, the league released a five-minute PSA from 72andSunny with 50 current and former players and coaches encouraging people to shelter in place. It’s racked up more than 70 million views, with CMO Tim Ellis saying it showed him that “if you mobilize quickly, people will pay attention.”

WTA

The Women’s Tennis Association and WTA Charities have launched the community-based WTA 4 Love, working with retailer Uniqlo to donate 7,000 masks to medical workers in five U.S. states and the U.K. The initiative has supplied 24,000 meals to those in need around WTA’s home offices in Tampa, Fla., and London. On the heels of significant fundraising efforts during the recent wildfires in Australia, the organization started its Covid-19 relief with humanitarian nonprofit MedShare in February for its first-impacted global communities. The league also has supported its player initiatives, such as Madison Keys’ Kindness in Crisis and Victoria Azarenka’s auction for the Miami Pandemic Response Fund.

Electronic Arts

The video game publisher and esports giant in early April kicked off its “Stay Home, Play Together” campaign with virtual events and livestreams for fans of its most popular titles, like The Sims 4, Madden NFL 20 and Battlefield V, saying, “At a time when we need to stay physically apart, games can be a source of joy and connection.” Three new online tournaments for Apex Legends devotees awarded $100,000 each in prize packages. The brand’s FIFA 20 “Stay and Play Cup” with European pro footballers on Twitch donated $1 million to GlobalGiving’s Coronavirus Relief Fund for “immediate and long-term relief and recovery in vulnerable communities.”

Activision Blizzard

Partnering with the World Health Organization, the esports brand debuted #PlayApartTogether, sharing safety and physical distancing guidelines via popular games like Candy Crush Saga and still-operating franchises Overwatch League and Call of Duty League. The campaign, with 72 million in-game messages and social media support, has generated 250 million media impressions and reached 150 million Facebook, Instagram and Twitter followers. CEO Bobby Kotick, in a companywide email in April, gave out his personal phone number to his 10,000 workers and “encouraged every single employee that has a concern about their healthcare” to contact him directly.

WWE

With nonprofit Global Citizen, the WWE helped raise $133 million for the World Health Organization during the One World: Together at Home music telecast. WWE superstars Charlotte Flair, Kofi Kingston and Drew McIntyre appear in the Ad Council’s “Protect Yourself” campaign, while John Cena and the Bella Twins are featured in NBCUniversal’s “The More You Know” PSAs. The Undertaker has participated in the All In Challenge, with $16.5 million raised to date, and the brand has created ongoing youth- and fitness-centric programs, working with and supporting Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Nickelodeon, Special Olympics and Unicef.

NBA and WNBA

The leagues, teams, players and owners have provided north of $77 million in Covid-19 relief and nearly 5 million meals for food-insecure populations. For its first-round draft picks, the WNBA, its players’ association and sponsor State Farm gave $240,000 to Direct Relief. #NBATogether, a global community and social engagement platform, created a free interactive content series that has logged 57 million views. Players such as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Blake Griffin and Zion Williamson have chipped in to help pay stadium workers. More than 40 current and former players (Stephen Curry, Magic Johnson, Candace Parker and Chris Paul among them) have participated in PSAs, generating 58 million video views. The league, while organizing fan video game tournaments with $25,000 prize pools, allied with ESPN to bump up the premiere date of The Last Dance. The 10-part Michael Jordan miniseries set records as the best-watched documentary in the channel’s history.

MLB

The 30 clubs under the Major League Baseball banner have committed more than $30 million to emergency relief efforts to support furloughed employees at the country’s shuttered ballparks. MLB and its players’ association donated $1 million to Feeding America and Meals on Wheels and partnered with uniform company Fanatics to manufacture masks and hospital gowns from jersey materials. Fifty players have donated more than 7 million meals to children in need. #MLBAtHome is streaming classic games nightly via Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and recreated opening day, March 26, as a virtual event. An esports league has MLB stars competing against each other on Twitch and YouTube, and a content series rallies fans to stay active in quarantine.

MLS

The Major League Soccer community, including clubs, owners, players, coaches and partners, has committed more than $15 million to support relief efforts. As part of MLS Unites, a leaguewide platform from MLS and its players’ association, clubs have donated thousands of meals to children in need, hosted dozens of blood drives and helped numerous small businesses surrounding local stadiums. Donations are also being made to Feeding America and Food Banks Canada after every round of the MLS and Fox Sports eMLS Tournament presented by Coca-Cola and PlayStation. Captain Morgan, the league’s official spiced rum, also committed an initial $500,000 to local club charities and created “The Captain’s Challenge” campaign on Instagram.

NWSL

The nine teams that make up the National Women’s Soccer League have focused their giveback programs in cities they call home, including Chicago, Houston, Salt Lake City and Tacoma, Wash. The Orlando Pride launched the #ALLforORL campaign to support small local businesses and have donated almost 1,000 pieces of team apparel to the Million Mask Challenge in Central Florida. Through its foundation, Portland Thorns FC has arranged for the delivery of gratitude packages to healthcare workers. The Washington Spirit set up a program with the Children’s National Hospital in D.C. where players will make video calls to patients with limited access to family visitors as a way to brighten their day. NWSL joined with U.S. Soccer for “Bend the Curve, Stay at Home,” sharing video highlights of memorable games and up-to-date guidance from medical experts.

Nascar

The brand has fired up the five 3D printers at its R&D center in Concord, N.C., producing plastic face shields for healthcare workers. With its in-house engineers overseeing the 18-hour-a-day operation, the league has manufactured 2,000 face shields for medical professionals around the country. Its best-known drivers participated in a PSA to thank front-line personnel and encourage staying home and social distancing; the spot is airing on Fox, NBC Sports and other channels. During an iRacing event in March, Nascar’s nonprofit foundation raised nearly $40,000 for “truckloads of food and supplies” doled out in the Miami area through Feed the Children.

NHL

The National Hockey League, with its players’ association, has donated nearly $10 million, over 600,000 meals and nearly 100,000 pieces of PPE to date, according to a spokeswoman. “And we have no intention of slowing down,” she says. Players have starred in nearly 200 PSAs and are competing in weekly video game matches, in partnership with EA Sports and sponsor Honda, to benefit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Covid-19 relief fund. To help families during school lockouts, the league is providing free remote access to hockey-themed STEM curriculum for elementary and middle school students. Proceeds from sales of NHL-licensed cloth face coverings are going to Feeding America and Food Banks Canada.

This story first appeared in the May 4, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@TLStanleyLA terry.stanley@adweek.com T.L. Stanley is a senior editor at Adweek, where she specializes in consumer trends, cannabis marketing, meat alternatives, pop culture, challenger brands and creativity.
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