Why the NFL is a leader in social impact

The opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Expectations for this year’s Super Bowl were high, but I don’t think anyone predicted that this year’s event would become the most-watched American program since the moon landing, with an incredible 123, 4 million viewers tuned in to the big match.

While the Taylor Swift effect was certainly a factor in reaching that staggering number, there’s more to the modern NFL than celebrity fans, touchdowns and tailgate parties. The league has become a case study for a company looking to support its communities across the country.

The NFL has long supported charitable causes, but has significantly stepped up player safety, social responsibility and social justice initiatives in recent years.

A visit to the NFL’s Community page on its website shows the breadth of the league’s initiatives, from environmental sustainability to domestic violence education, youth fitness, early cancer detection and prevention, and building character in youth.

I learned about the tremendous scope of the NFL’s social responsibility work through another of its initiatives, Inspire Change, the league’s social justice platform. Its goal is to reduce barriers to opportunity, particularly in communities of color. It operates at all levels of the league, from current and former players to NFL teams and their owners to league headquarters.

Related: A former NFL player says ‘identity change’ is key to success

Inspire Change facilitates the NFL’s investments in organizations, programs and initiatives that reduce barriers to opportunity, anchored in four pillars: education, economic advancement, community-police relations and criminal justice reform.

My connection to the program came about through a partnership between Inspire Change, my organization (Legacy+), and the Martin Luther King III Foundation.

Martin Luther King III, his wife Arndrea Waters King and their daughter Yolanda Renee King were looking for ways to commemorate the upcoming 100th birthday of Martin’s father, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The result was Realize the Dream, a bold new initiative that aims to transform, unify and elevate America by rallying communities to perform 100 million hours of service by 100 1st anniversary of Dr. King’s founding. birth.

In an effort to amplify Dr. King’s vision of unity and launch the historic community service program, the NFL was an obvious choice. No other platform has the global reach or profile of the NFL. In 2023, the league averaged 17.2 million viewers per game for its 272 regular season games, creating a potential audience unmatched in North America.

These significant audience numbers increase exponentially during the playoffs, so we worked closely with the NFL to launch the five-year service campaign during Wildcard Weekend, which coincided with MLK Day 2024.

The game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Tampa Bay Buccaneers opened with a commemorative coin toss between Martin Luther King III, Arndrea Waters King and Yolanda Renee King.

A series of events and activations took place over the weekend, with MLK decals and Dr. King’s iconic “Be Love” message placed on the helmets of all 318 players who participated in the weekend’s games. The messages “Be Love” and “It Takes All of Us” were also printed in the end zones of all games.

The game opened by the Kings attracted an audience of more than 29.2 million viewers. While that number seems low compared to Super Bowl viewership, the game was ESPN’s second-most-watched NFL game in its history. Public service announcements aired over the weekend on every network covering the games (ESPN, ABC and CBS), with more than 180 million viewers following the games and viewing the powerful Realize the Dream message.

In addition to its ability to reach tens of millions of viewers, we sought the NFL’s support for its work raising awareness on issues related to diversity and equity. Together with Inspire Change, the league is committed to increasing the number of Black coaches and executives so that diversity on the field is reflected on the sidelines and in the owners’ boxes.

To that end, the league adopted the Rooney Rule in 2003. Named after a former Pittsburgh Steelers owner who also served as chair of the league’s diversity committee, the rule establishes hiring and interview requirements for filling coaching and front office positions to ensure more minority candidates were considered and hired.

Related: Why we all need to join the fight for diversity in the workplace

The NFL’s support of Realize the Dream is another positive step in accelerating the league’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, and it may already be reaping benefits.

Just days after the campaign launched, the New England Patriots named Jerod Mayo as their new head coach, the Atlanta Falcons hired Raheem Morris to lead their team, and the Las Vegas Raiders elevated interim head coach Antonio Pierce to full-time status.

While these three hires occurring so close to the launch of Realize the Dream could be considered a coincidence, they could also reflect how the league’s open commitment to diversity can influence the actions of ownership, teams and players.

This is the power of business impact initiatives that permeate an entire organization. It would be one thing for the NFL to make a lump sum donation to Realize the Dream or some other cause, but the level of buy-in was visible on the team’s uniforms and helmets, in the field’s end zones, all while tens of millions watched they watched from homes and restaurants.

While companies donating to charitable organizations is a commendable way to try to give back, concrete actions like those taken by the NFL have a real impact and will ultimately be the driver of change.

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