Conversation: United Way of Tampa Bay Using Sports to Extend its Message and Engage its Community

If you remember just two sentences of this conversation, then file this away, “We always talk about the negative aspect of athletes in the news, but there’s so much positive going on. There’s a lot of good people in these organizations, from their management down to the players, that really are making headway in supporting community efforts throughout the Tampa Bay area.”

This is exactly why the United Way of Tampa Bay has been utilizing the city’s top three sports teams, the Rays, Buccaneers and Lightning. Progress Avenue recently chatted with United Way of Tampa Bay Marketing Manager Tim Bodamer about the organization’s efforts in sports.

Progress Avenue: Fresh off their World Series appearance, the Rays are the darlings of Tampa. You shot a recent PSA with manager Joe Maddon, but what are some other initiatives with the Rays?

Tim Bodamer: Our partnership with the Rays is totally unique. It’s nothing that is duplicated. The wonderful thing about our success with the Rays is we do something totally independent of anything else they do through their foundation and through their community efforts. It is really above and beyond anything else. The partnership we have for our Workplace campaign kickoff, for some of things that umbrella from that is a big part of it.

The campaign is held August through roughly November. The Workplace campaign is a staple of United Ways across the country and the major fundraising efforts of the United Way. During that time, our partner agencies don’t do fundraising to allow us to do our fundraising so we can support them and reach our community impact agenda and goals.

Tampa Bay Rays

We have a campaign kickoff event in early August, in which we invite the CEOs of companies that are participating, as well as the campaign coordinators, who basically represent the company to help build our campaign in their respective company and organization. So they coming to our event, as well as volunteers and members of our board. We have roughly 700-800 people that come to our campaign kickoff. A lot of United Ways have their kickoffs at a hotel or some kind of ball room. We do it differently. We have it at Tropicana Field, on the field.

We bring all these parties together under one roof at Tropicana Field to highlight what the campaign is all about, and to highlight what our goals are and efforts are for the upcoming year.

The Rays are very, very cognizant of us in regards to in-kind donations, and that’s where the support comes in. They really support us through this endeavor that would cost us a lot more money if we went to just a local venue to do this, and they help us spread the message.

The Rays even have their staff there, first thing in the morning, and often after a game day. Because we use the field, the event is using during a homestand. One year they were playing the Red Sox the night before, and their staff was working until 1 in the morning. But they were up at 7am helping us set up to do breakfast, to do the program, to use the Jumbotron, to have the maintenance crew have the field ready and everything ready for our people to come in. So there’s a lot of moving pieces to have us on the field, to have us spread our message through the Jumbotron, through their audio/visual systems. We’re utilizing one of their play-by-play guys, and one of their reporters was our emcee for last year. They’re using a lot of talent and a lot of manpower to support our campaign kickoff.

Furthermore, they’re providing support by doing a United Way night with the Rays. With that we get a good ticket package. Last year we had a Yankees game, where we had our first-ever Hall of Fame for our Workplace Campaign coordinators – the folks that really make their companies work for us to meet our campaign goals. Our Hall of Fame members were out there throwing out the first pitch. We had 3,000 of our United Way friends and partners come and support the event. There is branding during the game. We have a Live United message that was highlighted through their mascot, through their players, through photoshoots and things like that.

Rays manager Joe Maddon is in a new PSA for the United Way. His background with charitable giving is homelessness, and I think he saw with this campaign that we were doing that there was an opportunity there to sort of cover all bases and he jumped at the opportunity. He was happy to help us.

There’s a lot of other things that we’ve done with the Rays. There is training that we do that we need to facilitate that the Rays support us on. There’s in-kind donations that we do for some separate fundraising events. So the Rays do a lot in regards to supporting the United Way and supporting the United Way campaigns. Above and beyond what a lot of organizations do for their respective charities.

PA: The United Way is an official charity of the NFL. How does that national program trickle down to your Tampa Bay program?

Tampa Bay Bucs

Bodamer: One thing we do is the Hometown Huddle. It’s basically an NFL-wide event that’s held on a Tuesday in October every year. Each NFL team provides players and resources to do a community event. Two years ago we went into a local inner city Tampa elementary school and we provided playground equipment. The players interacted with the kids for two hours.

This past year we partnered with HOP Sports, which is a fitness training systems. It helps kids can exercise through circuit training. United Way and the Bucs partnered up with the Hometown Huddle to kick off this partnership. We went into some Boys & Girls Clubs and had the kids do some circuit training on this system. We had five of the Bucs players partake in the event. The mascot and the cheerleaders were there. The Bucs underwrote part of the HOP Sports system. This is all to battle childhood obesity. That’s part of our national mantra. We’re trying to fight childhood obesity.

The NFL also has a program called Play 60. The program encourages kids to play and stay active for 60 minutes a day. The marriage there between our community impact agenda and the Play 60 model for the NFL really came to play with this HOP system. The United Way of Tampa Bay was one of the flagships for getting this system, and now it’s getting expanded out to a couple of select NFL cities.

The Bucs have been real instrumental for us, and the team is willing in the future to partner up with potential player appearances to get the kids motivated and things like that.

That’s one aspect of what we’ve done with the NFL and with the Bucs. The other aspect is we’ve had some holiday events. The Bucs do a thing called turkey time with some of their offensive linemen. What they do is hand out up to 500 turkey dinners to needy families in the area, and the United Way serves as sort of the conduit of that. We provided families with turkey dinners, courtesy of the Buccaneers. Beyond that, we’ve done some similar work with the Bucs during Christmas time, doing some holiday giveaways to some families.

The Bucs have been good too about providing some in-kind opportunities to host some leadership trainings and things like that. We have a good relationship with the Bucs and we’re growing it every year.

PA: The third pro team is the NHL’s Lightning. What do have going on with that organization?

Tampa Bay Lightning

Bodamer: As I mentioned we did the United Way night with the Rays. We get some good branding out of that. We handed out some good information to people so they came away with a better understanding of what the United Way does. Of if they don’t have that understanding they know where they can come get that information through phone contact, e-mail and what not. We did the same exact thing. We sort of took that model, and we approached the Lightning a few months back and asked them if they would like to do a United Way night with the Lightning. They were more than agreeable. They were looking forward to the partnership.

On February 19th we had a night with the Lightning. It hit on a couple of different angles. One, we did some branding with them. They actually in-kind shot a 30-second commercial for us featuring Dave Andreychuk, who spent his last few years with the Lightning. He’s a multi-time All-Star and he’s probably destined for the Hall of Fame. He currently is their sort of ambassador right now. He’s retired and he has donated his time and the Lightning donated their production services to create the commercial for us, which we can utilize perpetually. We utilized it for the night of the game.

They really went above and beyond and had us sponsoring the event. We got tons of impressions and branding. The Lightning ownership even came up to our suite to talk to our CEO about future initiatives. They gave us a ticket break, and we sold roughly in between 200 and 300 tickets. It was just another way to fundraise. We have sort of a young professional networking group, called the Live United group, and they handed out information in music download cards. They handed about 1,000-1,500.

There were different engagement opportunities, some different branding opportunities and some different fundraising opportunities that all came together as one. We’re going to do this again next year. We’re also going to see about getting some faces of the Lightning that we can utilize in the public to display our message and expand our message.

PA: It’s obvious that sports is a strategic piece of the United Way of Tampa Bay’s marketing program. As you mentioned, you’ve seen results. But why does sports work?

Bodamer: When you look at a lot of the teams and the players, I think you see a lot of guys who are heroes to a lot of people in the Tampa Bay area, both young and old. A lot of these guys are out there doing some good things for the community. One example is Vinny Lecavalier, he has his own foundation through which he supports our children’s hospital in town. Mike Alstott for the Bucs; before he retired he came out to one of our volunteer days and supported us, and he has his own foundation that he does a lot of good work in.

From where we stand there’s a lot of hope and a lot of positive coming from all three sports teams. In a nutshell, these teams are the faces of Tampa with some of the good work that these guys do. We always talk about the negative aspect of athletes in the news, but there’s so much positive going on. There’s a lot of good people in these organizations, from their management down to the players, that really are making headway in supporting community efforts throughout the Tampa Bay area. We simply want to facilitate and convene those parties and couple up and grow and develop those partnerships.

The United Way is a very prominent organization, and with the Rays, Lightning and Bucs, you don’t get much bigger than that. There is strength in numbers, and that’s why the parties coming together as we do is creating some good synergy and positive stuff is going on.