My Cause, My Cleats Succeeds by Showcasing What Matters to Players

Most Americans do not closely follow or talk about sports. At least that’s what a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found. I need to meet these Americans.

What are these “non-fans” talking about? The three top excuses offered:

Taylor Swift and Donna Kelce celebrate the Kansas City Chiefs defeating the Baltimore Ravens to make Super Bowl LVIII
  1. not interested”
  2. “it’s boring”
  3. “it’s all about the money”

Someone needs to share this data with Taylor Swift. Once the world met Traylor – my name for the Taylor Swift-Travis Kelce version of Brangelina and Kimye – Travis Kelce’s jersey sales increased by almost 400 percent, and ticket prices for the Chiefs next game against the struggling Jets jumped 43 percent.

This seems like interest to me, albeit for a different reason, but this reason could be very instructive.

Yes, Taylor is a unicorn in that anything she touches turns to gold right now, but I believe the way we cover sports is partly to blame too. Coverage is largely one dimensional – broadcasters focus on stats, records and speculation about performance to fill countless hours of programming – and that is simply unappealing to 60+ percent of the country.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

The Taylor and Travis story along with Donna “Mama” Kelce, the explosion of Tommy “Cutlets” DeVito on the scene in Gotham and the odds-defying return of Damar Hamlin are human stories and draw so much attention. There is a reason that “Damar Hamlin” was the most Googled person in 2023. So why don’t leagues do more to promote the interests and activities of the people who play these games?

My Cause, My Cleats (“MCMC”) is the annual NFL campaign that highlights the favorite charities of players. This is one of my favorite campaigns in all of sports, period.

MCMC adds a dimension to these players by sharing what is important in their life. It teaches us about amazing causes, only some of which were started by the players. It produces so much data – the same kind of data used to fill the chatter on talk radio, sports podcasts or television broadcasts.

So, I propose an experiment. Let’s see how this banter plays out if we obsess about the stellar performances off the field, like we do with on the field performance. To do so, let’s imagine the CBS “NFL Today” studio crew of James Brown, Phil Simms, Bill Cowher, Nate Burleson, Boomer Esaison and JJ Watt putting their spin on My Cause, My Cleats.

This is 100 percent an imaginary scenario, though the entire crew did participate in My Cause, My Cleats:

  • Brown used his kicks to support Straight Street, a ministry to help youth.
  • Cowher designed his own cleats this year to support Stand Together Foundation, an organization committed to breaking the cycle of poverty.
  • Simms designed a pair of sneakers for IronMatt, The Matthew Larson Foundation – promoting research for pediatric brain tumors. Simms is also a participant in the newly formed QB United, a nonprofit consisting of 57 current and past NFL quarterbacks, committed to mental health and suicide prevention.
  • Burleson created three Nike basketball shoes to support the Big Brothers Big Sisters Foundation
  • Esiason’s shoes supported Team Boomer, part of the Boomer Esiason Foundation to support the cystic fibrosis community.
  • Watt stated the Justin J Watt Foundation in college and used his cleats to promote the cause which supports youth sports.

Now let’s imagine the NFL Today theme playing as we come back from commercial break as the season winds down…

James Brown: As we head to the playoffs, San Francisco and Baltimore are tied for the best record. The ‘Niners, Ravens, Eagles and Cowboys have all clinched playoff spots. According to Vegas, the 49ers are favored to win it all. Phil, how do these teams stack up against the competition for the number of players participating in the NFL’s “My Cause, My Cleats” program?

Phil Simms: Well, James, Dallas has the 10th highest participation of the 32 teams, while San Francisco and Philadelphia are tied for 12th and the Ravens share 17th place. Are the players on these teams more focused on performance than philanthropy? Back to you.

JB: Thanks, Phil. So. we know there isn’t a direct correlation between team record and player engagement. What about overall team value? Is there any merit to the argument that teams with the most value have the most discretionary income and therefore are the most generous in the world of philanthropy?

Bill Cowher: This could be true…we’d have to look at the overall donations of the team and team’s ownership group and we don’t have access to that data. However, here’s what we do know. The three most valuable teams in the NFL – Dallas, New England and the L.A. Rams – rank 11th, 24th and 10th, respectively, for number of players participating in MCMC. Alternatively, the three teams with highest participation levels rank 22nd, 28th and 8th for overall franchise value. So, there seems to be a correlation between mid-value teams and highest average participation rate, followed closely by low-value teams.

Pew Research findings on why most Americans don’t closely follow sports

What’s going on at these high value teams, Nate?

Nate Burleson: Good question. We’ll definitely look into that. You what else is very interesting – how colleges stack up.

The Alabama Crimson Tide players showed up big time as the program that always seems to be the hunt for a national title boasts 29 participants in the MCMC campaign, which is one more player than the next highest college – LSU. Can LSU ever beat Alabama? Just kidding, Joe Burrow. The Crimson Tide also had the most draft picks in 2023 which means that Saban is creating both really good players and very generous men.

Boomer Esiason: Speaking of Burrow, he is the highest paid player in the NFL this season. Unfortunately, he is out with an injury, but he did start his own foundation to provide resources and support to underserved children. He’s in good company. Of the 952 players participating in MCMC, 101 started their own foundation – that’s almost 11 percent.

One other interesting fact. Of the 25 highest paid players in the NFL, how many do you think designed cleats and are promoting a cause?

JJ Watt: I’m going to say all of them. They have lots of money. They are high profile. All of them, but first I want to get back to college for a moment and just point out that my Big Ten Conference has four of the 10 schools with the most players participating in MCMC. So much for that Southern charm in the SEC. Seems like the Midwest is a kinder part of the country.

Boomer: Good guess, JJ, but not quite, as 68 percent of players participated this season. Now, I’m not saying those players not participating are not generous, they just aren’t doing MCMC.

James: Teams recently nominated their player for Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year. These men are identified as one who “excel[s] on the field and demonstrate[s] a passion for creating a lasting positive impact beyond the game.”

Last year, Dak Prescott received the honor. His cleat promotes his organization, Faith Fight Finish Foundation. Coach, how many of the Payton MOY nominees for this year do you think participated in MCMC?

Bill: I feel like you’re setting me up to say “all players.” I’m not going to do that.

James: Good instincts, Coach. It’s 84 percent. Oh, one more surprising statistic. The focus of so many fans is always on the top paid and highest drafted players in the league.

Bill: This next statistic will probably shock our audience – not me, because I saw how hard these guys worked. If we divide participants by draft round, which group do you think has the most participants?

Phil:  I’ll take the bait. First rounders?

Bill: No. The undrafted. They represent 24 percent of the players participating and are 60 percent more likely to participate than first rounders.

Phil: That’s incredible. I see many of the guys align with health related causes. Does anyone on the set know which causes are the most popular among these young men?

Boomer: Well, I’m certainly not young, but I can answer that question. We already established that 101 of 952 players repped their own foundations. The overwhelming majority of them focus on health, like Phil pointed out – 38 percent. The next four are  youth, community, mental health and special needs.

And, as far as specific causes, the most represented are:

  1. American Cancer Society
  2. Boys & Girls Clubs
  3. Alzheimer’s Association
  4. Autism Speaks
  5. (Tie) Black Women’s Health Imperative and Special Olympics.

Nate: I’ve definitely heard of all of those causes, but three really stood out to me for their uniqueness, newness and impact. I recommend our audience check them out and find out why these players chose them.

It’s the personal stories that are the best part of this campaign: Allen Robinson and the Within Reach Foundation; James Pierre and A Glimmer of Hope Foundation; and Justin Watson together with The Golden Scoop. Interestingly, two of these three guys graduated from Penn State and play for the Steelers.

James: This just in. With the announcement of the 2024 Pro Bowl rosters, we can report that 64 percent of pro bowlers participated in My Cause, My Cleats. The majority of the best players in the league are using their platform to elevate causes. That’s inspiring.

There you have it. Digging into some of the great things our athletes and entertainers are doing.

Next week, we’ll be reporting live from these three nonprofit organizations to learn more about their mission and the players who support them. Visit us on social and tell us your favorite cleat design and favorite cause.

Darren Sudman is CEO & Founder of Unless Impact Consultants. Over nearly three decades, Darren has practiced law, worked for two publicly traded companies, lobbied on Capitol Hill, started and managed a nonprofit organization, and educated the next generation of leaders as an adjunct. Today, Unless designs initiatives to help companies stand out and make a positive impact in the community by showing how giving and volunteering with intention and strategy are more impactful for employees, customers and the bottom line.