In 2017, the Mercedes-Benz Stadium opened on Atlanta’s Westside, a new, state-of-the-art home for the Atlanta Falcons. In 2018, in a nearby neighborhood that has lacked basic resources for far too long, the sports facility at the Salvation Army Bellwood Boys and Girls Club got a new look, too.
Over the bumpy lot where the club’s active flag football team practiced, crews laid 680 tons of gravel and 23 rolls of grass-green synthetic turf, stamped at center field with the Falcons’ fierce birds-on-the-wing logo. With this $250,000 investment the Falcons, the NFL Foundation, and LISC sent a message to the kids at Bellwood: your play matters.
At LISC, 2018 was a watershed year for sports-related partnerships. Building on two decades’ experience working with the NFL, we launched new initiatives with the sports and entertainment media giant ESPN and the athletic apparel maker Under Armour, all with the goal of building state-of-the-art athletic facilities in America’s disinvested neighborhoods.
For LISC and our partners, this work is about sowing opportunity—the chance to get active, learn through teamwork, come together under the flag of community pride.
It’s about equity, too. Because no young person should sit out for lack of resources. “When we address that imbalance, by the way, it’s great for the community and it is great for the country,” says LISC president and CEO Maurice A. Jones. “We can’t afford to leave any talent on the sideline.”
LISC’s joint program with the NFL Foundation, called NFL Grassroots Program, has been bringing folks off the sidelines since 1998, investing $46 million to date in more than 350 new or refurbished fields in communities within NFL markets. In 2018 alone LISC managed, from grant applications through opening ceremonies, the deployment of $3 million for football fields in 14 cities, including Atlanta’s new Bellwood field.
LISC partnership with ESPN entered its third year in 2018, sending $150,000 to build or renovate basketball courts in community centers and schools in Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, Memphis, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia.
And in 2018 LISC took on a new partnership, led by ESPN and with support from Under Armour, to transform the vacant lots that scar many underinvested neighborhoods into active play spaces. RePlay’s first year saw $330,000 invested in 12 projects, helping several North Philly neighborhoods, for example, turn a weedy lot into a mini-soccer pitch, plan a jogging path to rehabilitate the no-man’s-land bordering a rail line, and turn a disused portion of a recreation center into a pump track for off-road biking.
Some of LISC’s sports-and-rec partnerships have a local focus. In 2018, Under Armour linked with LISC not only in RePlay but also to improve public school amenities in the company’s hometown of Baltimore. Last year grants up to $25,000 went to 12 Baltimore schools; a high school where nearly all students qualify for free lunch now has a fully equipped weight room, and a local elementary school can serve kids in a soothing “sensory room.”
For the past five years Chicago’s 2016 World Series champs, the Cubs, have been working with LISC to build baseball and softball fields across the Windy City. In those years the Cubs Charities Diamond Project has invested $7.5 million in 60 capital projects. Last May, the Chicago Tribune covered the unveiling of remodeled fields at Winnemac Park on the city’s north side. Softball center fielder Chanmolika Yok praised the newly pothole-free surface and brand new dugout. “Not only is it safer for all of us,” she told the Trib, “but also a great place to cheer for our team.”
LISC’s newest endeavor in the area of sports: backing the RVA League for Safer Streets, a basketball-plus-education program for young men from communities in Richmond, VA struggling with high rates of violent crime. Founded by two formerly incarcerated Richmonders who bring to the table experience and insight wrought by decades behind bars, the League is dedicated to keeping people out of prison, and helping those who are returning to become successful members of their communities. In just two years, and with technical and financial support from LISC (including a $50,000 grant from the Walmart Foundation), the League has had an extraordinary peace-making impact in the lives of participants—and on the city at large.
In 2018, we also embarked on a campaign to expand access to soccer. The game may be the most popular sport on the planet, but in the United States, soccer draws nearly 40 percent of participants from households making at least $75,000 a year.
This opportunity gap—and the announcement last June that the U.S., Mexico, and Canada will co-host the celebrated World Cub in 2026—sparked LISC’s first international partnership in sports and recreation, 26X26. That’s shorthand for 26 new or rebuilt soccer facilities by the year 2026.