Detroit Lions help rebuild city with innovative gridiron giving, researchers say

May 20, 2014

The Detroit Lions' new model of philanthropy and community engagement may prove to be a touchdown for the city of Detroit.

A new case study of in sport by University of Michigan researchers uses the Lions as an exemplar of a professional sports team reinventing its charitable giving and community relations approach in hopes of making a bigger impact on the community.

In 2012, the Lions created the "Living in the City" campaign—a of corporate philanthropy that emphasizes deeper relationships with a small core group of community nonprofits and organizations, say Kathryn Heinze, assistant professor of sport management at the U-M School of Kinesiology, and Sara Soderstrom, assistant professor of organizational studies and program in the environment at the U-M College of Literature, Science, and Arts.

Corporate social responsibility has increasingly played a large role in professional sports, but the Lions' revamped giving strategy differs from traditional charitable giving among in several key ways, Heinze says. Typically, teams practice broad philanthropy—they divvy up a large pot of money among many different organizations with different missions. With a few exceptions, the team's involvement with the nonprofit usually ends there, Heinze says.

The Lions developed a giving strategy that focuses on two areas of greatest need in Detroit: 1) health and wellness and 2) community development. To concentrate its focus, the number of organizations the Lions support dropped by roughly 80 percent to six core groups, Heinze says.

"The Lions' partnerships are fewer in number, but the relationships and commitment are stronger," Heinze said. "These relationships evolved into unique and authentic partnerships for the Lions and their partners that have, so far, resulted in a number of innovative and successful joint programs and activities."

For instance, as part of its community development focus, the Lions worked with the city to change signage policy to improve store fronts on the Avenue of Fashion in northwest Detroit, and make them more inviting to potential customers. This new policy was applied to signs for five businesses around Livernois Avenue and Outer Drive.

In addition to Avenue of Fashion, Living for the City targets five other neighborhoods for safety, beautification and pedestrian signage: the North End, Corktown, Southwest Detroit, West Village and Grandmont. These projects are in partnership with Hatch Detroit.

As part of the health and wellness focus, the Lions collaborated with Eastern Market, Playworks, Wayne State University Medical School and the Detroit Lions Academy (part of Detroit Public Schools) to engage students in healthy food and exercise activities to promote healthy choices. These groups host student field trips to Eastern Market that include Lions alums, the Lions' executive chef and their core community partners in a fun, healthy food-focused day of learning for the students.

Explore further: India's top court orders state to share its lions

More information: Heinze's and Soderstrom's article, "Towards Strategic and Authentic Corporate Social Responsibility in Professional Sport: A Case Study of the Detroit Lions," appears in the Journal of Sport Management.

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