A short conversation at Pocono Raceway in 2007 spawned an idea for a media platform designated to community and charity efforts in sports. Blogs were popular at the time, so I started there. It was fulfilling, so I figured I’d see how far it could go.
Sport has an amazing power to influence people, build community and effect change. Time and time again, sport has delivered mass audiences for effective charity efforts, from awareness campaigns to fundraisers. And athletes, in a personal light, can impact a child in a most-memorable way. However, these stories were seldom making the headlines, at least above the fold … or above the scroll.
In August 2007 I had a chance meeting with an American Red Cross director in the media center at Pocono Raceway for the Pennsylvania 500 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race. She was at the track to drum up support for the blood drive that the NASCAR Foundation endorses annually each September 11th. The director, and I regret not remembering her name, excitedly informed me that the two biggest single-day blood drives are driven by NASCAR. The numbers showed that in 2006 Michigan International Speedway and Pocono Raceway hosted the first and second biggest single-day blood drives in the country.
After that conversation in 2007, I couldn’t help but think that one of the least covered areas in the media is the connection between community and sports. In a day when a major NFL star was being accused of animal cruelty, an NBA referee was placing bets on games he officiated, and steroids were the talk of baseball, I thought that was a perfect time to venture out into a niche site to cover the positive side of sports.
So Progress Avenue was born.
My idea was for a non-profit media organization that would cover community, charity and philanthropic efforts around the sports industry.
Such a platform would re-establish the American hero and share the heartbeat of our community. It would strengthen the voice of then stars such as Derek Jeter, Jeff Gordon and Dwyane Wade, among others. It would also be a stage for grassroots efforts that use sports as a development and engagement tool.
There was so much potential in this platform to think about. After months of wading through the waters of this topic and publishing hundreds of blog posts on the subject, a vision for what could be started to become clear.
The High Road
The excitement was really driven by a May 1, 2006 issue of Sports Illustrated, in which writer Rick Reilly penned a column that served as a testament to the power of the media … and of sports. Under the headline “Nothing But Nets,” Reilly wrote:
“We need nets. … Mosquito nets.
“See, nearly 3,000 kids die every day in Africa from malaria. And according to the World Health Organization, transmission of the disease would be reduced by 60% with the use of mosquito nets and prompt treatment of the infected.
“Three thousand kids! That’s a 9/11 every day!
“Put it this way: Let’s say your little Justin’s Kickin’ Kangaroos have a big youth soccer tournament on Saturday. There are 15 kids on the team, 10 teams in the tourney. And there are 20 of these tournaments going on all over town. Suddenly, every one of these kids gets chills and fever, then starts throwing up and then gets short of breath. And in seven to 10 days, they’re all dead of malaria.”
Reilly’s hypothetical “Kickin’ Kangaroos” soccer tournament and a plea to the sports world were the only things “sports” about his piece. The story was about a cause, and the response was overwhelming.
The Nothing But Nets organization once summed it up best on its Web site:
“It was a column that Rick Reilly wrote about malaria in Sports Illustrated, challenging each of his readers to donate at least $10 for the purchase of anti-malaria bed nets — and the incredible response from thousands of Americans across the country — that led to the creation of the Nothing But Nets campaign.
“The reaction to Reilly’s 815 words made clear that thousands of people were ready to help the million children dying unnecessarily each year of malaria. Within a few short months, Nothing But Nets raised over 1 million dollars. And so Nothing But Nets was born.”
If one article in a sports magazine can have such a profound impact on society, it was hard for me not to wonder what kind of impact a media platform devoted to connecting community and sports could have.
When I left Pocono Raceway that day in 2007, I was already starting on this pet project. I wasn’t exactly sure where to start, but I knew content was king. I had three orders of business: 1) to scour the net for relevant content, noting the five Ws of this subject matter, 2) putting what I knew about WordPress to the test, and 3) keeping everything under wraps until I figured out where this was taking me.
At first, access to Progress Avenue was restricted to a few individuals who had permission. And by few I mean three, including me. This was very intentional, as I wanted to see where this news medium could go before diving into any relationships within this industry. The restriction was kept in place for six months.
On February 6, 2008, the site, with now hundreds of aggregated stories, was publicly introduced to athlete foundations, sports-related non-profit organizations, major sports leagues and professional teams.
The Street Name
The name “Progress Avenue” suggests, “If you want to accomplish something (Progress), I can help you (Avenue).” It’s a concept of living that transcends the boundaries of sports. While sports is a point of interest for Progress Avenue, its primary message is about living a life of service.
The Road Traveled
When I first got started, my focus was on what pro athletes and the major leagues were doing. There are several athletes and coaches that have very active organizations, and the work they do is admirable.
One that comes to mind is baseball’s Jamie Moyer and the Moyer Foundation’s effort with Camp Erin, a a bereavement camp designed for children ages 6-17 who have experienced the death of a parent, friend or loved one. In 2009, the effort was expected to grow to 29 camps in 18 states, serving 2,000 kids. There was also football’s Anthony Munoz, who piqued my interest with his work developing youth leaders. In 2008, 94 high schools flooded the Cintas Center at Xavier University for the Munoz Foundation’s Youth Leadership Seminar. The theme: “Strive for Excellence.” And, of course, there was that once a year visit to the archives to listen to Jim Valvano’s timeless speech from the 1993 ESPYs.
On the league side, it was the NBA and NBA Cares that caught my attention the most. The 2008 All-Star Game in New Orleans stands out. More than 2,500 attending the festivities took part in a week-long schedule of community events impacting more than several thousand New Orleans-area residents. The week was highlighted on Friday, Feb. 15, by the All-Star Day of Service, the largest single-day effort by the NBA Family in its ongoing support in rebuilding the city. Working with community-based organizations including Rebuilding Together, City Year, Hands-On New Orleans, Habitat for Humanity, and KaBOOM!, volunteers were mobilized to build homes and playgrounds, revitalize schools, and refurbish neighborhoods, to assist families in taking the last step on their long journey home. In all, the NBA Cares Community Caravan included 25 community service events in New Orleans.
But along the way, I began noticing just how many amazing stories and organizations existed at the grassroots level. Everyday folks were using sports for the social good. Before long, these people were the ones I envied and admired the most. It’s hard to rank them, but here are a few that are top of mind.
Trevor Slavick, then an American Airlines pilot, would pack a soccer ball every time he flew to some poor Central American country or another. Slavick eventually organized a drive that sent 50,000 soccer balls to Iraq. And then, the Little Feet organization took hold.
Mary Quayle, a long-time hockey player and then high school senior, wanted to incorporate hockey into a community service project for school credit. She tied her love of hockey and her heart for cancer patients together for the Give Blood Play Hockey tournament. Her goal: to raise over $35,000 for the Children’s Hospital of Orange County (CHOC), to host a blood drive capable of donations exceeding 100 pints to the Orange County Blood Bank, and to increase awareness and funds to benefit a young hockey player stricken with ALD.
Rob Shields, after working at Mother Teresa’s HIV/AIDS orphanage in Ethiopia and serving its 500 orphans, started Sports That Serve, an organization created to be an avenue of athletics to help meet the needs of orphan children in Ethiopia, as well underserved children in the U.S.
Another topic I really liked getting under the hood of was coaching in youth sports. Through a media relationship with Positive Coaching Alliance, Progress Avenue would feature a weekly post dedicated to coaches in youth sports.
My hope was that across all of the stories on Progress Avenue, whether they be about pro athletes, coaches, big leagues and regular people making a larger-than-life impact, would inspire and motivate readers to serve the communities and causes closest to them. I trust that Progress Avenue had that kind of impact.
The End of the Line
I managed Progress Avenue for three years, typically working at least 10 hours and at most 15 hours in a week. I had toyed with the idea of tapping some potential and turning the blog into a full-fledged media organization. Ultimately, though, it would remain just another blog in the blogosphere. Today, the site remains live with most of the archive intact.
With my role in the sports resort project in Jersey increasingly taking up more of my time and resources, I decided to put Progress Avenue on ice for a while. In my mind, some of the site’s elements could have eventually been rolled into some programming at the sports resort. As you’ll read in “Something Ventured”, eventually never happened.
Now, some years later, I’m convinced that a stand-alone media platform to cover this subject matter has its challenges. As sports media, and even mainstream media, have taken to the Web to chase after unique visitors and page views, these positive stories around community and charity efforts in sports are being told more and more. That’s good too, because all it takes is one small story to make a big difference. See: Nothing But Nets.
You can still view Progress Avenue online at www.progressavenue.org.
First Edition: December 2015