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Five Words: Maria Sharapova and Cause Marketing

“Now I don’t know what you do for your five-percent, but this man my husband has a whole plan, an image... we majored in marketing, Jerry, and when you put him in a Waterbed Warehouse commercial, excuse me, you are making him common. He is pure gold and you’re giving him “Waterbed Warehouse” when he deserves the big four -- shoe, car, clothing-line, soft-drink. The four jewels of the celebrity endorsement dollar.”

The wonderfully watchable actress Regina King spoke those lines as Marcee Tidwell in the 1996 Tom Cruise, Renee Zellweger, Cuba Gooding Jr. movie Jerry Maguire.

The script was written by Cameron Crowe, but the sentiment probably came straight from legendary Southern California sports agent Leigh Steinberg. It’s said that Crowe, who also directed the movie, shadowed Steinberg for months while writing the script.

Nowadays, there are two new jewels in the celebrity endorsement crown; an eponymous foundation and a luxury watch deal. Check here for a list of the charities celebrities support. This organization helps celebs set up and efficiently operate their own charities.

Having heard Steinberg speak on the subject of philanthropy and sport, I’m pretty sure he was advising select clients to start their own foundations well before Jerry Maguire came out. For instance, one of Steinberg’s longtime clients, NFL Hall of Famer Steve Young, started his Foundation called Forever Young way back in 1993.

Maria Sharapova, the toothsome Russian tennis star and Grand Slam champion in the ad above, has a foundation that presently offers scholarships to students from Chernobyl-affected regions of Belarus, where Sharapova has ties. Sharapova’s Foundation website says that the scholarships for select students are at the Belarusian State Academy of Arts and the Belarusian State University, but details at the site are sketchy even a year later. The above ad, from the Alden Keene Cause Marketing Database, dropped in Lucky magazine in Jan 2010.

Ten years ago USA Today looked at more than 250 charities closely affiliated with sports celebrities and found a mixed bag. About 50 percent were considered ‘efficient,’ that is they spent no less than 75% of expenses on actual charitable work. But a goodly chunk seemed to be better at fun raising than fundraising.

USA Today reported that while intentions were often good, few athletes or even their representatives were well prepared for the work of running a charitable foundation.
“Sosa Foundation President Chase acknowledges he made mistakes and figures he’s not alone.

“‘I was running it kind of like a private business. Now I understand there’s a difference. ... One of the IRS guys commented to me, ‘All these athletes start these things, but they never finish them because they don’t understand what it entails... They’re hiring brothers, mothers and fathers.’”
Moreover, the Internal Revenue Service requires a high level of reporting transparency from public and private charities in the United States. The USA Today story detailed cases where athletes were largely uninvolved in charities that carried their name, but because the charity was poorly managed it turned out to be a public relations nightmare for the celebrity.

In short, if they manage their Foundations with probity and prudence, sports celebrities can rightly expect the cause jewel in their endorsement crown to provide a real halo effect. If not, the celebrity foundation can be a crown of thorns.

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