Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Sporting Way is the Giving Way: An Interview with LIVESTRONG CEO Doug Ulman

LIVESTRONG Sporting Park. Photo Courtesy of SportingKC.com
On March 8th Sporting Kansas City and the cancer-fighting foundation Livestrong (begun by seven-time Tour de France winner and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong) announced that the new soccer-specific stadium in town would now be called, “Livestrong Sporting Park”. This dynamic partnership created the first philanthropic stadium in the world.

With just over two months before the June 9th opening of the newly christened stadium, we had the chance to sit down with Livestrong CEO Doug Ulman who gave us the behind-the-scene story of how the foundation and Sporting KC were able to form this groundbreaking cohort.

“No one had ever done this before.”

Doug Ulman, CEO of LIVESTRONG.
Photo: FBM
In September 2010 Doug Ulman received a phone call out of the blue from Robb Heineman, one of Sporting’s five owners and the CEO of the team. Initial Heineman was coy about his proposal.

“He just said, ‘We have an idea that we want to talk to you about’,” Ulman recalled.

There was a delay in setting up an initial meeting. But soon a brochure arrived on Ulman’s desk. Heineman had mocked up the stadium with LIVESTRONG across the stadium’s front and images of fans walking around the stadium with the foundation’s trademark yellow wrist bands.

“We sort of looked at it and said, ‘This is crazy.’ It hadn’t even crossed our mind,” said Ulman. “We started to think more about it. We started to realize that no one had ever done this before. This is unique. This is different.”

He added with a smile, “Which are all things that we like.”

By January after a series of phone conversations with Sporting’s CEO, Livestrong sat down for about six weeks of serious negotiations to hammer out a deal for the stadium’s naming rights and more.

“Every person that walks in and walks out of that venue knows that they’ve contributed in some way.”

What emerged from these negotiations was an arrangement unlike any in professional sports. For the first time a team had committed itself donating the naming rights and a portion of their revenue from the stadium to a charity.

Heineman, Ulman, Lance Armstrong, and Cliff Illing
 at the Livestrong Sporting Park press conference.
Photo courtesy of Kurt Austin/Sporting KC
The closest precedent for any franchise doing such a thing came from another soccer team, Spain’s Barcelona which in 2006 signed a five-year deal to display UNICEF on their jersey and donate the equivalent of $2.1 million dollars a year to the global development charity.

“For us the unique aspect and the creative aspect of it (the deal) was really appealing,” Ulman said.

“There were a couple of things that were real important,” Ulman said. “Since we’ve announced the partnership several people have come up to me and were like ‘No it can’t be. You mean they gave up this money and they committed this other money. Why would they do that?”

Despite the shock of Sporting passing up a projected $2.4-$2.7 million dollars in revenue for the stadium’s naming rights Ulman said it was really about more than just a marketing stunt.

“What our side and their side wanted to make sure of was that everybody that went to the stadium felt like they were a part of it (raising money for Livestrong). Every person that walks in and walks out of that venue knows that they’ve contributed in some way.”

“That’s where the idea behind a sort of percentage of revenue came together.”

The arrangement that was already a philanthropic first dug deeper. Beyond the name exposure for Livestrong on the outside of the stadium was the financial support for their mission from inside the stadium.

A certain percentage of every ticket sold, every parking space filled, every soda, popcorn, or jersey (or beer!) sold in the stadium will be donated to Livestrong. The deal between Sporting and Livestrong calls for a six-year partnership that guarantees a minimum of $7.5 million dollars for the cancer support foundation. This is what the team and ownership group believes is the base projection of what this project will raise with the potential for much more.

“I Just Loved the Game”

Ulman speaking to Sporting KC players.
Photo courtesy of Ulman’s Twitter account.
Doug Ulman grew up in Columbia, Maryland where soccer was played under Friday night lights and football on Saturday mornings. He started at an early age, four, where both he and his parents learned together about a sport that the rest of the world was quite familiar with.

“My parents didn’t grow up with soccer. My dad played basketball, the more traditional American sports,” he said. “My parents didn’t know much about the sport. They sort of learned the game along with me. Which was sorta cool.”

Ulman, a standout in high school, would attend Brown University, but not before turning down an offer from future U.S. National Team coach Bob Bradley to attend Ivy League rival, Princeton.

For Brown, Ulman would feature at left midfield and help the team to conference titles three of the four years he played there. In the NCAA playoffs he faced Bruce Arena’s Virginia and came away impressed with a particular freshman (destined for greatness) he played against his first college season.

“I’ll never forget that game, my freshman year, when Ben Olsen was a freshman at Virginia and he was just an unbelievable player. And after the game our coach criticized us because of this freshman that had played so well against us.”

In between his freshman and sophomore season, though, Ulman was diagnosed with chondrosarcoma, a type of bone cancer. Although serious, this was just a bump in the road for the highly motivated Ulman who would go on to beat malignant melanoma twice, and has since participated in 12 marathons, including a 100-mile ultramarathon in the Himalayan Mountains.

Soccer would feature heavily in Ulman’s road to recovery from bone cancer.

“I just loved the game. It’s a great game. I always say this, and it sounds sort of cliché, but it’s the world’s game. It has the opportunity to unite people. It is so much more than just a game.”

“It’s about using the global sport to impact a disease that impacts the entire world.”

It was partly Ulman’s own experience with the healing power of the sport that made him so receptive to Heineman and Sporting KC’s overtures.

“It’s great physical activity and it’s great for kids. Our country and the world is dealing with the onslaught of obesity and a sedentary lifestyle. Soccer is just a great example, especially for younger kids. Even if you’re not a big fan of the game or a great player you can still get a ton of exercise,” he said.

“Soccer is such a mix of skill and fitness. And you can’t play at a high level without both of them.”

“I think it fits in really well (with the Livestrong fitness mission).”

Ulman continued, “Cancer is now the number one cause of death around the world and soccer is the number one sport in the world and so, for us, it’s about reaching the American soccer fan and the American soccer player, but it’s also about using the global sport to impact a disease that impacts the entire world.”

We have confidence… in the growth of soccer in this country.”

Lance Armstrong and Ulman touring their new park.
Phot0 Courtesy of Livestrongblog.org
For Ulman and Livestrong the partnership with Sporting was about the human connections that were made during the negotiations.

“The people who own the team in Kansas City are incredible human beings,” Ulman said. “We knew from the beginning that they were truly committed to the cause.”

Besides CEO Robb Heineman, two of the other owners of the club, Neal Patterson and Cliff Illing co-founders of the health care corporation, Cerner, have personal and professional connections with fighting cancer.

“Sports is one of the only things that brings people together around a common cause,” Ulman said. “If we can translate that passion into some philanthropic endeavor then I think we’ve done a great thing.”

The partnership with Sporting allows Livestrong to delve into all sorts of target area for the foundation’s cancer fighting mission.

“It expands our reach into the sport of soccer, Kansas City, kids, and the Latino community as well,” he explained.

Because of soccer’s growing popularity in the United States Ulman believes that Livestrong’s work with Sporting KC is a smart move and a springboard for greater social action throughout the sports world.

“There’s a risk in everything you do that’s bold and different. We have confidence in not only the ownership group in Kansas City, but the growth of soccer in this country.”

Ulman continued, “To see the response from the response from the sports community and the philanthropic community has been really exciting. I think we, at Livestrong, think that in five years, in ten years time, if this catches on at other venues and other parts of the world, modeling relationships after this it will have been a great thing for whatever cause is associated with it.”

When Sporting KC debuts their new stadium on June 9th it will be more than the opening of one, if not THE best soccer specific stadiums in the country, but the launch of an innovative and exciting new partnership for good.

While other sports and teams launch pet fundraising projects, soccer and Sporting KC are taking the lead in making Livestrong Sporting Park a home for fandom and philanthropy.

Free Beer Movement Post-Script:

We asked Doug if Livestrong Foundation founder Lance Armstrong was a big soccer fan.

Ulman revealed, “Lance is not historically a soccer fan. He didn’t grow up with the game. He trained in Europe for six months out of the year (for the Tour and other races) so he was surrounded by it. He says he’s eager to go to the games.”

We asked if we could get Ulman’s commitment to follow the “free beer philosophy” and try and win Armstrong over to soccer through the power of a free beer.

He said, “We’ll make that happen.”

So there you have it. Lance Armstrong, future Free Beer Movement convert.

Support the Movement. Get the Free Beer Movement T-Shirt. Only from Objectivo.com


Joseph said…

wow…. that was Wahl-esque right there. Excellent job.

Anonymous said…

This is a wonderful opportunity for more cancer research and treatment. Congratulations! However, alcohol and tobacco are the two main known contributors to cause cancer.
Medical Professional promoting healthy living.

Danny Beerseed said…

Anon. That's why were careful to promote the responsible drinking of beer. Cancer occurs in people that abuse alcohol and make irresponsible choices with it. We're in favor of moderate consumption of beer as a gateway to exposing people to soccer. Alcohol is not the point, but the starting point.

That is why we're fully behind the American Cancer Society's recommendations of limiting consumption to 2 drinks a day for men and one a day for women.

Also keep in mind that according to studies (supported by the ACS), moderate consumption of alcohol can lead to a decrease in heart disease.

Not to mention we're promoting not only watching soccer, but the participation in the sport and the exercise associated with it has very healthy benefits (and thusly, can help fight cancer and other lifestyle diseases.

Thanks for the comment. – The Responsible and Educated Drinkers of FBM.

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