The Leagues and Brands Behind ‘The Real Heroes Project’ and Their Many Pandemic Relief Efforts

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Most of the professional sports world came to a screeching halt in early March in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. But instead of sitting idle, well-known athletes, their teams and leagues got busy. Not on competitive courts, stadiums or fields, of course, but in their communities and through their charities.

Early standouts include Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love, who created a $100,000 fund for furloughed arena workers, and Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and his wife, Ciara, who donated 1 million meals to local food banks.

The 12 pro leagues and sports brands that came together for “The Real Heroes Project” (see main story) quickly followed suit, becoming leaders in the drive to prop up the country’s nonprofit groups and feed, educate, entertain and engage with the quarantined public during the Covid-19 crisis. They’ve equipped front-line medical personnel with lifesaving gear, and their efforts have run the gamut from massive multimillion-dollar contributions and network television specials to virtual meet-ups with fans over Zoom and kid-friendly video series.

Here’s a snapshot of how the prime movers of “Real Heroes” have given back:


The National Football League has donated more than $100 million in Covid-19 relief funds to organizations that include the American Red Cross, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Meals on Wheels and United Way. Its Draft-a-Thon, held during the recent three-day ratings bonanza of its annual televised players draft, raised funds for and paid tribute to essential workers. Early in the pandemic, the league released a five-minute PSA from 72andSunny with 50 current and former players and coaches encouraging people to shelter in place. It’s racked up more than 70 million views, with CMO Tim Ellis saying it showed him that “if you mobilize quickly, people will pay attention.”


The Women’s Tennis Association and WTA Charities have launched the community-based WTA 4 Love, working with retailer Uniqlo to donate 7,000 masks to medical workers in five U.S. states and the U.K. The initiative has supplied 24,000 meals to those in need around WTA’s home offices in Tampa, Fla., and London. On the heels of significant fundraising efforts during the recent wildfires in Australia, the organization started its Covid-19 relief with humanitarian nonprofit MedShare in February for its first-impacted global communities. The league also has supported its player initiatives, such as Madison Keys’ Kindness in Crisis and Victoria Azarenka’s auction for the Miami Pandemic Response Fund.

Electronic Arts

The video game publisher and esports giant in early April kicked off its “Stay Home, Play Together” campaign with virtual events and livestreams for fans of its most popular titles, like The Sims 4, Madden NFL 20 and Battlefield V, saying, “At a time when we need to stay physically apart, games can be a source of joy and connection.” Three new online tournaments for Apex Legends devotees awarded $100,000 each in prize packages. The brand’s FIFA 20 “Stay and Play Cup” with European pro footballers on Twitch donated $1 million to GlobalGiving’s Coronavirus Relief Fund for “immediate and long-term relief and recovery in vulnerable communities.”

Activision Blizzard

Partnering with the World Health Organization, the esports brand debuted #PlayApartTogether, sharing safety and physical distancing guidelines via popular games like Candy Crush Saga and still-operating franchises Overwatch League and Call of Duty League. The campaign, with 72 million in-game messages and social media support, has generated 250 million media impressions and reached 150 million Facebook, Instagram and Twitter followers. CEO Bobby Kotick, in a companywide email in April, gave out his personal phone number to his 10,000 workers and “encouraged every single employee that has a concern about their healthcare” to contact him directly.


With nonprofit Global Citizen, the WWE helped raise $133 million for the World Health Organization during the One World: Together at Home music telecast. WWE superstars Charlotte Flair, Kofi Kingston and Drew McIntyre appear in the Ad Council’s “Protect Yourself” campaign, while John Cena and the Bella Twins are featured in NBCUniversal’s “The More You Know” PSAs. The Undertaker has participated in the All In Challenge, with $16.5 million raised to date, and the brand has created ongoing youth- and fitness-centric programs, working with and supporting Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Nickelodeon, Special Olympics and Unicef.

This story first appeared in the May 4, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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