Leader to Leader: What CEOs Can Learn from Sports Teams about CSR


At the Philadelphia Union, Tim McDermott and his squad are on a winning streak with innovative approaches to Corporate Social Responsibility.

As sports franchises go, the Philadelphia Union has a unique history. The MLS club came into being in 2008 largely because a group of community members—the now-infamous Sons of Ben—ardently advocated to bring pro soccer to the Philadelphia area.

<p”>That origin story, says the team’s president, Tim McDermott, has long set the tone for the Union’s passionate commitment to the community. Here, McDermott—a Satell Institute member since 2020—talks about why sports teams can be great models for other companies when it comes to giving back, as well as about the Union’s latest CSR innovation, U-Serve, which promotes volunteerism among its fan base.

The most important thing to understand about the Union is…

We always say that we are by the community, of the community, and for the community. And what I mean by that is, we were started by a group of people now known as the Sons of Ben. That’s very different from the classic start of a sports franchise, where a wealthy owner in a city decides to purchase a team. Ours was the other way—a few people got together, and that few people clamoring for a team turned into dozens, which turned into hundreds. And that got the attention of the league and the commissioner, and over time that turned into a team in Philadelphia.

We never lose sight of the fact that that’s our starting point—it is the community. A lot of the things that we do–we have just a general bent toward inclusion of our fans in some way, shape or form. And being for the community, we have a series of projects that we’ve launched that lean into us trying to make a positive influence in our communities, meaning the local community of Chester [where the team is headquartered] and also the greater Philadelphia area.

When it comes to CSR we…

If I can make a general statement, I would say sports teams do a really good job of leaning into their CSR initiatives. It’s not new, quite frankly, to sports teams and sports leaders. I think it comes with the territory of being a sports franchise and recognizing you have an opportunity to puts smiles on people’s faces, you have an opportunity to make a difference in the community.

At the Union, we’ve placed a lot of emphasis on this concept of community and making this one of the pillars of our organization. It’s not something that is just a thing on the side. It’s really kind of woven through the things that we do.

One benefit the Union gets from CSR is…

Quite frankly it’s probably a big reason that we have our partnership with Subaru. The values that they have and the values we have are very much in alignment. They don’t just want to be a car company; they want to do good in communities. That led to them putting their name on our stadium, and beyond that are all the positive things we do together in the community. We have the first zero-landfill stadium in the MLS. We have the largest pet adoption probably ever at a stadium in North America. We created a garden at our stadium and grow food for the Chester region. Those are just a few of the things we do with Subaru.

The Union’s latest CSR initiative is called…

U-Serve. It’s one of those things that’s been in my mind for the last four or five years. I spent time as the chief marketing officer at the 76ers before this. The 76ers were committed to service as well, to volunteerism.

I looked at what we had done there and said, how can we bring that to the Union, but with a little bit of a twist? The twist is creating an environment that rewards volunteerism. I thought that would be pretty cool and pretty unique and something that hasn’t been done before. The idea is to take the power of the brand—the power of soccer, the power of the Philadelphia Union—and get people to commit to volunteering by providing them a Union-based reward for doing so. We think that can really create motivation for a group of fans to do good collectively.

We have a network of not-for-profit organizations that need volunteers. You can come to our web site and look up the various not-for-profit organizations that need help, sign up, and then go and volunteer. And as a result of your volunteer hours, you’ll get rewarded with Union points that you can then redeem for tickets, meet-and-greets, autographs, merchandise. It’s a clever concept, and one that galvanizes our fans to come together and do something.

Another innovative way we’re thinking about CSR is…

The iAM Project. It tackles the idea of providing mentorship to youth, but does it over a much longer continuum of time. We start with middle-school kids and take it all the way through college. The idea is that that continuum, that spectrum, will prepare kids to be career-ready, job-ready.

A lot of times kids in lower socio-economic areas may not have exposure to various careers. Our job is to connect with all of our sponsors and partners and give them the ability to provide education and mentorships and internships to those kids. When the kids get to that point when they are juniors and seniors in college and they are looking for jobs—that person across the desk is looking at them and saying wow, you are very well equipped to get a job in an area or field that you really want to be in.

There are certainly plenty of places where you’ll find internships or mentorships, but it’s the continuum that I think is so important. To really change the trajectory of a person’s life, you have to start early and then carry it through college.

If you spent a week at the Union’s offices…

I would not say that the phrase CSR—it’s not something we walk around using that much. But it’s embedded in who we are. From the starting point of interviewing candidates to the onboarding process, the story of community is definitely felt and seen. You absolutely would feel that, know that.

When you have an organization like the Sons of Ben, so strong, so much part of the ecosystem of the Philadelphia Union—it’s like peanut butter and jelly going together.

I was first introduced to the Satell Institute when…

I went to one of the virtual meetings in early 2020 and was impressed with the collection of executives that were brought together. They were all talking about different ideas that they themselves were either struggling with or trying to improve, and they were trying to make a positive impact on the Philadelphia region.

Even just at a networking level, the group is really magnificent. And then it’s always interesting to hear the kind of collective wisdom that comes out of the groups, and what different companies are doing in this space. You hear an idea or two and you say, huh, that’s something that we can certainly think about and incorporate ourselves.

The Satell Institute is the leading CEO member organization focused on Corporate Social Responsibility. 

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