Shane Gray provides special Rams commentaries on 101sports.com. Follow him on Twitter @ShaneGmoSTLRams.
One would be hard-pressed to find another franchise in all of sports that possesses and exhibits an unyielding commitment to community work in the way that the St. Louis Rams organization does.
Whether it’s the monthly staff days of service to St. Louis or tornado-ravaged Joplin, Mo., annual playground builds, the Salvation Army Tree of Lights Campaign, the March of Dimes Golf Challenge, Komen Race for the Cure participation, Basket of Hope assistance, the Bikes for Kids program, Everyday Heroes to honor the military, CharacterPLUS for school-age youth or a multitude of other initiatives, the Rams’ community outreach efforts are among the most extensive and widespread of any professional sports franchise in America.
The club’s community efforts have escalated exponentially since the 2009 arrival of Kevin Demoff, the Rams’ vice president of football operations and chief operating officer.
Demoff – whose grandparents were devoted fans of the football Cardinals and Rams while living in St. Louis for over 40 years – quickly helped lead the organization towards earning the city’s 2010 Philanthropic of the Year award for community work, marking the first time a St. Louis sports team had ever received that distinguished designation.
According to Rams vice president of marketing and brand strategy Brian Killingsworth, the club’s community commitment begins with Demoff.
“We are always looking for new ways to reach out to the community even more (and) it starts with Kevin Demoff and the way he embraces this city and wants everyone to get excited about Rams football,” Killingsworth said. “We have an obligation as the Rams to represent the NFL and really use that platform to make St. Louis a better place to live and so we always say: a better place to live, work and play.”
Of course, none of these efforts would be possible if not for the go-ahead and full approval of Rams owner Stan Kroenke, a Missouri native who purchased 30 percent of the Rams in 1995 on the explicit precondition that the franchise relocate to the Gateway City. In 2010, Kroenke became the Rams’ majority owner. Prior to his Rams affiliation, Kroenke was the lead investor for the St. Louis Stallions’ expansion efforts in 1993.
According to Killingsworth, “our community initiatives are really embraced from the top down from our owner (Stan Kroenke) to COO Kevin Demoff on down. It’s a vital part of our daily routine.”
The Team Effort
Molly Higgins, the Rams’ vice president of corporate communication and civic affairs, has been pivotal in implementing the Rams’ community focus.
“Molly Higgins has done a tremendous job leading our community efforts,” Killingsworth said. “The thing that I love is that it’s embraced by all levels of our organization. Everything from our monthly staff days of service to the playground build to rookie week to the new Rams Training Academy, we all get behind it. It’s a crucial part of what we are doing.
“We are extremely proud of all the programs the team does. It’s really embraced by every member of this organization from members of the front office to the coaches and scouts to the players. We want to make an impact in the community in so many different ways because we have the platform that we do of being the NFL team represented by the city of St. Louis. Each player is passionate about their involvement in the community. It’s really neat to see everybody embrace it like that.”
The Rams’ latest community outreach initiative – a first-of-its-kind NFL facility in Chesterfield called the Rams Training Academy – will be the team’s “central hub for all football instruction for kids ages 3 to 18,” according to Killingsworth, and will be available year-round for birthday parties and surprise visits by Rampage while serving as a family-friendly destination for parents and children.
The training academy – powered by Elite Football and its founder, Matt Bierman – is a 23,000-square-foot facility featuring a 60-yard track, an Olympic-style weight room, the latest in video technology, position specific instruction, iPads, coaching software, classrooms and more.
The Rams have assembled a variety of leaders from diverse backgrounds to comprise the academy’s board of directors, all of whom are “extremely excited about what this means and honored to be a part of it,” according to Killingsworth.
The prestigious board includes Rams manager of fan Development Kyle Eversgerd; Elite Football’s Biermann, Rams head coach Jeff Fisher, former greats Isaac Bruce, Jack Youngblood, Marshall Faulk, Torry Holt, Orlando Pace, TV personality and Rams general manager Les Snead’s wife, Kara Henderson Snead, the league’s longest-tenured executive, Joe Browne, WWE superstar John Cena, motivational speaker Paul Vitale and Anna McDonald of ESPN.com and Sunshine Ministries – an organization that helps kids living with disadvantages.
And while the aforementioned academy will provide top-tier football instruction, Killingsworth and the Rams view this as not only a destination for sports instruction, but a place to develop youth both on and off the field. The board’s overriding objective will be to develop a leadership curriculum that will aid youth in growing in a positive way, both on and off the field.
“For us, it’s really about educating kids on how to play the Rams way both on and off the field. It’s not just about the football instruction,” Killingsworth said. “It’s about raising a new breed of leaders led by our leadership board. (Our board) is going to put together a curriculum about leadership that the kids will be handed at the academy and at the end of their time there they will receive a leadership certificate.”
“For us to have a facility like this that can put thousands and thousands of kids through the program and really kind of grow them within the family,” Killingsworth continued, “we just feel that is invaluable. We think having this Rams Training Academy gives families in St. Louis a central place to bring the kids. Once a month we will be taking underserved community grounds and we’re going to have staff on-site training these groups. This facility is going to be a destination 365 days a year for kids and we’re excited for that.”
Another key consideration in implementing the academy regards a concerted, intentional effort to cultivate the next generation of fans.
“Most of us developed our loyalty to a particular team at an early age,” Killingsworth said. “We are focused on attracting more families to the Rams brand and this facility is another way in which we can help educate, instruct and develop the next generation of Rams fans.
“It’s all about creating that next-generation fan. I think you develop that fandom early and that’s one of our goals.”
The Future Fan
Make no mistake, the team’s unyielding and ever-expanding community work is done with the next-generation fan heavily in mind. As a franchise that has only been in St. Louis since 1995, it is vital to reach out to the fans of tomorrow.
“…We try to cultivate that next-generation fan with a lot of the initiatives in the community,” Killingsworth said.
The organization’s compilation of community programs and outreaches is ever-growing. For the Rams, their community programs are about more than attracting future fans; it is about making a meaningful impact in their community.
“Our efforts are not only in developing new fans but also developing a better way of life and it starts with kids,” Killingsworth said.
As the Rams constantly add to their repertoire of community work, a couple of inaugural events are on the way this month.
On July 20, the Rams’ inaugural Ladies Football Camp is coming to Rams Park. Two days later, the Rams will initiate a three-week camp for kids at the new academy – a camp that will essentially coincide with the team’s own training camp, which opens at Rams Park on July 25.
In addition, Killingsworth said a new street team has been unleashed throughout the STL.
“We just introduced a new street team this year of about 20 members that will go out to soccer, lacrosse and youth football tournaments, camps, clinics, concerts, festivals and schools,” Killingsworth said. “We will put up inflatables for kids to play in and interact one-on-one with fans. We’re really trying to be everywhere in the community that we can and just represent the Rams and get people excited about the team. We want all fans in St. Louis to really recognize how exciting this product can be.”
Big-Picture Goal In Place
According to Killingsworth, the Rams want to be a core feature of the St. Louis area.
“We want to be a crucial part of the fabric of our community,” Killingsworth said.
If one follows the St. Louis Rams on Twitter via @STLouisRams, one would probably already realize that one of the team’s most-used hashtags is #RamsCommunity. In reaching out to the area year-round – and particularly in the offseason – the club feels it can make a lasting impression.
“When the season comes, if we can have that personal connection in place that has happened somewhere along the way during the offseason, it brings a lot more legitimacy when you’re watching the team on TV or at the Edward Jones Dome,” Killingsworth said. “If Rampage, the street team, our cheerleaders, a player or an alumni has either gone to your school or to an event you were at or you saw a Rams banner at the Rams Training Academy, it can make an impact. So there’s that connection we can make that is a real focus of ours.”
Arguably no franchise in America has worked harder over the last few years to connect with and impact its community as extensively and consistently as the Rams have. As the team continues to ascend on the field, the stout efforts away from it will be recognized and appreciated by more and more of the region’s residents.
The Rams are already a big winner off the field. As they continue to improve on the gridiron, the efforts to grow the fan base by planting deeper roots and utilizing its considerable platform to make a positive impact will pay dividends in cementing long-term relationships with current fans and in cultivating new connections with fans of the future.
The current organization is one that fans can be proud to support, win or lose. And with the arrow clearly pointing up in regard to Sunday afternoons this fall and in the coming seasons, it is also one that is becoming more enjoyable to follow, too.