Nov 01, 2017

The Celebrity Effect: How an NFL Star Raised Millions in a Hurricane

Reporting Texas

Many people helped Houston recover from Hurricane Harvey. The most surprising might have been a football player.

J.J. Watt, a four-time Pro Bowl defensive end for the Houston Texans, made a short video on Aug. 27, two days after the hurricane made landfall in Rockport. “Recovery efforts from Hurricane Harvey will be massive,” Watt typed in the accompanying Tweet. “We must come together to help rebuild our communities.”

Watt set a goal of $200,000. He reached it in two hours.

Meanwhile, Harvey poured up to 65 inches – a estimated 27 trillion gallons — of rain on southeast Texas in six days. More than 80 people died, many of them in flooding in Houston. The dire situation drove the national news for a week. Big charities and local relief efforts responded with money, shelter, food and other goods.

Watt made a significant difference in his own way. After three weeks, a dozen more Twitter videos and 286,000 retweets, his campaign had raised $37 million.

The sum illustrated the power and reach a well-regarded celebrity athlete can bring to a cause like a local catastrophe.

According to Steven Wille, a lecturer specializing in sports and social media at the University of Texas, Watt was able to rapidly gather funds because he’s a star. But he also engages frequently social media, Wille said. Watt joined Twitter in April 2010 and has since garnered 4.34 million followers.

He frequently uses social media to show the person he is beyond the pads.

“He responds to things fans say,” Wille said. “He contributes to causes and does good deeds for fans, which better connects him to them.”

During the hurricane, Watt capitalized on timing, said Eric SanInocencio, the senior director of digital media for the Texans. Watt’s first video snowballed because he gave people a way to help at the moment they were looking for it.

“They didn’t know who to reach out to or know where they (could) donate their money, and I think they saw J.J. as a great representative of Houston,” SanInocencio said. “They trusted him. They believed in who he was as a person and what he does for the community.”

Watt had built credibility through his own charity. His foundation, created in 2013, works to provide after-school sports opportunities to middle-school aged students by donating equipment and money to school athletic programs. It had donated $3.5 million as of September for programs throughout Texas and Wisconsin, Watt’s home state.

Jennifer Livingston had never heard of Watt until the hurricane. The owner of SoStickerCo on Etsy in Seffner, Florida, learned about Watt through a closed group on Facebook of about 45,000 women. She said she expressed her desire to help Houstonians but didn’t know how. When friends recommended Watt’s fundraiser, she took a look.

“I Googled him. I found him. I read amazing things about him and decided, yeah, I think this is the avenue that I want to go down,” Livingston said.

Livingston donated a week’s worth of sales to Watt’s relief efforts. Her $100 contribution was the last one accepted when the fundraiser ended on Sept. 15.

According to Wille, the lecturer at UT, Livingston represents what is known as “fan avidity.” The term is used to describe the level of commitment a fan is willing to make to a certain subject surrounding a team or player. It marks the emotional bond between the fan and subject. The higher the fan avidity, the more the fan commitment.

Other NFL players have shown that idea.

Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Chris Long pledged to donate his first six game checks of the season to fund scholarships in his hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia. San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Pierre Garçon continues to use his platform to raise funds for Haiti relief after the 2010 earthquake. After Harvey, Texans rookie quarterback Deshawn Watson donated his first NFL paycheck to three Texans cafeteria workers who suffered losses in the storm.

The list of charitable acts goes on. Their impact helps to improve the lives of those who support them most – the fans. As athletes like Watt continue to grow their relationships with fans, perhaps assembling unity among strangers in future endeavors will come with as much ease as Watt’s relief efforts.

“When times are the toughest, humanity stands at its strongest and you have all helped to prove that empathetically,” Watt said in a statement on Twitter on Sept. 13. “Please keep this spirit of helping one another alive. The world is a much better place when we all take care of each other.”