"It's Everyone's Game." Now This Hedge Fund Billionaire Is Giving for Soccer

 photo:  Andy Dean Photography/shutterstock

photo:  Andy Dean Photography/shutterstock

Baseball has been known as the national pastime.

The National Football League wants its sport to be known as “America’s Game.”

And now, with a $3 million grant from the Kenneth C. Griffin Charitable Trust, the U.S. Soccer Foundation is expanding its afterschool soccer program as part of a new “It’s Everyone’s Game” campaign.

With Griffin’s gift and additional support from the Chicago Fire Soccer Club, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Park District are planning to build 50 soccer play areas in underserved city neighborhoods during the next five years.

"I am thrilled to support the U.S. Soccer Foundation's efforts to provide children across Chicago greater opportunities to play soccer," said Ken Griffin, founder and CEO of Citadel. "I've enjoyed soccer for over 30 years, first as a player, and more recently as a coach, where I've seen the game teach children the importance of teamwork, the benefits of practice and the joy of competition."

We watch Ken Griffin's giving closely for two good reasons: One is that that the 49-year-old hedge fund star is worth $8.7 billion, according to Forbes. And two is because Griffin's giving looms large in Chicago, a city that's not rolling in billionaires the way some cities are.

Much of Griffin’s past giving has gone to Chicago-based organizations. Just a few months ago, as we reported, Griffin gave $125 million to the University of Chicago. He's also given big to the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and donated $5.5 million to Chicago's Field Museum to create a new display on Antarctic dinosaurs. At the start of this year, Griffin stepped forward with a $12 million gift to improve Chicago's beloved Lakefront Trail.

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Chicago nonprofits worried that Griffin's contentious recent divorce would derail his giving can rest easy. The big money continues to flow from one of the city's most active mega-donors. 

The Soccer Foundation, for its part, is looking beyond the Windy City. Its goal is to build a thousand mini-pitches in underserved communities across the country, hoping to reach a million children with its afterschool program by 2026. Mini-pitches are small areas designed for youth soccer programs and pick-up games. They take up less space and are less expensive to build than full-size athletic fields. 

Through a partnership with Adidas, the soccer foundation will provide participants with equipment and materials to help them succeed both on and off the field. Target has pledged $6 million to create 100 mini-pitches in communities throughout the United States.

Cities that have expressed interest in joining the program include Baltimore (MD), Columbus (OH), Hendersonville (TN), Houston (TX), Kansas City (MO), Louisville (KY), Miami (FL), Nashville (TN), Newark (NJ), Oklahoma City (OK), Orlando (FL), Philadelphia (PA), Reno (NV), Rochester (NY), San Bernardino (CA), Tucson (AZ), and Washington, D.C.

New York recently opened the first 10 of a planned 50 mini-pitches.

"Our Soccer for Success program shows that soccer can be the difference between a child who thrives and a child who falls through the cracks," said Ed Foster-Simeon, U.S. Soccer Foundation’s president and CEO. "Yet, far too many children across the country do not have access to soccer programming or the opportunity to engage with a coach who can help them develop critical life skills that support their development on and off the playing field.”

He continued, “The premise of our work is simple: We train coach-mentors. We make sure there are fields to play on. And we support afterschool soccer programs in underserved communities that are offered free to participants. By eliminating barriers and creating opportunities, we help the kids who need us most to not only play soccer, but also to be healthier, more active, and more confident."

The ”It’s Everyone’s Game” program expands the foundation’s work in improving physical and social youth development through soccer. Since the foundation’s afterschool programming started in 2009, the foundation and its partners have served more than 100,000 people in 180 communities.

Chicago city officials said the program will provide children with a place to play, while increasing the popularity of soccer.

"These new soccer pitches will give young people across Chicago state-of-the-art places to play and learn one of the world's most exciting and popular games," said Mayor Emanuel. "This partnership provides a great opportunity for our youth to stay active and gain teamwork and leadership skills that will serve them on and off the field throughout their lives."

As we’ve reported, team foundations in other sports are helping their hometowns. For instance, the San Francisco 49ers Foundation has been striving to make the line between sports and academics a little less blurred to get kids interested and involved in subjects that lead to good jobs.

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