Getting a Kick Out of Giving Kicks
“I get to go to work every day and find different ways to make people happy through sports, which is exactly what sports did for me—and exactly the reason why I went into sports management,” says Bridget Welz ’12, manager of community relations and the Union foundation for the Philadelphia Union soccer team.
In this role, Welz connects the Philadelphia Union with community engagement projects and initiatives such as park clean-ups, providing soccer equipment for the less fortunate, school assemblies and much more.
Welz earned her bachelor’s degree in exercise science with a concentration in sports management. She was also a four-year starter, two-year captain, and 1,000-point scorer on the women’s basketball team.
For Welz, playing sports is a way to express her joy or to find relief from frustrations and struggles. “It was my time to let go and communicate through sport rather than words,” she says. “For two hours or so, I was truly in the moment, pure bliss. Nothing sounds better than screeching sneakers on a hardwood floor.” Playing basketball and other sports “was a safe outlet, it was a way to express yourself, and a way to make good friends. It taught me a lot of responsibility, and it gave me a platform to make an impact, which I always felt like I was driven to do.”
Welz is grateful to have a job where she can have a positive influence. “I’m able to help kids who did not have the exact upbringing that I did. Where I may have had a better chance of getting to a private school or was able to get cleats, basketball sneakers and clothes, I’m now helping kids who may not be able to buy their own pairs of sneakers,” she says. “I may meet someone [only] one time but get to talk to them and find out their story. They may wake up the next day and say, ‘I have a chance to make it.’”
She adds, “There’s kids in all communities that are waking up every morning not having sneakers or a clean shirt to put on to go to school, so they’re embarrassed, and they don’t want to go. For me to be able to provide sneakers or items that improve a child’s chance to get ahead, that is special.
“Sports can be a platform that transcends all communities. It doesn’t matter where you come from, sports are still there, and they can connect you with a lot of people and a lot of opportunities …Sports have a way of quieting noises that are so hard for us to escape: politics, violence, bad day at work. You walk into a stadium, an arena, or even a high school gym and you just forget the outside world.”
Welz’s favorite project so far involved Pediatric Cancer Awareness Month this past September. She and a few other colleagues put together some particularly special events for young cancer patients and their families. Welz arranged for 15 Union players to have lunch with 15 pediatric cancer patients in the players’ lounge. The children chatted with the players about their interests, and then together, they each drew designs on a picture of a plain white cleat on a sheet of paper. The kids decorated their cleats with a range of their favorite things—Batman, characters from The Simpsons and Diary of a Wimpy Kid, a Star Wars battleship, a forest scene, butterflies and an apple.
Writing for ESPN FC, journalist Graham Parker noted, “The simple act of drawing together was an icebreaker on both sides. Kids overawed by professional athletes could just enthuse about their interest in SpongeBob SquarePants, while the athletes had a point of genuine, constructive connection.”
Unbeknownst to the children, Welz collected their artwork and sent it to Troy Cole, a well-known professional cleat designer who goes by “Kickasso.” Cole reproduced the drawings on blank soccer cleats, exactly as the kids had depicted them. Then on August 25, the Union players invited the families back to the club to unveil the cleats with the kids’ own designs brought to life.
“The kids’ faces were probably the greatest thing I’ve witnessed in a really long time,” Welz said.
“It’s not fair what these kids go through, and to be able to cheer them up, even for a few moments, is the very least we can do,” Union player Chris Pontius told ESPN FC. “I’ve never faced anything as hard in my life like they’ve faced in their young lives.”
Union forward Charlie Davies, who faced a bout of cancer himself last year, honored the kids at the unveiling event and called them “warriors.”
The players wore the custom cleats during warmups before Philadelphia’s Pediatric Cancer Awareness soccer match on September 23. After the game, the players signed one cleat and gave it to the children with whom they were paired. The kids then signed the other cleat and gave it to the players to keep.
ESPN FC’s Parker commented, “These players are not superstars whose obscene wealth insulates and alienates them from some of the real medical costs and worries the families they encounter are dealing with daily.”
Welz says some of the players have stayed in touch with these patients, even video chatting with them in the hospital as they are undergoing chemotherapy. And Welz herself is facilitating an ongoing relationship with these families.
“I have a special job where I get to host different youth groups or organizations that may not have an opportunity to attend one of our games. It is nice to invite people to a night where they don’t need to worry about feeling sick or they’re not sure what the next day’s going to bring. For a few hours, they can just come out and have fun and watch sports,” she said. “Sports bring people together and let you forget for a little bit.”
Spreading cheer in this way has the additional benefit of drawing attention to the Union as a major league sports team in the region. “The Philadelphia Union is still young in the scope of major league sports; we have not been around as long as the Phillies or Eagles, so gaining attention is not as easy,” Welz says. But she has enjoyed the challenge of hitting the ground running and helping to develop the team’s community relations program. She looks for “anything that gets the brand out there in a cool, creative way” that will spark interest in the team and the players’ activities.
Although she graduated from Immaculata just shy of six years ago, Welz’s role with the Philadelphia Union isn’t her first job in sports management that has had a big impact on the community. Previously, she worked for the PHL Sports division of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, where she helped bid for various sporting events to be hosted in Philadelphia. Welz played a part in securing Philadelphia as the host of the Army-Navy football game for the next four years, which will mean tens of millions of dollars in tourism revenue for the city.
She also helped in the bid for the NFL to hold its 2017 draft in Philly—another big revenue generator. Although it cost her a few sleepless nights, it was a memorable experience that she considers a highlight of her professional career. She recruited and managed thousands of volunteers, some of them IU students, to handle numerous tasks during the three days of the draft.
Welz says the strong network she developed starting at Immaculata helped her secure both jobs with PHL Sports and with the Philadelphia Union. She stays in contact with her former professors and offers to connect current students with internships and introduce them to her network.
“I’ve been able to connect a lot of people,” Welz says. “I think that’s what’s special about Immaculata. It’s still small, but in a way that’s really personable and that helps you get to that next step by maintaining contact with alumni…I’m glad I still have those connections.”