The AMF/FightSMA.com Tour was up against a fierce opponent – spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), the leading cause of inherited infant death. The playbook called for increasing awareness and raising funds for further research of this little-known disease. The nationwide tour partnered with AMF Bowling, Inc., which underwrote tour-related expenses, and the non-profit group Andrew’s Buddies Corporation. Armed with only a bowling ball, Thomas Becker, the tour’s leader and Guinness world record holder for marathon bowling, took his crusade to each of the 50 states. At each stop, Thomas bowled strikes against SMA, raising money in the grassroots fashion characteristic of Andrew’s Buddies. The tour, which was an overwhelming success, raised $600,000 and increased awareness of SMA and those fighting this deadly disease with more than 50 million media impressions during the course of the tour.
SMA affects approximately one child in 10,000 and is the number-one cause of inherited infant death. In every form, SMA is crippling; however, those with Type I SMA, the most severe of the three forms, rarely live to see their second birthday. Andrew’s Buddies has been raising funds for SMA research since 1992. The past five years have been ones of incredible discovery for those researching SMA, and Thomas Becker and his team could not have appeared at a more crucial time in the study of the disease. The cause of SMA has been identified as two genes (NAIP and SMN) located in a small area on chromosome #5. With this information, scientists are armed with the knowledge necessary to begin forming treatments and seriously exploring the possibility of a cure. At the time of the tour’s launch, the first-ever, clinical trial of a SMA treatment drug was underway. AMF and the FightSMA.com team recognized the opportunity to further research and drug trials, like the one that was in progress, through their national campaign. The clinical trials concluded in October 2000 and laid the groundwork necessary for future trials and research, such as those supported by the AMF/FightSMA.com tour funds.
The AMF/FightSMA.com Tour kicked off on May 10, 2000, from Denver, CO. Thomas Becker would spend the rest of his summer bowling at least 100 strikes in each state in hopes of raising money and awareness for SMA. In addition to raising funds and awareness, the team also set out to increase traffic to FightSMA.com and extend the reach of Andrew’s Buddies by identifying additional families affected by SMA. We also hoped to introduce AMF to companies who may later host corporate parties at local AMF centers.
Armed with the knowledge that the dollars raised during the tour were critical for funding additional SMA research, the team launched a national awareness campaign. The campaign, targeted toward the general public, was led by media relations and supported by pro-bono outdoor advertising, direct mail, public service announcements and online communications. In addition to the general public, we also focused our attention on the tight-knit bowling community and corporate donors. Contacts at organizations such as the American Bowling Congress, the Women’s International Bowling Congress and the Young American Bowling Alliance secured the support of the bowling community and spawned articles in several trade magazines. The tour also obtained sponsorships from Ford and AmeriSuites, as well as donations from several vendors within the communications industry.
The sheer magnitude of a 50-state tour made logistics and communications more challenging to arrange. A tight budget with limited manpower made corporate sponsors, such as Ford and AmeriSuites, essential. Ford provided the tour team with an Expedition to help in the transport of materials from location to location, and AmeriSuites provided hotel rooms for Thomas and his crew in each city (where available). Moving from state to state, it became clear that our tactics would have to change on a market-by-market basis. The media relations team was forced to be flexible in its approach to media pitches and based its methods on the successes and failures of previous tour stops. As the circuit progressed, niche-market tactics were formed and modified for the ever-changing environment of this cross-country tour.
The year 2000 will be one to remember for those championing in the fight against SMA. Thomas Becker, and the entire AMF/FightSMA.com Tour team, bowled a perfect game. Each goal set at the launch of the tour was met, and in many cases exceeded. Tour contributions surpassed $600,000 during the course of the tour, including $100,000 raised in one night at the New York City finale. Because tour sponsors underwrote the tour’s expenses, the money raised will go toward research grants for proposals ranging in length from one to three years. The qualifying research institutions, chosen by the Andrews’ Buddies Scientific Advisory Board, are Arizona State University, Johns Hopkins University, Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario and the University of Wales.
Along with raising money, the AMF/FightSMA.com team hoped to increase awareness of this little known disease. In all, the tour attained coverage of more than 50 million media impressions, including multiple articles in USA Today and coverage on “The Today Show.” News of the tour spread nationally with coverage in all of the top ten DMAs, as well as multiple mentions in AMF target markets like Denver, Phoenix, Seattle and Tampa. Trade publications such as Adweek, American Bowler and PR Week also wrote about the tour, and a pro-bono direct mail campaign spread the word to over 100 million households. This effort, which encouraged consumers to “Bowl Free,” was an awareness-building tool benefiting AMF and SMA.
The rise in visitation to FightSMA.com also indicates increased awareness by the general public. Traffic to the web site increased 54% from February to July 2000. As the news spread, additional families affected by SMA were located and joined the fight. At the Richmond, VA event, two local boys with SMA joined Thomas in bowling the first frame. Two additional families, bolstered by the energy and excitement of the tour, created Andrew’s Buddies' chapters in their hometowns of Minneapolis, MN, and Cranston, RI.
Meeting the goal of introducing AMF to potential corporate customers, more than 200 groups and organizations across the nation became acquainted with AMF. They were reminded that bowling is fun and that AMF centers are an excellent site for corporate gatherings and team building activities.