In recent years, we’ve tracked the growing philanthropy coming from the latest generation of high-profile athletes, including top stars in the NBA like Lebron James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. We’ve waded into other sports too, including the NFL. A key theme of our coverage is that the stratospheric pay of today’s athletes is ushering in an unprecedented era of sports philanthropy. According to Forbes, the 100 highest-paid athletes have earned a combined $3.6 billion this year, with tennis all-timer Roger Federer raking in $106 million in pre-tax earnings. This was the first time a tennis player topped the list in its 30-year history.
Most professional tennis players, however, earn considerably less. The Conversation calculated that average players only earned around $300,000 in prize money during their entire career. Still, many top tennis players who routinely place high in the majors rake in quite a bit of cash. American big server John Isner disclosed that he earned about $4 million in prize money in 2018 alone, in addition to revenue streams from sponsorship deals, which also come with incentives and reductions depending on ranking and placement in tournaments.
Isner is friends with retired tennis star James Blake, 40, who is worth approximately $8 million by some estimates. The Yonkers-born Blake caught the tennis bug early and attended Harvard before turning pro. He hit his stride in the mid-aughts as a top 10 player, making the Australian Open quarterfinals once, and the U.S. Open quarterfinals twice—including a legendary five-set match against tennis legend Andre Aggasi. (Can you tell I’m a tennis fan?)
Turning to Philanthropy
During his playing days, Blake launched the James Blake Foundation. And since he’s retired, Blake has dedicated even more time to his charity, which focuses on cancer research and prevention. To that end, James Blake recently announced a $1.1 million donation from his charity to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York to support a fund that Blake set up there in 2008 named after his father, the Thomas Blake Sr. Memorial Fund at MSK. The latest donation will support Memorial Sloan Kettering’s new Precision Interception and Prevention initiative (PIP).
Describing how he got involved in cancer philanthropy some 15 years ago, Blake told me, “Initially, my plan in 2005 was to do a one-time memorial event for my father, who passed away the year before.” Things didn’t turn out that way. Like many health philanthropy stories—including cancer giving stories—Blake’s escalating work with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center is rooted in deeply personal experience.
His father, Thomas Blake Sr., battled gastric cancer and ultimately passed away from the disease in 2004. Thomas Sr. was misdiagnosed at an early stage of cancer, and by the time he got the treatment he needed at Memorial Sloan Kettering, it was too late. Still, Blake was deeply moved by the care his father received at MSK, and felt compelled to act, particularly around the idea of early detection and treatment.
Launched in 2018, PIP is a focused, multidisciplinary research program dedicated to improving methods for screening, early detection and risk assessment. The program aims to increase the early detection of cancer in people at a high risk, thereby saving lives and improving outcomes.
A Steady Fundraiser
Back in 2005, while planning an event in memory of his father, Blake rallied some of his friends including fellow American tennis star Andy Roddick, singer-songwriter Gavin DeGraw, and singer-songwriter John Mayer, who’s known Blake since grade school in Connecticut. “Tell me the time and place, and I’ll be there,” Blake said of the response and support he got. The fundraising event, Anthem Live!, in Virginia, drew athletes, musicians and fans, and raised $485,000 for cancer research in its first year. Blake the fundraiser and philanthropist was born.
“Let’s keep this going,” Blake said.
In subsequent years, Blake was able to tap this deep network of athletes and celebrities, with the likes of Andre Agassi, Wyclef Jean, Sam Querrey, the Brian brothers, and Serena Williams participating in the yearly fundraising event. And Blake has since added more fundraising efforts to his annual roster, including the TCS New York City Marathon, of which the James Blake Foundation is an early charity partner. Blake himself has run the event.
The cumulative funds Blake has raised through the years have been directed to the Thomas Blake Sr. Memorial Fund at MSK, showing the real power athletes have to draw in funds to support a cause. Blake clarifies that most of his own personal contributions to the foundation have come in the form of donated lessons, instead of taking a fee. “A lot more of my philanthropy is rooted in my time rather than writing checks,” Blake explains.
Other Interests, Too
Away from his work in cancer research, Blake also has an interest in social justice and police reform, he himself at the center of a familiar story in 2015 when he was tackled and handcuffed on a Manhattan street by a cop on a plainclothes assignment. “I decided I can’t let this happen to other people without me saying something. I need to do what I can to help,” he told the Hartford Courant.
Blake met with Bryan Stevenson and started supporting the Equal Justice Initiative on the heels of George Floyd’s killing. With his wife Emily, he also supports Hall Neighborhood House in Bridgeport, Connecticut, which offers programs in day care, youth services, senior citizen services and performing arts. Blake is particularly keen on the work they do providing fathers with clothing and other aid. Still, he emphasizes that none of these commitments are on the scale of his foundation yet; this starts to paint a picture of some of his other interest areas, which might escalate down the line.
When I asked Blake about this new generation of athlete givers, he mentioned that contemporary sports stars don’t just have the ability to tap a network of peers to move the needle on important causes, but that they also have a vast array of fans they can influence. “Athletes are uniquely positioned because they have a much more direct connection to the fans… athletes by nature are younger, so they’re seen as role models, but also attainable [by] every kid who picked up a soccer ball, or basketball and dreamed of Lebron James, or Mike Traut, or Russell Wilson,” Blake explains.
For now, expect James Blake to remain focused on his work through his foundation, continuing to raise funds for this personal cause. “Success is having any form of longevity. If 10 years from now, we’re still having people run the marathon, doing dinners, we’re still having success. I’d like to do all that I can,” he says.