Tennis star Sloane Stephens and her mother, Executive Director Dr. Sybil Smith
Tennis star Sloane Stephens and her mother, Executive Director Dr. Sybil Smith

Many of today’s athletes are earning more than ever, ushering in an unprecedented era of sports philanthropy. We’ve been tracking some of these figures and their nascent giving across leagues like the NBA and the NFL. Prior to the French Open, held unusually late this year, we also recently examined emerging givers from the tennis world, including 27-year-old American star Sloane Stephens.

Born in Florida, Stephens started playing tennis when she was nine on the other side of the country, in the Golden State. She took home her first Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open in 2017, the first non-American not named Serena or Venus to do so in years, before Sofia Kenin won this year’s Australian Open. Stephens soared as high as No. 3 ranking on the WTA and currently sits at 39. Along the way, she’s earned a lot of money. It’s unclear exactly how much she’s worth but she is currently one of the top earners in the sport, nabbing sponsorship deals with the likes of Nike and Head.

Revenue for elite tennis players is generated not just from prize money earned, but also sponsorship deals, which come with incentives and reductions depending on ranking and placement in tournaments. In 2018 alone, Stephens earned $11.2 million, with $5.7 million in the form of prize money and the rest endorsements, according to Forbes.

In 2013, Stephens launched the Sloane Stephens Foundation (SSF), which assists in developing a constructive future for young people by providing educational opportunities and encouraging healthy lifestyles, proper nutrition, and participation in physical fitness activities. Notably, Stephens launched the foundation when she was just 20 years old.

Stringing the racket, launching a foundation

“She always knew that she wanted to give back, and being a professional tennis player, she was able to amplify that,” says SSF Director of Development Lindsay Linhart.

Linhart joined the nonprofit space after a half-decade at Goldman Sachs. However, she first connected with Stephens when they were both at the same Florida tennis academy. Linhart injured her ankle mid-game and says that Stephens was the first to storm the court and comfort her. They exchanged contact information and have been friends ever since.

The lean SSF board includes Stephens’ mother Sybil Smith and uncle, Ronald Smith, both of whom hold doctorates in education. Sybil Smith worked as a school psychologist for three decades. In fact, the entire Stephens family places a high value on education, with several aunts and uncles sporting doctorates. Another is a judge. Stephens’ Trinidad-born grandfather is a doctor and her grandmother founded a girls group for tutoring, mentoring and cultural exploration.

Given this background, when Sloane started thinking about ways to give back and add value, she naturally settled on the idea of education.

A Compton focus

While Arthur Ashe, Althea Gibson and the Williams sisters have paved the way for a comparatively more diverse field today, tennis is still a predominantly white sport of privilege with a high barrier to entry, requiring expensive equipment and individualized coaching.

A collegiate swimmer, Smith introduced Stephens to the tennis courts of Southern California, where much of the foundation’s work now centers. Tapping Smith’s connections within the Compton Unified School District, in 2015, SSF launched its flagship program, Love, Love Compton, in conjunction with Compton school administrators, principals and teachers. The program provides an ongoing model that builds on the educational foundation of the school district, with a tennis twist.

“We’ve grown from one elementary school, introducing tennis on a mini-court during recess. Now it works like a mini sports league. We also offer tutoring, ACT/SAT prep and a leadership program that introduces students into areas of leadership that will be beneficial,” Smith explained to me.

Compton’s demographics have changed over the years. Once known as a predominantly Black community, whose natives and/or residents have included actor Anthony Anderson, filmmaker Ava DuVernay, Venus and Serena Williams, not to mention a slew of rap legends like Dr. Dre, today, Compton is majority Hispanic. Some 70% of Compton residents identify as Hispanic, according to 2019 Census data.

“A lot don’t speak English in the home. Reading proficiency is key. Almost all students are eligible for free or reduced food. For Sloane, these kids are part of her family,” Linhart explains.

Love Love Compton serves the community’s youth, including students who are homeless, living as fosters, DACA recipients, and those dealing with gang violence. For these reasons, SSF and its leadership have made sure that their grassroots educational programming addresses the unique needs of the community they serve. Both Smith and Linhart make it clear that tennis is the vehicle, not the end goal. Still, tennis is critical to the program’s work, which now includes after-school, weekend and summer tennis.

The program has touched 25 schools so far, the bulk of them elementary schools within Compton Unified School District. More than 4,000 students have participated in programming and volunteers have provided 21,000 hours of service. SSF also recently tapped several VISTA Fellows to drive some of the college prep work the foundation is engaged in.

All the coaches that work in the program are from Compton and all the tutors hail from Compton Unified School District, ensuring that these adult role models have shared experiences with the community they serve. “We’ve been making sure this program is by the community, for the community. We didn’t want outside people coming in… They’re already very aware of students, their home situations and specific tutoring that they need.” Linhart says. SFF pays wages to these mentors, investing in Compton that way, as well.

SFF prefers this hands-on approach, with Smith herself driving down to Compton to deliver supplies to students during the pandemic.

A reliable model, and Stephens as activist

Smith says that down the line, their programming could be expanded to work in cohorts of larger school districts, or even work with other sports beyond tennis. “We have a strong model. We do the same thing at each school, so it’s very clear for schools to see what is going to happen on the court and off… It really is word of mouth. For us, it’s important that leadership buys in first and recognizes the work,” Smith told me.

To date, the foundation has been almost entirely self-funded by Stephens, with other support coming from the USTA and USTA Foundation, as well as smaller outside donations. SFF is now working on developing an advisory board, drawing in people from around the country that have already shown interest in the foundation. Once the pandemic eases, Linhart says they plan on doing in-person fundraising events. “Right now, though, it’s about raising awareness about how it’s more relevant than just teaching kids tennis. L.A. is an incredible market, so there’s a lot more we could be doing here to raise the word about what we’re doing.”

Though known as an all-court player who dominates matches while staying behind the baseline, Stephens has used her growing voice and platform—she has nearly 230,000 followers on Twitter and nearly 500,000 on Instagram—to speak out for social change, as well.

“To be a Black professional athlete in America is a great opportunity to be seen and heard as a Black woman. I feel it’s our responsibility to use it wisely… people see us on TV and sometimes forget we’re more than just an athlete,” Stephens wrote in an Instagram post. She partnered with Lebron James and other athletes on More Than A Vote, getting the word out about voter registration and opening up facilities to be used as voting sites.

Looking forward, while SSF leadership plans on expanding, their lean and hands-on approach will likely continue. “Quality is more important than quantity. Our focus is on quality people and building quality relationships. Without that, we don’t have the impact we currently have,” Smith explains.

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