Fill the Stadium, Fill the Theater fundraise to raise food, support dancers

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Dancer Melissa Zoebisch performing as Dew Drop in Colorado Ballet’s “The Nutcracker.” (Photo by Michael Watson, provided by Colorado Ballet)

The specter of cultural ruin that’s haunted every public venue this year shows few signs of lifting. But in its place, nonprofit arts and charity organizations are asking us to picture something else — from sports stadiums to historic theaters and churches — to fill seats in the meantime.

“We had over 1,200 canceled events in the spring, and that number has more than doubled since then,” said Ashleigh Alcorn of Compassion International, a Colorado Springs-based Christian charity that sponsors children around the world through local churches. “We were able to identify about 70,000 kids who were going to be left unfunded from that (gap), since Compassion relies pretty heavily on sponsorships from sporting events, concerts and churches.”

Seventy-thousand is also the average number of seats at an NFL stadium, so Compassion — which has a long history of celebrity sports backing — made it the theme of their “Fill the Stadium” campaign.

Professional athletes such as Dakota Dozier (Minnesota Vikings), Nick Foles (Chicago Bears), Chris Davis (Baltimore Orioles), Devin and Jason McCourty (New England Patriots), and others have jumped in to help, donating hundreds of thousands of their own dollars and challenging fans to match them.

Their goal: “That fans who normally would have spent money on a professional sports games this year — but couldn’t — choose instead to support underprivileged kids and their families.” Compassion partners with local churches in countries around the world to provide essential food, medical care and support for children and their families, and the pandemic has only worsened the amount of need, Alcorn said. With churches closed, all aid must now be delivered to individual homes.

“When I hear the number 70,000 — it’s a big number,” said Alyssa Naeher, goalkeeper for the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team, in a press statement. “For me, I compare that to a specific event of playing the World Cup final in Lyonnais last summer in a sold-out stadium. It was energetic. It was loud. And it was an experience people chose.”

If you substitute children in that environment, the breadth of need becomes clear, Naeher said, which is why she’s challenging U.S. youth soccer clubs to donate to the cause.

Naeher is only the latest sports star to sign on to “Fill the Stadium,” which went public in recent weeks. A “silent phase,” in which Compassion International reached out directly to big donors, began in April.

So far, the campaign has virtually filled about 16,500 NFL stadium seats.

A Rolling Stones banner hangs on the north east side of Broncos Stadium at Mile High.
A Rolling Stones banner hangs on the northeast side of Broncos Stadium at Mile High, as it was called in 2019. The home of the Denver Broncos has largely sat empty this year due to coronavirus pandemic restrictions. (Eric Lutzens, Denver Post file)

“The average cost of an NFL game for a family of four — with basic seats, hot dogs, parking, drinks and a program — is $541,” said Alcorn, Compassion International’s relationship manager for pro-athlete partnerships. “That can provide for some of our families for an entire year. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with going to sporting events, but we can’t this year. So what are you doing with that money you’d normally spend on a Broncos game?”

Another successful, if more financially modest, campaign is “Fill the Theater.” Announced this week, Colorado Ballet’s campaign looks to virtually fill every seat in the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in lieu of its holiday “Nutcracker” performances (about 2,225 seats per show).

With all 28, typically sold-out performances of the show canceled this year — and an estimated $3 million in related revenue lost — Colorado Ballet has essentially pirouetted this year from a performing-arts company to a fundraising group, said Adam Sexton, managing director of development.

Mackenzie Dessens, one of the dancers who filled the main roles in Colorado Ballet’s 2019 production of “The Nutcracker.” Rocky Mountain PBS will broadcast the program six times, from Thanksgiving through Christmas, for the first time this year. Colorado Ballet hopes it reaches new audiences, and increased fundraising. (Photo by Michael Watson, provided by Colorado Ballet)

In the meantime, the nonprofit company, which has been forced to lay off workers and furlough dancers, intends to fulfill its contracts when 2021 starts, and that means paying dancers. It’s gotten some help: a couple who wished to remain anonymous committed a $500,000 matching grant (matching donations, two-to-one, up to $250,000) to the ballet’s Relief & Recovery Fund, which has netted 580 individual gifts from donors since it was announced the first week of October.

“Two thousand individual gifts is a huge number to shoot for, nearly four times that,” Sexton said of “Fill the Theater,” which has not set a price-per-seat on its virtual campaign to pack the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. “We have about 58,000 people who come to see ‘The Nutcracker’ every year, and on Thanksgiving our ‘Nutcracker’ premieres on Rocky Mountain PBS with fundraising information included, so we hope to reach some of those people — even if they’re spending half or a quarter of what they would to attend the performance.”

“We can’t even imagine it will scratch the surface of what we’re losing from ticket sales,” Sexton added, given that ‘The Nutcracker’ accounts for 50% of Colorado Ballet’s annual ticket sales. “But that number — 2,020 tickets — makes the people who would otherwise be there more tangible.”

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