Former NFL executive Scott Pioli shares how he helps people vote by turning stadiums into polling places.
As always, Election Day will be a momentous, contentious, and divisive moment in the United States. This year’s midterms will determine control of both chambers of congress, with Democrats holding razor-thin majorities in each. As we find fewer issues to agree on, non-partisan initiatives that improve the function of democracy itself should be highlighted.
Scott Pioli, a former Super Bowl-winning executive with the New England Patriots, is an unexpected source of such an initiative. In his most recent chapter, Pioli has become an impassioned champion for opening up stadiums and arenas across the U.S. as polling places.
He spoke to Boardroom about how he came to the work, why he sees it as vital to the democratic process, and more.
An Access Problem
Scott Pioli is no stranger to streamlining complicated systems; he was a lynchpin in the rise of the Patriots’ dynasty. Since moving on from New England, he’s made many stops and now serves as a consultant. In addition to the work that he does with the NFL, he works for several college football teams — Alabama, Georgia, Michigan, Notre Dame, Florida, LSU, and Texas A&M — where he helps evaluate college players and makes informed recommendations as to whether they should declare early for the draft. People on the outside generally tell these prospects to come out, while coaches tell them to stay. Pioli is an unbiased third party, a gig he first got into thanks to former Cleveland Browns colleague Nick Saban.
Amid all of this, Pioli sits on a number of boards of directors, including Women’s Sports Foundation and the Black College Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee and Advisory Committee. It was through one of these positions in which Pioli elevated his interest in voting rights. Pioli joined RISE, Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross’s Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality, in 2017. At the time, one area of focus for the organization centered on voting rights. Pioli’s past equity work led to the formation of RISE to Vote, co-founded with Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. The organization is a collaboration and coalition between professional sports leagues, professional sports teams, and major media companies.
“When you talk about voting rights and access to voting, the marginalized communities are deeply affected,” Pioli told Boardroom.
Pioli got a glimpse of voting inequities in 2014 during his tenure as the Falcons’ assistant general manager. He lived in midtown Atlanta at the time, and his local polling place was a church in the city. On Election Day, he arrived to see a line that snaked all around the surrounding parking lot. It was a cold, drizzly November morning and Pioli had to get to work at the Falcons facility in the suburbs. After waiting in line for a while, he left the church parking lot without voting.
When Pioli got to work and overheard people talking about the long lines, he learned he could instead go vote in Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood, 2.5 miles from the church.
“I left early that day, and on my way home, I stopped at the library. No line,” Pioli said. “And there’s a definite difference in that two- to three-mile range of the communities. So the next election, I ended up going right to the Buckhead Library and it was done like that.”
This experience helped shape Pioli’s desire to make it easier for people, regardless of political party or affiliation, to not only register to vote but to improve access to polling places and the experience at those locations.
“We don’t care who you vote for,” Pioli said. “Just get out there and exercise your right to vote.”
The Scott Pioli Network
Through his deep network of coaches and executives across sports, Pioli brought RISE To Vote to numerous pro and college teams between 2017 and 2020, getting players registered and having open and honest conversations about political processes and machinations, stressing how and why every vote matters.
Those teams include:
- The Falcons with Martin Luther King III and Atlanta Hawks, led by president and majority stakeholder Steve Koonin
- Alabama football, led by Saban and his coaching staff
- Brooklyn Nets, led by former head coach Kenny Atkinson
- Chicago Cubs, led by former president and general manager Theo Epstein
- Clemson football, led by head coach Dabo Swinney
- Cleveland Cavaliers and Indians (now Guardians)
- Detroit Pistons and Tigers
- Iowa football, led by head coach Kirk Ferentz
- Kansas City Royals
- Michigan football, led by head coach Jim Harbaugh
- Michigan State football, led by head coach Mel Tucker
- Minnesota Twins
- Notre Dame football, led by former head coach Brian Kelly
- Ohio State football
- Oklahoma City Thunder, led by general manager Sam Presti
- Philadelphia Phillies
- Pittsburgh Pirates
- Rutgers football
- San Antonio Spurs, led by team president RC Buford
- University of Washington football
- And more
As the RISE To Vote initiative progressed, Pioli remembers mentioning to Benson how huge facilities, many built with taxpayer money, are only accessible if constituents buy a ticket to a sporting event or concert. What if a Mercedes-Benz Stadium or State Farm Arena in Atlanta could become a polling center, where long lines could be indoors and people wouldn’t have to brave the elements to vote?
Koonin opened State Farm Arena for voting in 2020, serving water and providing a warm, safe space accessible via public transportation. In Charlotte at the Carolina Panthers’ Bank of America Stadium, employees handed out masks with the team’s logo on them. In total, 48 MLB, NBA, NHL, MLS, and NFL stadiums were polling sites for the 2020 presidential election, helping people perform their civic duties in a pandemic-era socially distanced setting.
Unite to Vote
The tipping points that led to these arenas becoming election polling places, Pioli said, stemmed from the pandemic and the racial justice movement in the Summer of 2020.
“For whatever reason, some people were finally willing to stand up and do something about it,” Pioli said. “And it was also the voices of athletes, coaches, and people finally saying enough is enough — along with the murders and the lack of access and proximity to socioeconomically marginalized communities or marginalized communities in every way.”
That August, the NFL launched NFL Votes, which aims to get people to register and exercise their rights while also listening to the issues concerning voters.
Leading up to the 2020 election, Pioli worked with either the secretaries of states or their offices in Colorado (a Democrat), Georgia (Republican), Mississippi (Republican), Pennsylvania (Democrat), and Washington (Republican) for their athlete and stadium outreach to promote arena and stadium use.
In an era where there’s little we can agree on, a case study published from the Civic Responsibility Project demonstrated that opening arenas and stadiums as polling places has massive bi-partisan popularity. Voting In 2020: Professional Sports Stadiums & Arenas As Polling Places found that:
- Over two-thirds of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans “Strongly” or “Somewhat” support stadium voting
- Stadiums drive down wait times to vote, offer ample parking, are largely accessible via mass transit, and are friendly to voters with disabilities
- Leadership of teams and leagues who participated in the study reported a positive reception from athletes, staff, and fans.
“Teams often talk about how important community engagement is,” Pioli said. “And this gave them a real touchpoint to have an understanding of their community that they wouldn’t normally have.”
The Home Stretch
Since 2020, one of the major issues Pioli noticed was how many election poll workers were aging out, creating a shortage of volunteers nationwide. A new initiative from the NFL, Vet the Vote, is working to pair military veterans with polling stations facing staffing shortages. As of a few weeks ago, more than 60,000 veterans have registered.
On Monday, all 30 NBA teams will play in an effort to get the vote out and encourage civic engagement. Then, the entire league will have off on Election Day.
“Here’s the NBA doing something very intentional,” Pioli said. “And when you do equity work and you serve marginalized communities, you have to be intentional in what you do.”
About a month ago, two secretaries of state, one from each of the two major parties, reached out to Pioli and said they didn’t know the NFL was still engaged in getting out the vote, but saw an article he wrote or a tweet from a segment he did on NFL Network’s “Good Morning Football.”
“They were like ‘we had no idea. Who can we get in touch with?’” Pioli said. “The answer is to continue to educate people and make people aware of what is available and how it’s going to be available.”
As we hit the midterms and look forward to 2024, Pioli wants to continue spreading the word. The Civic Responsibility Project’s report on the benefits of stadiums and arenas as polling places, Pioli hopes, will act as a catalysts for other cities, states, and municipalities to open their venues up to help streamline the voting process for everyone over the coming years.
“The home stretch,” Pioli said, “is making sure that people know.”
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