Viral vitality: How a sports campaign saves lives

April 25, 2011, 7:58 PM UTC

by Patricia Sellers

Elizabeth McKee Gore works at Ted Turner’s UN Foundation and oversees Global Partnerships there.

She told me the cool story about creating Nothing But Nets five years ago. The UN Foundation wanted to help cure the world of malaria. Her bosses charged her to develop a strategy to build a public campaign.

Credit: David Evans

She came up with a program called the UN Foundation Campaign to End Malaria. And she commissioned a documentary to spread the word.

The story gets better from here.

Sports Illustrated‘s Rick Reilly saw the film and decided to write about the malaria effort. In his back-page column in the May 1, 2006 issue of SI, Reilly asked readers to donate $20 at The $20 would provide insecticide-coated nets (“not hoop nets, soccer nets or lacrosse nets…mosquito nets”) to save kids in Africa, dying at the rate of 3,000 per day.

Reilly titled his column “Nothing but Nets.”

When that particular issue of SI hit newsstands, so many people read Reilly’s column and clicked on the link that the UN Foundation’s site crashed. And in a flash, the UN Foundation raised $1.2 million.

Eying opportunity, Gore called Reilly and asked him if she could adopt “Nothing but Nets” as the new name of the UN Foundation program.

Sure, Reilly told her. With that, he became the program’s forever public champion.

The 34-year-old Gore, whose ambition to help the world knows no bounds (she served in the Peace Corps and climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro for a cause), needed to secure the “Nothing But Nets” name from McDonald’s . That’s because “Nothing But Net” is from that classic Larry Bird-Michael Jordan commercial, “The Showdown,” that McDonald’s premiered in 1993, at Super Bowl XXVII. Gore called the higher-ups at McDonald’s and pleaded her cause. They graciously lent her the name.

Over the past five years, Gore and Reilly, who is now at ESPN , have toiled with many dedicated others to distribute four million malaria nets and raise $35 million via the Nothing But Nets campaign.

Beyond that, Nothing But Nets has helped spur the U.S. government to increase its spending on malaria. And Bill and Melinda Gates, through the Gates Foundation, have poured in big money on top.

There’s no cure for malaria and no vaccine yet. But there is hope. It used to be that a child from malaria died every 30 seconds. Now it’s 45 seconds.

Today, on World Malaria Day, it’s good to remember that a global movement can start with one well-minded person taking one small step.

Over to you now. Send a net and save a life today by going to Nothing But Nets.