Health sponsorships in sports are on the rise. Are they civic minded? – The Cincinnati Enquirer

When Major League Baseball’s gross revenue cratered during the COVID-19 pandemic due to caps on fan attendance, one money-making sector skyrocketed.  
The league’s sponsorship revenue rose from $900 million in 2019 to $1 billion in 2020 before exploding by 70% to $1.7 billion in 2021. That number is expected to continue to grow. The increase in 2020 came even as the league’s 30 teams combined for an estimated operating loss of $3 billion in a shortened season with no fans, according to league commissioner Rob Manfred. 
The trend is consistent in other sports:
The increases were driven by a transformation of digital consumption and engagement with the professional franchises. And a major player in those rising trends was the health care industry, which accounts for nearly 20% of the American economy.
Hospitals spend millions of dollars on advertising and sponsorships of sports teams every year, many through multi-year sponsorships or “partnerships.” The health providers do so as nonprofit organizations, exempt from federal taxes, whose mission statements declare a desire to improve the health and wellness of the region they serve. Nearly 60% of U.S. hospitals identify as nonprofits and that’s no different in Cincinnati, where six major health systems that identify as nonprofits dominate the region’s health care. 
The partnerships with professional sports team provide the health organizations a vehicle to act on their declared commitment to the community through wellness initiatives. Those partnerships grew even stronger during the pandemic as teams and health organizations teamed up on COVID-related programs such as vaccine distribution and informational advertising. 
But while hospitals attempt to provide more preventative health to the community, Americans have become increasingly concerned about the cost of care. According to a  Pew Research Center poll released last week, the second biggest problem Americans say they are currently facing behind inflation is health care affordability. 
A study from Wakefield Research Partners, which surveyed 177,000 fans, concluded that even though stadium-based assets of sponsors became less effective with fan restrictions, sponsors of sports teams reached more fans in 2020 than in 2019. It’s good news for the many health companies investing in local professional sports teams. 
In MLB, 22 of the league’s 30 teams have featured sponsorships with either a health care system or a health insurance provider in 2022, an Enquirer analysis found. 
Though health sponsorship in sports isn’t exclusive to the United States, it is uniquely American in its volume, experts say. And though health organizations insist the deals are at the service of the community, a clear articulation of that doesn’t always occur, said Angeline Close Scheinbaum, a professor of sports marketing at Clemson University.
“Dollar-for-dollar, it’s advisable to spend a dollar on a sponsorship, but then spend another dollar to communicate or articulate, in this case, explaining that fit,” Scheinbaum said. 
In Cincinnati, five of the region’s six major health systems have sponsorships with professional sports teams. The Reds have a “triad” deal with TriHealth, St. Elizabeth Healthcare and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. TriHealth is the “official health care provider” of the team.
Mercy Health is the jersey sponsor of FC Cincinnati and shares naming rights for the team’s $30 million Milford training center, while UC Health has a heavy presence at Heritage Bank Center as a sponsor of the Cyclones. The Christ Hospital Health Network does not sponsor any professional sports teams, a spokesman confirmed. 
More: FC Cincinnati opens Mercy Health Training Center, aligning itself with ‘the elite clubs in North America’
More: On this day in FC Cincinnati history: The final MLS expansion presentation
While term lengths of the sponsorships are often made public, the health systems declined to disclose the cost of their partnerships with the teams. 
Representatives for TriHealth and UC Health were not made available to talk about the sponsorships. 
Sandra Mackey, Mercy Health’s chief marketing officer, said the health system’s partnership with FC Cincinnati is a five-year deal with an option to renew in 2022, but she declined to reveal costs. In 2017, ESPN reported a deal between Mercy Health and FC Cincinnati for the health system to become the club’s jersey sponsor was around $5 million annually for 10 years, contingent upon the club earning expansion into the MLS. FC Cincinnati officially joined the MLS in 2019. 
FC Cincinnati President Jeff Berding said Mercy’s partnership with the club had major impacts on its appeal to MLS. 
“We announced the partnership publicly less than seven days before we went up to New York,” he said, referencing the process in which 12 cities seeking expansion to the MLS were narrowed down to four finalists who then met with the league. “Candidly, there were some Major League Soccer franchise owners in the room and the partnership was bigger than what they had in their much bigger markets.”
“I tell everyone, but for Mercy Health, I don’t know that FC Cincinnati wins the expansion process,” he added. 
When asked, Mackey pointed to three pillars of the partnership as evidence it is more than a corporate show and tell: health care and health care delivery, facility presence and Mercy’s involvement into the community.
Through the partnership, Dr. Matthew Busam, a Mercy Health orthopedic surgeon, serves as the team physician for FC Cincinnati and leads a team of other health professionals that provide care to the team. On site just outside of TQL stadium, Mercy has a “center for excellence,” which is a sports medicine and human performance center open to the public. During COVID-19 surges, a pop-up vaccine clinic was added to the center.
Lastly, Mackey said the partnership allows the two entities to partner on a number of initiatives such as youth soccer, sports camps, community benefit efforts and coordinating philanthropy through the FC Cincinnati Foundation, the largest club foundation in MLS. 
“The FC Cincinnati Foundation does a lot to really engage philanthropists in the community to give back and support these neighborhoods and allow these children to experience the very best of sports through our joint efforts,” Mackey said. 
TriHealth’s sponsorship with the Reds has multiple elements. The health system provides paramedics, doctors and an ambulance at Reds games to provide care for fans and staff as well as a family zone, nursing suite, sensory room and a number of other in-stadium activities. 
“Our partnership with TriHealth provides our fans with high-quality medical professionals, physicians, nurses and medics at every game, who can handle any situation that happens at the ballpark.” Tim O’Connell, the Reds vice president of facilities and operations, said in a statement.
“The Reds partnerships with TriHealth, St. Elizabeth Healthcare, and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center are centered around our shared commitment to positively impact the communities we serve,” added Reds senior vice president of business operations Karen Forgus. 
TriHealth’s logo is visible on each baseline at Great American Ball Park and a center-field pavilion houses up to 115 private guests at Reds games. St. Elizabeth similarly has advertisement inside the stadium in right field as well as a number of community-minded initiatives through the Reds Community Fund. 
“At St. Elizabeth, we have sports-focused sponsorships at the professional, collegiate and high school levels with each one helping to support our strategy to be a great community partner,” said Matt Hollenkamp, vice president of marketing and public relations at St. Elizabeth. 
Barrett Brunsman, a spokesman for Cincinnati Children’s said the children’s hospital “works with numerous organizations, including the Cincinnati Reds, as part of ongoing efforts to help inform the community of available services – ensuring that all kids have access to world-class health care, right here at home.” 
Citing losses from the pandemic, TriHealth announced it was ending a seven-year partnership with the Bengals in February. That void was picked up last month by Dayton-based Kettering Health, which inked a 10-year deal with the defending AFC champions. A representative for the Bengals was not made available to interview. But in a statement to announce the new partnership, the team’s executive vice president Katie Blackburn said Kettering will become the official health care provider of the Bengals.
“The Bengals are aligned with Kettering Health on the importance of excellence, teamwork, community, and innovation,” she wrote. “We look forward to working with Kettering Health across Greater Cincinnati and Greater Dayton to positively impact lives in the community.”
While nearly 1,600 hospital mergers have occurred over the last 20 years in the United States, the Cincinnati region, home to 40 hospitals and six major health systems, has been uniquely spared a mega-merger of its biggest health systems so far.
The trade-off for mergers is often poorer care and higher costs. And in a fee-for-service health system, competition, which is amplified through advertising and sponsorships, is an important factor in maintaining lower health costs. 
Steve Riczo, a Kent State University business and health care management professor who also spent 30 years as as a health manager, said competition “is one of the things that has allowed the United States to have the world’s largest economy second to none,” and is something Cincinnati has benefited from. 
The focus of a major investment from health care companies however can sometimes yield few results if clear messaging isn’t there, he contends. 
“I have nothing against advertising at professional sports venues on the part of health care providers,” he said. “I think it helps to foster a little more competition. But when hospitals advertise ‘We care,’ that’s a meaningless ad. We don’t spend enough money in this country on health education and health wellness.”
Sponsorships of sports teams also allow health systems to expand their messaging outside of a clinical setting, providing an opportunity to engage in more proactive health initiatives, said Aravind Chandrasekaran, a professor at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business. 
“People always think of health care as when you have a disease you go to a hospital,” he said. “This idea of hospitals collaborating and getting involved in professional sports is more than branding, it’s to make the public aware that health systems are not just always reactive to things but that it can also be preventive.”
For Mercy’s part, Mackey said sport sponsorship is just one of many ways the system invests into its communities adding that lower costs of care is an entirely separate initiative it invests in heavily. 
“We provide more than $600 million annually across the five states in which we operate,” she said. “Those funds really go toward ensuring that cost is not a barrier to health care, which it often is for people. So for us, it is not just about giving back to the community and encouraging kids to be a part of these programs, and encourage wellness, but it is also ensuring that everybody has access, knowing that we will treat everybody that comes through our doors.”
The cost of health care remains a concern to the public however, and is something many Americans may want to see more explicitly addressed, said Mark Forehand, a professor of marketing at the University of Washington who specializes in advertising and public health.
“I would argue that it is principally going to have an influence at the brand level, and not influence the eventual care that someone is going to receive,” he said of health sponsorships. 


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