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Big score: Hospitals look to win in deals with pro sports teams

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Both of the Super Bowl teams have official healthcare partners. More health systems are forming partnerships with NFL teams, and they’re also looking beyond the gridiron.

Major corporations have long viewed sports as a smart play to reach consumers, via sponsorship deals and naming rights for stadiums.

Image credit: ©wavebreak3 - stock.adobe.com

More hospitals and health systems are inking sponsorship deals with teams in the NFL, and other sports as well. (Image credit: ©wavebreak3 - stock.adobe.com)

In recent years, hospitals and health systems are getting into the game.

More hospitals are inking sponsorship or partnership deals with pro sports teams. Both teams in the Super Bowl have official health system partners.

The University of Kansas Health System is the official healthcare provider of the Kansas City Chiefs. Dignity Health, part of CommonSpirit Health, is the healthcare partner of the San Francisco 49ers.

There are 27 teams in the National Football League with official healthcare partners, along with 21 Major League Baseball, according to HealthCare Appraisers. Hospitals and health systems have deals with many of the teams in the National Basketball Association.

Russell Lacey, a professor of marketing and associate provost at Xavier University, says he’s amazed at the expansion of hospital deals with pro sports teams.

Years ago, Lacey says, “I could not have imagined healthcare providers getting naming rights, stadium rights."

Getting in the game

The University of Kansas Health System is in the midst of its second, 10-year contract with the Chiefs. The system’s logo is on the backdrop shown behind players and coaches during postgame press conferences.

The system didn’t disclose the terms of its pact, but the Chiefs pay the health system for healthcare services, and the system pays to advertise, says Jill Chadwick, director of media relations for the University of Kansas Health System. The system also has a partnership with the Kansas City Royals.

For the health system the partnership yields benefits, Chadwick says. And that isn’t just tied to the Chiefs reaching the Super Bowl for the fourth time in six years.

“Team performance isn’t a factor in our decision-making process, but it is satisfying to our employees to watch the Chiefs’ success and our patients benefit from the same care,” Chadwick said in an email to Chief Healthcare Executive®. “The Chiefs success lifts spirits and that’s a wonderful effect in health care especially.”

Last year, University Hospitals extended their deal with the Cleveland Browns to be the team’s official healthcare partners. UPMC owns the training facility for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Buffalo Bills play in Highmark Stadium, and last summer, the insurer inked a naming rights deal for the Bills’ new stadium, slated to open in 2026.

Lee Health in Florida announced in November it had reached a 10-year deal with the Minnesota Twins to be the team's official healthcare provider in Florida, where the Twins hold spring training. The deal includes the naming rights for its complex in Fort Myers.

Centura Health, a joint venture of CommonSpirit Health and AdventHealth, had signed a 10-year deal in May to be the partner of the Denver Broncos. After CommonSpirit and AdventHealth ended their partnership last year, CommonSpirit is taking over the partnership deal, including naming rights to the team’s training facility, The Colorado Sun reported.

Some health systems look to marketing deals with pro teams to promote awareness of their brand, particularly in an era of hospital mergers and name changes, Lacey says.

“A lot of these healthcare names didn't exist very long ago,” he says.

In addition, health systems and hospitals are more apt to consider such deals as organizations move beyond their home cities and become “more regional,” Lacey says.

For sports teams, a sponsorship deal with a hospital or health system may pose less risk than a deal with other companies or industries that engender controversy.

Plus, hospitals tend to be more durable than some other businesses. He points to the Houston Astros, which sold naming rights to their ballpark to Enron, the energy company that collapsed. The Astros’ home is now known as Minute Maid Park.

“Certainly at the end of the day, it's about generating more revenue for the sports property, but they still want to make sure they're choosing a brand that is not going to embarrass them,” Lacey says.

For health systems, sponsorship deals fulfill a number of marketing objectives, says Angeline Close Scheinbaum, a professor of sports marketing at Clemson University. When hospitals partner with pro sports teams, they find a functional fit, an image fit, and a geographical fit, she says.

In terms of function, a hospital or health system striking a deal with an NFL team makes sense, since recovery may be on the mind of weekend warriors nursing injuries. Such deals may also inspire less backlash from fans than other types of corporate sponsors.

“Your average fan isn't going to sit there and speculate the motives of why a healthcare system would support a sporting event,” Scheinbaum says.

Plus, deals make sense since health systems are typically linked with a specific city or region, and they can help reinforce those ties. At Clemson, Prisma Health designates kids to be a “Team Captain” at each home game, giving them the chance to hear the cheers of thousands of fans.

“The image of the sport, team, athlete, etc, helps reinforce the image of the healthcare system sponsor,” Scheinbaum says.

Still, health systems have to weigh the cost of such partnerships, as those deals typically require investments of millions of dollars, Lacey says. For nonprofit systems especially, they need to weigh whether that money should be utilized for other needs.

Beyond the pros

Scheinbaum projects there will be greater expansion of healthcare partnerships with college sports in the near future.

Such deals could even extend to college athletes, now that the NCAA allows student-athletes to secure deals for their name, image and likeness. Some athletes are striking deals with local businesses, such as car dealerships and restaurants.

“I wonder if healthcare systems and providers are going to get a little bit more excited about endorsing colleges, college sports, athletic programs, even individual athletes,” Scheinbaum says.

Health systems are also looking beyond the college powerhouses regularly featured on national television. Lacey’s school, Xavier, has a deal with the TriHealth system in Cincinnati, and TriHealth logos are prominently displayed. “At men’s basketball games, TriHealth is all over,” he says.

Some providers could even look to deals at the high school level, especially in areas such as Texas, where high school football is almost a religion. Larger physician groups could look at deals with high schools, who are looking for support for athletic programs, and sponsorships could build goodwill, Lacey says.

“What you're really trying to do is, you're trying to create an emotional connection,” Lacey says. “You're getting gratitude. And whenever you make a commitment at that level, people are more likely to view it in terms of its authenticity.”

Other ways to play

More health systems are reaching deals with pro soccer teams, and Scheinbaum says that’s a sport that is likely to see more partnerships with hospitals. She ties it to the “Messi effect,” referring to Lionel Messi, the pro soccer legend who is boosting the sport’s popularity in America since he joined Inter Miami in Major League Soccer last summer.

Sutter Health, the California-based health system, struck a deal in January to be the official health partner of Bay FC, a team in the National Women's Soccer League. The team’s players will wear Sutter’s logo on their kits in the five-year deal, worth $13 million, Forbes reports.

The LA Galaxy, part of Major League Soccer, play their home games in Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, Calif.

Health systems looking at partnerships may also want to consider other sports that may not have football’s reach, but have their own rabid fan bases, with the added benefit of being less costly investments.

“A sport that is under tapped, I would say, is definitely cycling,” Scheinbaum says. “Also tennis is a big one as well, that I think is a very natural fit with health system sponsorships, just due to the international nature of the sport.”

More health systems are likely going to look at different ways to partner with sports teams and athletes, Lacey says.

“Healthcare has understood this for a long time,” Lacey says. “Putting their name on other things makes a lot of sense.”

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