Teaming up: The symbiotic relationship between sports and healthcare

The roar of the crowd, the taste of a hotdog, the joy you feel when your favorite player scores a touchdown, home run or slam dunk — these are sensations millions of Americans have collected in their consciousnesses (since 2000, an average of 60 percent of Americans describe themselves as sports fans when asked, according to years of Gallup polls).

And they're the same ones hospitals would love to be associated with.

The slogan that hospitals are moving from "sick care" to "health care" is a common one these days. Hospitals are distancing themselves from notions of illness, vulnerability and anxiety and buddying up with the most in-your-face demonstrations of fanatical energy, physical stamina and mental prowess. Through a range of partnerships, they are trying to ingratiate their brand with popular American sports to reinforce their place in preventive health and wellness.

Look to any major sports team and you'll find at least one healthcare partner. UCHealth and the NFL's Denver Broncos recently announced what they billed as a "major health partnership" that involves the Broncos naming their practice facility in Englewood, Colo., the UCHealth Training Center and health screenings for Broncos fans.

On the other side of the country, HackensackUMC in New Jersey and the NFL's New York Giants have a growing, multi-faceted relationship that includes marketing, philanthropy, a medical partnership and a co-branded fitness and wellness center, among other opportunities.

Down south, the official healthcare provider of the Houston Texans is Houston Methodist, which is also the naming rights sponsor for the Houston Methodist Training Center, the Texans' practice facility.

And in the Midwest, the University of Kansas Hospital in Kansas City is three years into a 10-year partnership with the Kansas City Chiefs, making the hospital the official healthcare provider for the Chiefs and creating the University of Kansas Hospital Training Complex, open to Chiefs players and the public.

Those are just a few of the healthcare partnerships in the NFL alone. These relationships are also happening on a smaller scale, in which some community hospitals or large physician groups monetarily sponsor local teams in intramural leagues or serve as the healthcare provider of choice for a local college or university.

According to Michelle Mader, director of strategy and principal at FreemanWhite, a healthcare consulting and A/E firm, these relationships — especially those with high-profile teams — are multi-year contracts (think 10-20 years) with early termination clauses. The cost, she says, can range anywhere from $500 for a high school or local athletic sponsorship to millions of dollars at the pro level over the duration of the contract, with regional cost differences.

There are several reasons hospitals see these partnerships as attractive — some have stood the test of time, and others are emerging. Below is a breakdown of three of the most-cited reasons healthcare organizations see sports partnerships as valuable.

Marketing exposure

First and foremost, partnerships with sports teams are a major marketing play. "Sports in general have a huge following, whether you follow sports as a fan at the games, you're a participant or you're supporting those who are participating," says Ms. Mader.

Manny Rodriguez, chief marketing officer for Denver-based University of Colorado Health and a football fan himself, agrees. "There's nothing like a passion for sports," he says. "Fans are rabid and follow their teams through thick and thin."

Mr. Rodriguez acknowledges that the Broncos' widespread hold in the hearts and minds of Colorado residents made the team an appealing choice as a marketing partner. "It was a great opportunity to partner with an elite team in the country to help us get our name out there," he says, especially since the system is relatively new and seeks name recognition.

Ms. Mader sees these partnerships as a marketing win for providers. "It's a way for healthcare providers to hit multiple market segments and appeal to them without having to do very much," she says. "You can sponsor monetarily…[and get] a lot of repeat exposure."

Robert Garrett, president and CEO of Hackensack University Health Network, has seen the success of such a marketing strategy first-hand. His system partnered with the Giants in 2009, and the relationship includes cobranded radio ads, print ads and billboards. The marketing play has "been a huge success," Mr. Garrett says. He estimates that the system is getting back two to three times what it is paying in marketing value.

Gaining a bigger patient base

The big hope is increased name recognition through repeat exposure will eventually lead to an increase in referrals.

But the partnerships can build a bigger patient base if they go beyond the marketing component. For instance, HackensackUMC's relationship with the Giants first involved physicals for the coaching staff. That has since expanded to include team members, and players' family members routinely use Hackensack for medical services, according to Mr. Garrett.

But provider-team relationships aren't a one-way street. Not all require visits to the hospital. Some teams ask for the health system to send clinicians to the stadiums and ball fields to provide first aid to injured fans and players, for instance. "You immediately get them into the system, on your EHR, and access to their information," says Ms. Mader.

Population health management

Finally, these healthcare-sports team partnerships are a real-world example of population health strategy in action.

A big part of the partnership between UCHealth and the Denver Broncos centers around preventive medicine and a message that early detection is better. "[We can] create an opportunity for access to early detection and prevention," Mr. Rodriguez says.

The first Health and Wellness expo, which happened Labor Day weekend at Sports Authority field, included autograph opportunities with Broncos players as well as healthy food samples and UCHealth-provided health screenings.

"We're working with the Broncos and, instead of waiting for people to come to us, we are bringing healthcare into the community," Mr. Rodriguez says.

Co-branded fitness and wellness centers, like that shared between HackensackUMC and the Giants, is one more example of preventive health. That facility, which opened in February 2013, includes a gym, aquatic center, group fitness classes, spa, training kitchen with cooking classes and a host of other resources. A center like this gives members of the community a place to learn how to get and stay healthy — a big goal of population health management.

What sports teams look for in a partner

Mr. Garrett described the wooing stage of HackensackUMC's partnership with the Giants as competitive. "They have had other healthcare partners," he says, emphasizing that the relationship works only because the two organizations are a "good match" for one another.

Sports teams are looking for the following when seeking the right healthcare partner:

Geography. Student-athletes have limited time to visit a physician between classes, games and practices. When Cedarville (Ohio) University sought a healthcare partner for its athletic department, location played a huge part in its pick. It eventually chose Springfield-based Ohio Valley Surgical Hospital — located about 12 miles away. "Closeness was a very big deal," says Alan Geist, PhD, the athletic director. This way, student athletes only travel a few minutes from campus to get the medical attention they need.

Mr. Garrett also credits proximity as part of the reason the Giants and HackensackUMC initially partnered up. "Physically, we're the closest full-service comprehensive hospital," he says. "Geographically, it made great sense."

Matching missions. Though it may seem strange to say a sports team and a health system share missions, it's not unreasonable. "Our missions are…to take care of fans and the community," Mr. Rodriguez says of the Broncos and UCHealth. "[The Broncos] had a lot of options, but they wanted someone like us" as a partner, he says.

Mr. Garrett sees similar alignment between the values of HackensackUMC and the Giants. "They're a member of the community…and they have similar values to Hackensack," he says.

Looking ahead

While partnerships between sports teams and hospitals are not a new phenomenon, they are becoming increasingly prominent and more complex, and they are expected to proliferate.

"It has proven to be a sustainable and successful model for healthcare providers," Ms. Mader says. "I don't see it slowing down anytime soon."

HackensackUMC has experienced this first-hand, having leveraged its initial partnership with the Giants to strike new relationships with the New Jersey Devils NHL team and the New York Red Bulls, a Major League Soccer team with a stadium in New Jersey.

Partnerships like that will likely increase even more in the coming months and years, as hospital officials eye ways to move into population health management and a focus on health and wellness rather than sick care.

"As health systems evolve from being hospital-centric to being more of a full-service health system — meaning that there are more community activities, more ambulatory care, more fitness and wellness [focus] — the sports partnerships are becoming more and more synergistic," Mr. Garrett says.

Correction: This article has been updated to correct Mr. Garrett's title.

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