Brand awareness, improving communities: Why 3 health systems sponsor MLS teams

Health system leaders told Becker's their sponsorships of Major League Soccer teams go beyond just marketing their organizations and are intended to improve the health of the communities they serve.

"Soccer is one of the most popular sports in the world, and the opportunity to showcase our mission and community commitment on a national scale is unparalleled," said Sandra Mackey, chief marketing officer of Cincinnati-based Bon Secours Mercy Health.

Mercy Health, with its sponsorship of FC Cincinnati, is one of seven health systems that have their names on MLS jerseys for the 2023 season, which started in February.

While Mercy began partnering with its local team in 2018, Renton, Wash.-based Providence started sponsoring the Seattle Sounders in 2023.

"If this had just been about a name on a jersey, Providence would not have been interested," said Melissa Tizon, the health system's vice president of national communication. "We spent a lot of time working with the Sounders to forge a true community partnership."

For instance, Providence and the Sounders are working with the Renton School District to expand school-based mental health services to its more than 15,000 students. Providence also has community partnerships with the WNBA's Seattle Storm and the Portland (Ore.) Timbers and Thorns soccer clubs.

"Passion for sports is often a powerful way to join people together in a common cause," Ms. Tizon said. "We have found that partnering with sports teams is an effective way to raise awareness of health issues in the communities we serve."

After it started sponsoring the Houston Dynamo FC in 2019, Houston-based University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center worked with the team to have free sunscreen available for fans and ban smoking and vaping in its stadium.

MD Anderson patients have been featured during on-field activities, players have helped them pick out tuxedos for prom, and pediatric patients have signed contracts to be members of the team for a day. "The Houston Dynamo FC sponsorship is more than a marketing strategy for MD Anderson," said Brette Peyton, associate vice president of external affairs for the cancer center.

MD Anderson is also a jersey sponsor for the Houston Dash of the National Women's Soccer League.

"Soccer fans are overwhelmingly loyal to the team's sponsors, and we have found through local market research that we've built strong brand affinity over time with this audience," Ms. Peyton said.

"Still, nothing beats the stories from Dynamo fans about how MD Anderson has touched their lives in some way, whether that's encouraging them to wear sunscreen or get screened for cancer or when they share their personal experience with cancer and how MD Anderson helped them or their loved one."

In Ohio, Mercy Health has offered flu clinics, COVID-19 testing and wellness events at FC Cincinnati's TQL Stadium. The FC Cincinnati Foundation, which Ms. Mackey chairs, has invested more than $2 million in local youth soccer initiatives, including building 10 "mini pitch" soccer fields in the region.

"Our brand research shows a significant year-over-year increase in consumer awareness of the Mercy Health and FC Cincinnati brands combined since we began tracking in 2018," Ms. Mackey said. "Engaging in sports promotes healthy living as well as teamwork, good sportsmanship and skill building — all of which are important for a positive future."

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