SBJ/June 15 - 21, 1998/No Topic Name

Hoping for a Rx for profits

The wave of sports sponsorships among health-care companies will only get stronger, experts say, as hospitals and doctors flock to professional sports to boost business.

An industry that once wouldn't consider advertising at all is now flush with large health-care companies and physician groups clamoring to attach themselves to professional sports franchises. Why the change?

"Competition," said Mark Hop-kins, a health-care consultant in the Washington, D.C., office of Watson/ Wyatt. "There's an oversupply of hospitals and, in some markets, physicians."

As a result, health care is moving away from being a wholesale product, becoming in effect another soft-drink product that must attract the attention of consumers. That's why doctors and hospitals are willing to pay for the right to slap their names on stadiums, race cars and sporting events while selling their services to teams.

"Health plans and doctors believe that advertising at professional sports events or being the physician group that sponsors a team will get them that name recognition," Hopkins said.

Large for-profit hospital chains like Birmingham, Ala.-based Health-South and Nashville, Tenn.-based Columbia/HCA are typically the most aggressive in pursuing sports sponsorships. HealthSouth has affiliations with 50 sports teams and 125 colleges and universities, and it sponsors an LPGA event. The company also helped finance an Olympic medical center in Colorado Springs, Colo.

But now, even smaller nonprofit health-care systems are beginning to buy into sports sponsorships on a local level. When Jack Kent Cooke Stadium opened this past year in suburban Washington, Dimensions Health System, a local nonprofit hospital system, signed a sponsorship deal to provide care within the stadium.

"If you associate yourself with a team and with big-name sports, it's more likely that a regular person will want to come to your office," said Clive Brewster, area manager for HealthSouth's Los Angeles market. "If you're good enough to take care of high-priced athletes, you're good enough to take care of the general public."

While there's no doubt that sports sponsorship is a growing trend within the health-care industry, experts say the payoff can be difficult to gauge.

"I don't think people know how to truly measure sports sponsorships," Brewster said. "If you do a good job medically, you get recognition, but patients may not have seen your name on television."

As health care continues to become more competitive, the trend among providers to buy into professional sports will follow.

"I think you will see more and more health-care jobs bought by major corporations and large physician groups," said Dr. Harlan Selesnick, team physician for the Miami Heat. "There is just so much more competition among health-care institutions."

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