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Volume 20 No. 42
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Health providers use sports to establish consumer brand

Sports franchises and events are some of the most visible entities in any community, and potent sales-and-sponsorship weapons. So it didn’t seem unreasonable that the Maryland Health Connection, a state agency, paid $130,000 for a sponsorship agreement with the Baltimore Ravens, then the reigning Super Bowl champions, to advertise the new exchanges, though the outrage against the team from conservative interest groups proved deafening. Or that the Obama administration asked LeBron James to record a 30-second public service announcement for the exchanges that aired during the NCAA’s men’s basketball tournament. Or that ads promoting the law ran during the Winter Olympics.

Blazers President Chris McGowan and Moda’s Dr. William Johnson announce the arena naming-rights deal in Portland.
Photo by: AP IMAGES
For the Trail Blazers, the most important byproduct of the ACA is the new sign on the side of their building. Last August, Moda Health signed a 10-year, reported $40 million deal for naming rights on the facility previously called the Rose Garden.

A Portland-based health care provider that came to life in 1955 as Oregon Dental Services, Moda eventually segued into providing health insurance in Oregon, Washington and Alaska. In 2013, operating well beyond Oregon and not limited to dental care, it changed its name to Moda. But few consumers had heard of it.

With the passage of the ACA and the opening of consumer exchanges to purchase health care, Moda understood that needed to change. “What the proponents have always said is that the law is an attempt to empower the consumer in selecting health care coverage,” said Steve Wynne, a former CEO of both Adidas USA and Fila who serves as what he calls an “executive-at-large” for Moda. “It has placed a much greater emphasis in consumer choice. As a result, we’ve been forced to become a brand.”

Like Quest Diagnostics with the New York Giants, Atlantic Health with the New York Jets, and other providers that have established relationships with professional sports franchises, Moda needed to market itself like the consumer brand that the ACA-mandated insurance exchanges were forcing it to become. But at least those other companies were established equities. “Because of the Affordable Care Act and the way the exchanges were going to be built, there was a need for us to get to ubiquity quickly,” Wynne said. “We wanted a name that, if people saw it on the exchange, it wasn’t the first time they’d seen it.”

The Obama administration asked LeBron James to appear in PSAs promoting the exchanges.
A naming-rights deal with the arena made sense because the venue attracts a wide demographic, for both Trail Blazers games and other events such as concerts and conventions. Blazers games are seen on television nationwide, giving brand recognition for possible future expansion. And with the demise of the Seattle SuperSonics, the Blazers have become the NBA franchise for the entire Pacific Northwest — Washington, Oregon, extending up to Alaska, which maps Moda’s coverage area exactly.

“It has paid off,” said Steve Scott, the Blazers’ vice president for corporate partnerships, sales and service. “This is one of the most competitive health insurance markets in the United States. Moda leads the entire state in open enrollment, and no one knew who they were prior to that announcement.”

And Moda isn’t the only health care provider in Portland that has used the new law as impetus for gaining a larger profile. On Feb. 10, the MLS’s Portland Timbers announced that Jeld-Wen Field — named after a Klamath Falls, Ore., window manufacturer — would now be called Providence Park. Within days, the orange-and-white logo of Providence Health & Services was on display throughout the facility.

Having the city’s two major sports facilities bear the names of health care providers is no accident, the Timbers’ Mike Golub believes. “Airlines are on a bunch of buildings, banks are on a bunch of buildings, there’s only a certain scale of business that’s right for naming rights,” said Golub, the team’s president of business operations. The ACA has boosted the health care category to that scale — especially in Oregon, which has only Nike and Portland’s Precision Castparts Corp. among America’s 500 largest companies as listed by Fortune.

Just as Moda needed the Blazers’ building to ramp up visibility, Providence liked the idea of adding to an existing affiliation with the Timbers.

“We need to be smart in our visibility and our engagement in the community,” said Dave Underriner, the CEO of Providence/Oregon. “We can’t just be a big building that you come to. That was always aspirational before. With the Affordable Care Act, I would say that it’s imperative now.”

Bruce Schoenfeld is a writer in Colorado and a frequent contributor to SportsBusiness Journal.