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Sports teams approach health reform cautiously

Daryl Smith #51 and Josh Bynes #56 of the Baltimore Ravens tackle running back Trent Richardson #33 of the Cleveland Browns during the second half at M&T Bank Stadium on September 15, 2013 in Baltimore, Md.

Mila Kofman is executive director of DC Health Link.

When Massachusetts was trying to promote its health care reform law in 2007, it partnered with the Boston Red Sox. Pitcher Tim Wakefield appeared in ads promoting the exchange where Massachusetts residents could buy health insurance. There was a special “cover your bases” night at Fenway Park.  And there were information booths at all home games so fans could find out about health insurance plans and even enroll. 

But now that health care reform has gone national, things are different. No major league baseball teams are helping promote it. Football teams have shied away, too, except for the Baltimore Ravens, which will run an ad for the Maryland exchange before and after game broadcasts.

Advertising during games was a “no brainer,” said Becca Pearce, the executive director of the Maryland exchange, because many of Maryland’s uninsured are young men who like the Ravens.   

 “We know in our research that 71 percent of the uninsured either watched, listened to or attended a Ravens game in the past year,” she said.

Pearce said the exchange has a partnership with the Ravens, but it’s not as if players will be touting the benefits of health insurance. The team says the deal is nothing special, comparing it to advertising arrangements with the Maryland Lottery and Verizon. And the team turned down a request to talk about the ads.

Sports marketers say there’s a reason the Ravens are downplaying their deal with the Maryland Exchange.

“The team might actually anger the fans," said Chris Anderson of the firm Marketing Arm. "And they might be so upset in fact that the fans say you know what I’m not going to come back to the game next week.”   

Anderson said President Obama’s health care reform law is much more political and controversial than the Massachusetts plan was. Indeed, a couple months ago, Republican congressional leaders sent a letter to six professional sports leagues, including the NFL, warning that a team would "risk damaging its inclusive and apolitical brand" by helping promote health care reform.

But the letter writers left soccer off the list. DC United, Washington’s soccer team, will help promote the District of Columbia’s exchange, said its chief, Mila Kofman. She said they’re sponsoring three DC United games next month, running public announcements, and setting up information booths in the parking lot and stadium

“We know that fans are Republicans and Democrats and some don’t care about politics at all," she said. "And this is all about the facts, getting the facts to the fans so they can make more informed decisions.”

You might think DC United would be eager to get out the facts about the partnership. But it seemed they were following the Ravens' lead -- even a team that has signed on to promote the health care reform law turned down our request for an interview.

About the author

Nancy Marshall-Genzer is a senior reporter for Marketplace based in Washington, D.C. covering daily news.

Mila Kofman is executive director of DC Health Link.

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