Can the NFL Help Sell ‘Obamacare’?

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Byline: Catherine Hollander

When Massachusetts enacted its health care law in 2006, state officials had to figure out how to sign up 653,000 uninsured residents for health insurance under the new mandate that all adults have coverage by July 1, 2007. It was a tight deadline. So they enlisted a group they knew could reach state residents: the Red Sox. Soon knuckleballer Tim Wakefield had a public-service announcement on TV urging residents to visit the Health Connector, the state’s online insurance marketplace. The Connector team set up a booth at Fenway Park to answer questions. Ads aired between innings on the New England Sports Network. The Red Sox went on to win the World Series in 2007, and 367,000 people enrolled in health coverage.

The Obama administration hopes that 7 million Americans will sign up for insurance during this year’s open-enrollment period, which will span October 2013 to March 2014, and it’s looking to recreate some of that Red Sox mojo. On Monday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told reporters the administration is having “active discussions right now with a variety of sports affiliates” about outreach efforts. Specifically, she said, the National Football League was “very actively and enthusiastically engaged.” The Bay State could offer a playbook on how to conduct those partnerships.


Here’s how it went down: Weber Shandwick, a public-relations firm, responded to a request for proposal put out by the Health Connector in late 2006. It suggested drafting the Sox to prepare residents for the July 1 deadline. “Given the time frame, given that the average uninsured person in Massachusetts at that time was a 37-year-old male, we thought, who would be the perfect partner?” says Tara Murphy, who runs the Connector account at Weber Shandwick. After winning the contract, the firm floated the idea to Red Sox President Larry Lucchino. “Larry asked one question,” recalls Murphy. “He said, ‘So, this is the law, right?’ And we said yes. And he said, ‘You know, let’s do it.’ ”

The initial plan was to have athletes tout the importance of health insurance. Who better to extol its benefits than the folks whose bodies are the source of their income? But focus groups didn’t like the athletic spokesmen. People worried about the cost of health care and didn’t want to hear about the importance of shelling out for it from millionaires who didn’t have to fret about the bottom line.

So Wakefield’s ad was an exception. The rest of the campaign featured average citizens but used the Red Sox megaphone to amplify the message. The baseball team sold the Health Connector printed ads in game-time guides and TV ads on the Jumbotron. It allowed the Connector to film an ad in the stadium.

The campaign wasn’t free–the Weber Shandwick ad buy on the Red Sox channel topped $1 million–but Murphy estimates the Connector received $400,000 in “added value,” or free spots, from the team. In addition to the “brand halo” the beloved team bestowed on the Health Connector, it also reached a huge portion of the state, especially during the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Health Connector worked with community groups and businesses such as CVS. They sent direct mail to residents and set up a call center for curious Bay Staters.

Similar outreach will be crucial to the success of the Affordable Care Act, and the Obama administration is ramping up its big push in the 100 days left before the new online health exchanges open Oct. 1. In a Kaiser poll earlier this month, just one in five Americans had heard about the exchanges. HHS doesn’t have much money for ads, so sports-league partnerships are an efficient use of cash because they allow it to reach the “bro” demographic–healthy, uninsured young men. As in Massachusetts, these people are critical to the success of the exchanges because they can bring down costs for everyone in the pool.


The administration is developing strategies to reach this “healthy and young” group, whose 11 million members, ages 18 to 35, might not see the value of health coverage, according to White House strategy documents obtained by BuzzFeed last week. That group is 58 percent male–in other words, stereotypical sports fans. In Massachusetts, young men ages 19 to 39 were both prime Red Sox watchers and made up more than half of the uninsured people in the state in spring 2007, according to The Boston Globe. On the national level, the NFL could be a particularly good salesman for the Affordable Care Act because its season spans much of the open-enrollment period.

It’s not yet clear what form a partnership between HHS and the football or other sports leagues would take; Sebelius said they were discussing paid advertising as well as other agreements. In any case, the administration has a tough road ahead: “Obamacare” is more contentious than the Massachusetts law, and unfavorable views about it still prevail. Meanwhile, during the year of help from the hometown favorites, Massachusetts enrollment rose by just over half of the goal–and it’s impossible to know how much credit the Sox deserve. The NFL is much bigger and fans are more diffuse. And some conservative groups have already flayed a potential sports partnership. “A fan wants to enjoy watching his favorite team play, not be reminded about how his taxes have gone up,” Americans for Tax Reform, a group that opposes tax increases, said in a release this week. No wonder Sebelius is looking for a Hail Mary.

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