Health systems find plenty of reasons to play ball with pro franchises

August 1, 2022


When he became head sports physician at Missouri State University in his hometown of Springfield and where he had been a standout slugger and infielder in his college years, Dr. Brian Mahaffey says he met his career aspirations.


"I was able to do that for 16 years and would've been very happy doing that for the rest of my career," Mahaffey says. "I'm fortunate in that I got a second dream job."

In 2013, when St. Louis-based Mercy signed its first contract to provide medical services to the Cardinals, Mahaffey was called up to the big leagues. The sports medicine specialist was drafted to lead a team of physicians overseeing the care of the players for one of professional baseball's premier franchises.

This spring, Mercy and the Cardinals re-upped the contract. Mahaffey will continue to be a fixture in the dugout from the preseason through the postseason until at least 2032.

Providence Health & Services in Oregon has naming rights to the home stadium of the Portland Timbers and Thorns pro soccer teams and its doctors take care of the athletes, team staffs and their families. The high-profile sponsorship attracts patients with sports injuries or athletic aspirations to Providence's sports medicine physician practices.

"There are days that are frustrating and then I walk into Busch Stadium and go 'Wow,'" he says. "I still have to pinch myself. It never gets old to do that."

Mercy's alliance is one of several between Catholic health systems and professional sports teams. Mahaffey and others who are involved in the partnerships say some of the benefits are by design and others are unexpected.

Partners on wellness
Rob Casalou is president and chief executive of Trinity Health Michigan and Southeast Regions. Trinity Health Michigan, which recently replaced the Saint Joseph Mercy Health System and Mercy Health System names, has been the official health and wellness partner of the Detroit Red Wings since 2015 when the hockey team was prepping to play in the newly built Little Caesars Arena.


Under the contract, Trinity Health Michigan's logo appears on health-related signage in the arena's concourse, such as one that tells guests how many laps add up to a 1-mile walk.

Before a Red Wings game, a video with advice about how to stay healthy from Lisa McDowell, Trinity Health Michigan's director of lifestyle medicine and clinical nutrition and the Red Wings' team nutritionist, plays on the Jumbotron. During games, the system's brand is on electronic messaging boards that surround the rink.

As part of their pact, the system and the team jointly promote health-oriented events within the community such as 5K runs and yoga classes.

Dr. Brian Mahaffey has led the clinicians in charge of providing medical care for the St. Louis Cardinals' organization since Mercy's alliance with the franchise began in 2013. He balances his work for the professional baseball team with his sports medicine practice.

Casalou says unlike many alliances between health systems and sports franchises, the one between Trinity Health Michigan and the Red Wings doesn't include medical services for the team. Rather, he says, his system is making use of a popular venue and the reputation of a renowned team "to put out our message around health, wellness and good nutrition."

Relationship payoffs
The alliance has led to teamwork beyond the boundaries of the contract, Casalou notes. For example, as the COVID-19 pandemic was widening, Red Wings team captain Dylan Larkin made public appeals for masks, gloves and other scarce supplies for Trinity Health Michigan facilities. Several star players paid visits to the system's hospitals to boost staff morale.

Before the Red Wings restarted play at the arena, the team asked Trinity Health Michigan for advice to tamp down the risk of viral spread. The system's chief of infection control and other specialists provided guidance on how to screen people for COVID symptoms as they entered the building, what signage to post and which air filtration system to purchase.

Kylie Ossege sports a Detroit Red Wings jersey at a game where she was the pro hockey team's honored guest and got to ride on the Zamboni. The teenager was wounded in a school shooting in Michigan that left four dead. She had a long hospitalization at Trinity Health St. Joseph Mercy Oakland.

"That was never contemplated, never part of the contract," Casalou says. "It's just part of the relationship that we have."

The two also have partnered on giving patients the thrill of attending a Red Wings game as guests of the team. One of the patients who got special recognition in April was a student who had been hospitalized for weeks at Trinity Health St. Joseph Mercy Oakland after she was injured in a mass shooting at a local high school in November that left four people dead. As part of her fan experience, the student got to ride the Zamboni machine that resurfaces the ice.

"This relationship has been much more valuable than just visibility at an arena," Casalou says. "It's really been a kind of a foundational point where we get our wellness message across to a greater community. The Red Wings have been just an outstanding partner for us to do that with."

'Team behind the team'
Providence Health & Services in Oregon, part of Providence St. Joseph Health, gets visibility for its brand by having naming rights for the home stadium of the Timbers and the Thorns, Portland, Oregon's pro men's and women's soccer teams, respectively. Providence Park, with a seating capacity of 25,218, often sells out for the teams' matches. The system's name also appears on Thorns' players' jerseys.


Providence's Dr. Breanne Brown is a family and sports medicine specialist and head team physician for the Thorns. Brown is at the stadium along with other Providence care providers at most home matches to address any injuries for the Thorns or their opponents. Providence providers also are stationed at the Timbers' home games.

Brown coordinates care among Providence providers across specialties for the players on both soccer teams, the teams' staffs and the players' and staffs' families. She calls those specialists, who have been vetted on their skills and their willingness to provide care on an expedited basis if needed, "the team behind the team."

She says Providence's alliance with the teams is clearly a draw for some patients with sports injuries or sports aspirations. "There are a lot of people who seek out our sports medicine physicians who are affiliated with the team," Brown says.

Early in the pandemic, the Timbers and the Thorns asked Brown to help educate their players and staff on how to deal with COVID. She assisted them in setting protocols for practice and training well before public health officials recommended any. She went on to lead a task force that recommended COVID protocols for the National Women's Soccer League.

The Saint Joseph Mercy Health System brand is prominent on signage at Little Caesars Arena, where the Detroit Red Wings play. (The system changed its name to Trinity Health Michigan in the spring.) The health system and the team have a partnership to promote community wellness that dates to 2015.

Even before it put its name on the stadium, Providence had opened the Providence Sports Care Center there. The 12,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art sports medicine and orthopedic center is the rehabilitation clinic for Timbers and Thorns athletes and is open to the public for care.

The alliance between the health system and the teams extends outside the park. They jointly sponsored the revival of the Special Olympics Oregon Fall Games. They partner on soccer clinics and other community-based events. One of those events is the annual Rose City Road Trip in which players travel to rural communities for a soccer camp with kids, a community service project, and a hospital visit or other local appearance.

Providence is not the only Catholic health system to have naming rights to a major sports venue. Dignity Health Sports Park in suburban Los Angeles is home to the LA Galaxy, a pro men's soccer team; the United States Tennis Association's High-Performance Training Center; and the national team training headquarters for the U.S. Soccer Federation. Dignity Health is part of CommonSpirit Health.

Visible results
Under its latest contract with the Cardinals, Mercy is expanding its visibility at Busch Stadium, the team's home turf. The system will get exclusive advertising rights inside the stadium among medical service providers and have its brand on two weekly TV shows produced by the team, "Cardinals Insider" and "Cardinals Kids."

Mahaffey says Mercy has a nurse practitioner at the stadium. The system provides concierge-style care to Cardinals superstars like Yadier Molina and Albert Pujols and about 300 other athletes who are on the Major League squad or part of the franchise's farm system. Team staff, front office workers and families of players and staff use the Mercy care. Mercy bills the patient's insurer for medical care.

Mahaffey is on hand during spring training in Jupiter, Florida, and at most of the Cardinals' 80-plus home games. Like the other Mercy physicians on the Redbirds medical team, he maintains a separate medical practice.

He says the Cardinals invest to keep their players in prime condition and the team tracks how various aspects of conditioning across the continuum, including nutrition, cardio and orthopedic health, and the quality of players' sleep and mental health, affect performance.

Managing that investment has advanced the state of sports medicine across Mercy, Mahaffey says. "That experience most certainly transforms back into how we take care of our patients in the office, how we take care of our high school athletes at all our high schools that we have athletic trainers at, at our club teams that we work with," he says. "It makes a huge difference, no doubt."

In the years since Mercy began its partnership with the Cardinals, Mahaffey notes that the system's overall market share across its four-state footprint has grown tremendously. He says Mercy is sure that having its name paired with one of the Midwest's most recognizable and storied brands is helping drive that boost in business. "It's hard to measure, but we know that it exists," he says.

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