On April 7, Lenny Zweig and Emily Nowak threw out the first pitch at the Milwaukee Brewers game. While it’s often an unremarkable event, these particular first pitches were a celebration of a kidney transplant made possible through social media and a sports partnership.
In April 2018, a social media post went viral with Zweig at a Brewers game holding a sign in need of a kidney. Nowak stepped forward to ensure Zweig received a kidney.
The pitches were thrown to the surgeons who performed the transplants.
The game and social post made the transplant happen and the celebratory event is a keystone for the partnership between the Brewers and Advocate Aurora Health, said Kevin Babusiak, Brewers vice president of partnership activation.
“It’s leveraging fan passions and patient stories and pulling them together in great programming,” Babusiak said. “One of our key pillars is cherishing the fans and Advocate Aurora does the same thing. Their presence can be felt on game day before even walking into the stadium and in the park, there are half a dozen stations.
“They have been top-to-bottom integrated into the partnership, beyond traditional assets,” he said.
The partnership between the Brewers and Advocate Aurora started in earnest in 2018 when Chicago’s Advocate Health and Wisconsin-based Aurora Health Care merged. The Brewers and Aurora began their partnership in 2017.
It was an expansion of Advocate Health’s expansive sports sponsorship strategy in Chicago, which includes partnerships with the Chicago Cubs, Chicago Bears, and Chicago Bulls.
Those partnerships began in 2009 when Advocate Health realized a value the company could offer beyond signage to sports teams and venues, Advocate Aurora Health CMO Kelly Jo Golson said. Through the partnerships, Advocate Aurora Health has been able to provide more than 500 “unique patient experiences” a year, Golson said.
“Without a doubt, there’s a clear brand benefit in being able to highlight our alignment with those iconic brands,” Golson said. “More importantly, it provides an opportunity to make a difference and tell the importance of prevention, early detection, and treatment – key health messages to the public.”
The health care organization holds regular health screenings for fans during games. It also installed nursing pods for mothers at the stadiums of three of the teams, Cubs, Brewers and Bears. The Cubs were the first partnership for Advocate and Golson said many of the other partnerships are built upon the activations with the team.
Both Golson and Colin Faulkner, Cubs senior vice president of marketing, mentioned the annual Mother’s Day “Pink Out” event to raise breast cancer awareness as a key highlight of the partnership.
“It’s a great community engagement platform that engages fans at Wrigley and at home who are watching the broadcast on TV,” Faulkner said.
But each year, Faulkner said the two partners come up with new activations to better the partnership.
“Our teams work together to collectively enhance platforms and programs we’ve executed in the previous year, as well as come up with new ideas,” he said. “We’re always looking to raise the level of creativity and exposure.”
As Babusiak said, Advocate Aurora’s presence is felt throughout game day. Outside the stadium, the healthcare company sponsors Miller Park Playground and provides a courtesy shuttle in the parking lots. Within the park, Advocate Aurora runs stations that Babusiak said “takes care of things maybe you forgot,” like sunscreen and healthy ballpark choices at the Marketplace concession locations in the park.
Babusiak said the Brewers organization enjoys the extra value Advocate Aurora brings fans by offering health screenings at games. The partnership has also extended into the team’s special events, such as Negro League Tribute, Pride and Hispanic Heritage Night. Both are extensions of activations Golson mentioned with all the partners.
“It goes beyond the dollars and cents, they’re a big supporter of the community and a very local and engaged partner in diversity and inclusion,” Babusiak said.
The monetary value of the partnership is important, however, especially as health care companies make up one of the biggest chunks of the U.S. economy, said Matt Mitten, professor of law and executive director of the National Sports Law Insitute at the Marquette University Law School. Health systems are a massive revenue category for clubs, Mitten said, and the health systems get to align themselves with the professional sports brands.
“If someone breaks a leg, sprains an ankle, they can say, ‘Wow, I’m getting treatment from the same doctor that treats the Brewers players.’ It’s great advertising and marketing for health care services,” he said. “The activation and cross-promotions are an increasingly big thing, it’s a win-win for both the teams and the partners.”
The Advocate Aurora Health activations also go beyond game days and integrate other brand partners. With the Cubs, Advocate brings in American Airlines for Kids, Cubs & Cactus Road Trip, which takes pediatric patients, families and medical personnel to Mesa, Arizona, for Spring Training. 2019 was the third year for the program.
“It’s a chance for them to feel normal and experience childhood and bond with each,” Golson said.
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The expansive nature of the Advocate Aurora Health sponsorships is made easier by a growing trend of sports organizations buying into a community philosophy, Golson said. She didn’t tip her hand to other future deals but said the company uses the partnerships to find unique ways to grow.
“These partnerships give us a platform to be able to make a difference and spread meaningful messages and kudos to them for being open to it,” Golson said. “It starts with ownership, creating that culture of giving back, but so many of these athletes appreciate their fame and stardom and want to do something good with that.
“I’ve definitely seen some growth and the willingness to think differently,” she said.