Physicians and trainers help build relationships of medical providers with schools and pro sports.

When the new Columbus Crew SC takes the field for the March start of soccer season, familiar old friends will be on the sidelines. Orthopedic physicians and athletic trainers from OhioHealth have staffed Crew sidelines since 1997.

Providing anything from sideline injury or concussion care to pre-participation physicals, doctors and trainers care for central Ohio athletes as part of formal partnerships between hospitals and physician groups and schools, athletic teams and other organizations. These relationships bring on-site healthcare services to athletes and often translate into marketing and business advantages for schools, leagues and healthcare providers.

Many local hospitals, health systems and physician practices have multi-year contracts with schools and organizations to provide healthcare to athletes. Nationwide Children's Hospital partners with multiple high schools and provides athletic training services to organizations such as Westerville Parks & Recreation. The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center provides sports medicine services to not only university athletes, but athletes in Columbus City Schools and with the Ohio Machine, the area's Major League Lacrosse team, among others.

OhioHealth partners with 36 local high schools and six colleges and universities. Along with the Crew, it has provided care for the Columbus Blue Jackets since the start of the franchise in 2000. Sean Huffman is president of OhioHealth Neighborhood Care, which includes the health system's Sports Medicine program. Huffman says physicians, trainers and other professionals in this program helped establish many of these relationships, and in some cases the schools approached the health system directly.

These healthcare partnerships may be most visible to fans and the community in the form of banners, program ads or other marketing materials as they follow their favorite teams. However, the contracts for team healthcare services are separate from the sponsorship and marketing efforts that often follow.

"We separate the business of medicine from the practice of medicine," Huffman says.

But the two are still related since the health system wants to create relationships with people when they're healthy and before they need healthcare, according to OhioHealth Vice President of Marketing Laura McCoy.

"Relationships start in the sports world because of care our physicians are providing," she says. "The Crew was our first partnership, and it started because one ortho surgeon was serving as team physician and that led to the OhioHealth sponsorship."

McCoy sees sponsorship becoming a growing part of the marketing puzzle, noting that OhioHealth's sponsorship of the Columbus Blue Jackets is "much more robust and visible" now than years ago.

Sponsorship revenue is at an all-time high for the Blue Jackets, according to Executive Vice President of Business Operations Larry Hoepfner, and the current focus is more on activation of partnerships and offering partners nontraditional ways to market their brands.

"Anyone can hang a sign, anyone can put a logo somewhere. But the things we do in the community and with our fans…close affinity is what partners are looking to capitalize on," he says. The most recent renewal between OhioHealth and the Columbus Blue Jackets included naming rights for the OhioHealth Chiller Ice Rinks located throughout the city.

OhioHealth is somewhat unique in its sponsorship of the Blue Jackets. It is one of the few fully exclusive sponsors and one of the only sponsors to provide in-kind services, though Hoepfner sees many benefits beyond the care provided to the team.

"The No. 1 benefit to us is the relationship with a well-respected brand," he says. He also adds that there are advantages such as having the team's logo shown beyond the walls of the arena.

Hoepfner says he looks to associate with brands that will build the Columbus Blue Jackets brand – "premium brands and those that connote high quality."

Partnerships between healthcare providers and athletic teams at all levels are not new, but OhioHealth's Huffman says he has seen significant evolution over the past couple of years. He sees more healthcare systems "getting into this business of creating new relationships." While competition increases among healthcare providers, the needs of high school and college athletics also are growing as students spend more and more time on the field, court and rink.

"High school programs now look like college programs of a few years ago," Huffman says, noting that it's a daily challenge to stay on the leading edge of how sports medicine care is provided through these types of partnerships. "It's not just the dollars and cents of putting an athletic trainer on the sidelines."

Mary Sterenberg is a freelance writer.