Coors Field in Denver.

(Photo: Courtesy of Eric Whitney)
The federal health care law will require most Americans to have health insurance starting in just six months.  States and the federal government want sports teams to help get the word out about new ways people can get coverage, but that’s proving to be controversial. 

Massachusetts enacted its own coverage mandate back in 2007. That same year, the Boston Red Sox won the World Series, sweeping the Colorado Rockies in four games.

Massachusetts resident Amy O’Leary says it’s hard to say which of those two things was a bigger deal.

“I think depending on who you ask, you’ll get two different stories," O'Leary said with a laugh. "I think they were both really important for the commonwealth.”

Sitting in the stands at a Red Sox home game, she remembers that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts partnered with the baseball team back then to help people understand the new state health law.

“I think it made sense because I think people feel like they know the players, they feel like they know the announcers,” she said. “I think that sports teams in general can be messengers of good information to a wide variety of people.”

Now, Colorado is trying to partner with the Rockies to get a similar message out.

“The Rockies games are wonderful opportunities for us to reach our target audiences,” said Myung Kim, director of communications and outreach for Connect for Health Colorado.

Her agency is setting up the state’s new health insurance marketplace, where people can compare federally-approved health plans and see if they qualify for subsidies to help buy them. 

“People who care about sports, people who care about being healthy, our young adult population, are big watchers of the sports shows,” said Kim, “and we know [they] are going to be an important population for us to reach.”

Kim says this spring, only about one in ten Coloradans had even heard of her organization, so, since May, Connect for Health has been running ads during TV broadcasts of Rockies games. 

The ads all have a competitive theme. One shows a couple celebrating in a Las Vegas-style casino; another is set in the winner’s circle of a horse race; and a third features a victorious baseball team, wearing red hats, not Rockies purple. They all end with a similar message:  

“Connect for Health Colorado - because when health insurance companies compete, there’s only one winner: you.”

But not everybody thinks sports teams should be in the business of marketing the federal health care law.

Last week, three Congressional Republicans warned Major League Baseball, the National Football League and other big time sports organizations not to work with the White House to publicize the new health insurance marketplaces. The lawmakers said doing so could damage the sports leagues’ “apolitical brands.”

Myung Kim doesn’t see it that way. 

“Absolutely not,” she said. “Connect for Health Colorado is not a political organization. Our job is to be a public service for Colorado, to help them get access to health insurance, and we’re seeing a great level of interest and willingness among many, many different organizations to be partners with us.”

At this point, Connect for Health doesn’t have a formal relationship with the Colorado Rockies.  It’s only been running the TV ads. Kim says her organization has just started reaching out to the Rockies directly, and to other sports teams in the state as well. 

The Rockies declined to comment for this story, but in Massachusetts, Red Sox Executive Charles Steinberg says his team was “eager” to help the state tell people about its new health care law back in 2007.

“We didn’t have negative feedback,” Steinberg recalls. “In American democracy we debate issues and we come to resolution and we pass laws, and those laws are designed to benefit the people. So when you can be a communicator of the laws of the land, you believe that you’re helping people.”

At a recent Rockies game, hard core fan Joan Ringel said she’s seen Connect for Health Colorado ads during games on TV. She says they’re so vague, she doesn’t think anyone would see them as political, or even useful.

“My husband didn’t notice them,” she said with a chuckle. “You couldn’t really tell what they were trying to get across. You wouldn’t know that that is Colorado’s exchange for the Affordable Health Act. I didn’t think they explained clearly that people need to pay attention to the exchange when it’s time to sign up.”

The time to sign up starts October first, right around the World Series. The Rockies and Connect for Health are both working towards successful Octobers. It remains to be seen if they’ll be working together. 

This story is part of a partnership between Colorado Public Radio, NPR and Kaiser Health News.