As President Barack Obama and his allies and opponents in Congress wrestle with health care legislation, the prospect of major reform could spur new sponsorship activity on behalf of health insurance companies, already an active category.

Although whether and how the U.S. health care system might be overhauled remains up in the air, the possibility of some form of mandated coverage for tens of millions currently without insurance would create a giant new market for insurers to target.

“If mandated coverage happens, I would have four million uninsured consumers coming straight into my market,” said Jeff Warnock, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida, Inc.’s senior manager of experiential marketing.

“With that many people up for grabs, there is the possibility we’ll be looking at new sponsorships, or leveraging current sponsorships, to get a leg up on the competition. Every health insurance company is thinking the same thing.”

The potential for new deals from the sector comes on top of a number of signings over the past six months, ranging from music festivals and pro sports teams to marathons and theme parks.

For example, United HealthCare Services, Inc. secured a first-time Pavilion Partner-level deal with this month’s Essence Music Festival presented by Coca-Cola. The deal follows another new tie, sponsorship of St. George, Utah’s SG Tri triathlon in May.

On the pro sports front, Kaiser Permanente this year came on board as the official health insurance partner of the MLB Los Angeles Dodgers. The company also signed three-year title of Honolulu’s Great Aloha Run, expanding upon its previous agreement to title the event’s health and fitness expo.

Cigna Corp. earlier this year kicked off a two-year presenting sponsorship of the Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend, while Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield of Wisconsin signed title of three endurance events, including title of October’s Green Bay Duathlon.

Additionally, Humana, Inc. late last year kicked off a multiyear partnership with Pigeon Forge, Tenn.’s Dollywood theme park.

Primary Objective: Healthy Lifestyle And Wellness Platforms
Although health insurers sponsor various property types and seek to accomplish multiple goals, their overriding focus is on events and activation platforms through which they can promote their health, fitness and wellness messaging.

That’s the strategy behind a new sponsorship push from Cigna, which is using the medium to build visibility and position itself as a health care advocate for customers and non-customers in a one-on-one setting.

“The Walt Disney World Marathon is a large endeavor, and it has us looking at sponsorships more critically on what they can do for us,” said Patty Caballero, the company’s director of sponsorship.

The company activated the January weekend with on-site skin damage screenings and other health-related activities.

The company also sponsors the Cigna Falmouth Road Race in Massachusetts, the Cigna/Elliot Corporate Road Race in Manchester, N.H., and the NBC 30 Jim Calhoun Cancer Challenge Ride in Simsbury, Conn.

In addition to promoting active lifestyles, health insurance companies sponsor so that they will be top of mind when consumers are in the market for medical insurance.

“People only shop for health insurance at certain times, so we want to be on site at events delivering health information,” Warnock said.

“We’re an intangible brand that is perceived as cold and unwelcoming. We’re trying to put a face with our brand, and make health insurance easier to understand.”

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida activates sponsorship with a 2,400-square-foot Florida Blue Tour mobile marketing set-up, where attendees can ask questions, get massages, receive health screenings and learn about the company’s products and services.

One of Kaiser Permanente’s activations of its new Dodgers partnership is a tie-in with new healthier food concessions at Dodger Stadium. It also is providing health and fitness tips as part of in-game DodgerVision programming.

Below, tips on selling sponsorship to companies in the health insurance category:

Help promote new, targeted products. Aetna, Inc. last year signed a first-time partnership with Chicago Sport & Social Club to promote BodyGuard, a suite of three insurance plans designed for consumers in their twenties. The plans start at $40 a month and are sold through AetnaBodyGuard.com.

The company partnered with the for-profit amateur sports organization to reach uninsured twenty-somethings who lead active lifestyles.

“This is a group that is highly underserved, and we want to engage a group that cares about being healthy, and more likely to care about insurance,” said Anthony Maros, Aetna marketing manager, who spearheads the insurance company’s Gen-Y marketing initiatives.

Aetna has signed a one-year deal with the organization after testing a five-month tie in ’08, said Jason Erkes, Chicago Sport & Social’s owner and president.

The tie affords one-on-one marketing opportunities and brochure dissemination at events, banner ads on ChicagoSportandSocialClub.com and dedicated email blasts, among other benefits.

The product typically sees a bump in traffic to its Web site following the email blasts and other property-generated online outreach efforts, Maros said. “Just being associated with the club gives you an in to their world. That’s your opt in, and you get a better response that way.”

Aetna, which launched BodyGuard in Illinois, may sign similar sponsorships as it rolls out the product in other states next year, Maros said, noting that the states have not yet been determined.

Provide access to specific audiences. In addition to young adults, health insurers are increasingly using sponsorship to reach the following niche customer segments:

• Business decision-makers. Humana uses its four-year-old partnership with the PGA Tour in part to build relations with corporate decision-makers, as well as with insurance brokers and other key stakeholders, said Doug Bennett, a corporate communications consultant for the company.

Humana also uses the sponsorship to promote a health and wellness message. For example, the company this year is activating the tie with the exercise-focused Walk It Tee to Green program.

The partnership also offers a direct business-building component: Humana is the health benefits provider for PGA Tour employees.

• Senior citizens. Humana is using Dollywood to promote its Medicare plans to consumers over the age of 65.

“The more we can make people familiar with the Humana brand and attract positive attributes to the brand, the more likely they are to choose Humana as a Medicare provider,” Bennett said.

The multiyear tie affords presenting status of three annual park events: the Festival of Nations spring event, the National Gospel & Harvest Celebration in the fall, and the Smoky Mountain Christmas festival.

The company staffs four Humana Medicare Information Centers during each event. It also sponsors three guest safety centers at the park throughout the year and has ad placement on the home page of Dollywood.com.

• Multicultural markets. Nearly every health insurer is using sponsorship to reach African-Americans, Latinos and other ethnic markets.

For example, United HealthCare partnered with the Essence Music Festival to promote its products and services to African-American consumers, sponsoring the event’s first-ever Healthy Living Pavilion.

The Minneapolis-based company used the tie to offer health screenings and distribute health and wellness information under its Generations of Wellness initiative, which provides information on heart disease and other illnesses that affect African-Americans.

United HealthCare also used the tie to distribute information on Medicare plans and other products to business owners and seniors.

• Employees. Like other types of businesses, health insurers look for opportunities to engage employees.

For example, Aetna sponsors the ING Hartford Marathon to engage employees and demonstrate its corporate citizenship in its hometown, said Emily Cropper, sponsorship director with race owner Hartford Marathon Foundation.

Similarly, Humana leverages its partnerships with Dollywood, the PGA Tour and the Grand Ole Opry to offer discount tickets to employees.

Tap insurers’ community relations budgets. In addition to marketing, health insurance providers also fund sponsorship out of community relations departments.

That’s the case with Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield of Wisconsin and its new three-event title of events produced by Midwest Sports Events.

“Our mission is to improve the lives of the people we serve and the health of our communities, and events are a way to do that,” said Scott Larrivee, the company’s PR director, who manages the community relations budget.