Mayo takes a big step in growing sports-medicine field with pro teams, Block E clinic

Courtesy of Mayo Clinic
Last month, Mayo announced a partnership with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx in a basketball practice facility and sports medicine clinic inside the former Block E in downtown Minneapolis.

The last thing the Mayo Clinic needs is a higher profile.

Who around the world hasn’t heard of Mayo? For more than a century, Mayo’s innovative care and research brought heads of state, the rich and famous, and foreign royalty to its Rochester, Minn., campus for checkups and treatment.

New York Yankees great Lou Gehrig was diagnosed with incurable amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) at Mayo in 1939. Evangelist Billy Graham and former presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush have been treated there. More recently, Minnesota Twins star Joe Mauer consulted with Mayo doctors about post-concussion symptoms before deciding to give up catching. And Twins general manager Terry Ryan chose Mayo for his cancer surgery and treatment.

Little else in Minnesota is as well known outside the state as the Mayo Clinic. Not even Spam.

So what motivated Mayo to swing its hefty stethoscope into the Twin Cities’ sports medicine landscape?

Mayo partners with Wolves, Lynx

Last month, Mayo announced a partnership with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx in a basketball practice facility and sports medicine clinic inside the former Block E in downtown Minneapolis, across from the Target Center. Mayo will invest up to $7 million to convert part of the old multiplex theater into a 20,000-square-foot clinic.

Provident Real Estate Ventures owns the property, which will be known as Mayo Clinic Square. The deal also makes Mayo the sole medical provider for the two franchises, replacing TRIA Orthopedics and Edina Family Physicians. 

In a not-so-unique twist, the clinic — to be staffed by an orthopedic surgeon, physical therapists, athletic trainers and wellness advisers, all newly hired — will be open to the public.

“It’s a comprehensive service, one-stop shopping where you can get all your fitness-related needs met, from diagnosis of an injury to treatment of an injury to recommendations regarding injury prevention,” said Dr. Edward Laskowski, co-director of Mayo’s Sports Medicine Center.

“The care and training of elite athletes attracts attention” he said. “We want to apply the same strategy we use for the conditioning, training and rehabilitation of the elite athlete to make a difference in everybody.”

Mayo has sought to expand its reach for a while; a 2011 print and television marketing campaign targeted potential customers in Dallas, about 900 miles from Rochester. Though Mayo reported $8.8 billion annual revenue in 2012, the most recent year available, expenses rose faster than revenue, which the clinic attributed to capital investments. And earnings from patient care and financial investments fell 35 percent, according to the Pioneer Press.

A new strategy

That hardly makes Mayo destitute. But it needed a new strategy.

Ken Ungar, president of U/S Sports Advisors, a sports marketing agency in Indianapolis, compares this deal to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s $80 million Sports Performance Complex, a combination training facility and sports science and medical center shared by the NFL’s Steelers and the Pitt football team that also serves weekend athletes. 

Nationally prestigious UPMC is a major corporate sponsor and the primary health care provider for both teams. One guess who owns the sports medicine market in that town.

Here, the Timberwolves get a state-of-the-art facility to attract free agents and improve player performance. And Mayo establishes a foothold in a Twin Cities sports medicine landscape dominated by TRIA, which serves all five major area pro teams, with an eye toward expanding its world-wide reach. Six of the Timberwolves’ 15 players hail from overseas, while five members of the Lynx are playing in Europe or Asia this winter. That’s some word-of-mouth.

“It’s a great strategy for Mayo,” Ungar said. “Health care was a competitive marketplace last year. Now it’s cut-throat. A lot of funding sources have dried up, and everybody is trying hard to attract consumers. It really puts the pressure on marketing.

“For Mayo, it’s just smart. It’s one more place where you can differentiate yourself.”

Thirty years ago, pro teams chose a team physician without regard for sponsorships, branding or marketing. Corporate money changed that. Deals can vary, but in some cities clinics have paid up to $1.5 million annually to bill themselves as a team’s health care provider.

Sponsorships started in mid-’90s

Some believe the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars started the trend in the mid-1990s when it contracted with a local orthopedic center. By January 2013, 23 NFL teams had marketing deals with medical providers, according to Slate.

“Like anyone else, they want to be associated with a winner,” said Dr. David Teuscher, an orthopedic surgeon in Beaumont, Texas, and second vice president of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. Those links, he said, act as product endorsements. Injured amateur athletes often seek out the same doctors who treat their heroes, applying the same logic to health care as to buying sneakers.

“If it’s good enough for a star player to wear a particular shoe, it’s sure good enough for me,” Teuscher said.  

Ethical questions raised by the AAOS and other groups led to changes in marketing deals, requiring teams to reimburse medical centers for services at full or reduced rates.

TRIA’s website prominently features its connections with the Twins, Vikings, Wild, Timberwolves and Lynx, with logos linking to each team’s site. TRIA will not discuss its contracts with these teams — it ignored multiple emails from MinnPost over more than two weeks — and the teams themselves offered little about their arrangements.

A spokesman for the Timberwolves declined comment on its contract with TRIA, which expires after this season. The Wild confirmed partnerships with TRIA and Mayo but shared no details. Vikings spokesman Jeff Anderson said the team pays TRIA’s physicians a salary, and TRIA does not pay the Vikings to provide care.

Twins’ approach different

Twins spokesman Kevin Smith said the team has a corporate partnership with Mayo but not an exclusive medical deal. The club uses orthopedists from three practices — medical director John A. Steubs of TRIA, Diane Dahm of Mayo, and Pearce McCarty with an orthopedic clinic based in Edina. Dahm examined top prospect Miguel Sano’s injured right elbow in Fort Myers last week.

“We have physicians on our medical staff from various practices and clinics because of the expertise they each bring to our medical staff, not because of any marketing partnership with a certain clinic,” Smith wrote in an email.

The Mayo Sports Medicine Center is known for its groundbreaking work in hockey safety and concussion treatment, headed by co-director Dr. Michael Stuart, the chief medical officer for USA Hockey and team physician for the men’s Olympic hockey team. (That was Stuart behind the bench during the bronze medal game in Sochi, examining Zach Parise’s left thumb.)

Stuart, whose four children all played top-level hockey — three sons in the NHL, and daughter Cristin at Boston College — helped organized a 2010 concussion summit at Mayo that drew national attention. That year, Mayo’s research persauded USA Hockey to delay body checking from pee wee leagues (ages 12 and under) to bantams (14 and under), a controversial move that allows kids to learn skills without the threat of being flattened by a hulking peer.

Though pro athletes like Mauer and Jayson Werth of the Washington Nationals have come to Mayo — Werth had a ligament in his wrist repaired in 2006 by Dr. Richard Berger, a specialist who perfected the treatment — Mayo doesn’t promote itself as a star-jock destination. Sports agents often steer their clients to bigger-name orthopedists like Dr. James Andrews of Birmingham, Ala. The privacy-conscious Mauer was treated in 2011 for knee and leg problems as well as pneumonia before returning last year for concussion evaluations. Both athletes openly discussed their Mayo experiences; the clinic would not confirm they had been patients.

“For over 20 years, our sports medicine staff has treated elite athletes from all areas really,” Laskowski said. “Unless the athletes themselves disclose the visit, we keep that information confidential.”

Wolves see big advantages

Last year, Wolves and Lynx CEO Rob Moor, along with team president Chris Wright, approached Mayo for ideas on improving performance and training. The Lynx hardly need much after two WNBA titles in three years, but the Wolves haven’t made the playoffs since 2004. One day’s worth of talks convinced Timberwolves officials that Mayo could offer cutting-edge help, and the Block E partnership grew from there.

Neither the Timberwolves nor Mayo would discuss financial particulars of their medical provider arrangement.

The Wolves wanted this deal so badly they flew All-Star forward Kevin Love in from the West Coast last summer to join a presentation in Rochester.

“We’ve lost a lot of close games, and you want that little extra advantage,” said Flip Saunders, Timberwolves president of basketball operations. “We think our relationship with the Mayo Clinic is going to help us get that extra advantage, along with the practice facilities.”

And Mayo may not be finished. Given Mayo Clinic Square’s walking-distance proximity to Target Field, could the Twins be Mayo’s next exclusive partner?

“We’re always looking for opportunities to bring our Mayo model of care to more people,” Laskowski said. “We don’t know exactly where that will take us, but I think we’re always looking for those opportunities.”

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