Throughout the pandemic, there’s been a recurring community conversation in Orange County over how critical funds from the federal government – meant to help local communities cope with Covid – are being invested at the local level.
In recent days, questions have centered on whether it makes sense to steer most of the county’s suicide prevention outreach dollars during the pandemic to the local Major League Baseball franchise.
One of Orange County’s top elected officials last week announced to the public she’s been stonewalled in getting answers from the county Health Care Agency, when asking officials to provide data measuring whether steering $6 million to the Angels through no-bid contracts is actually effective.
$1.1 million of those dollars came from federal coronavirus response dollars the county received under the CARES Act and secretly awarded to the Angels – something Voice of OC later discovered through a public records request.
“I’ve asked a couple of times for some data to support the metrics for the marketing campaign, to show that it is actually impacting the services that we are trying to support. And I haven’t been able to receive that information,” OC Supervisor Katrina Foley said at Tuesday’s meeting of the Board of Supervisors.
Foley spoke as supervisors were being asked to approve another $1.6 million in suicide prevention ads with the Angels – for a new total of $4.8 million in addition to the previous $1.1 million in federal dollars – after Foley delayed the item for a couple weeks while she awaited answers.
According to records reviewed by Voice of OC, the suicide prevention ad program includes outreach like billboard ads at Angel Stadium, radio ads and fan giveaways of Angels rally monkeys with a green ribbon to signfiy mental health awareness.
When it came time for Tuesday’s vote, Foley abstained, saying she didn’t have enough information to make a decision.
None of the other elected supervisors were interested in discussing concerns about the ads’ effectiveness.
Just after Foley’s remarks, her four colleagues approved the increase without discussion.
The questions come as Orange County grapples with a stark rise in suicides over the last couple decades.
As Voice of OC revealed in 2016, OC has seen the largest increase in its suicide-rate among all of the nation’s 20 most-populous counties from 1999 throguh 2013 – a rate that has continued to raise to all-time highs more recently.
Public outreach is important for breaking through stigmas and encouraging people to seek help – including among who have a higher risk for suicide like middle-aged men, advocates note.
Mental health experts say it’s important to raise awareness of the signs that loved ones are suicidal, and how people can get support if they or someone they know is struggling.
There are ways to measure if such public outreach campaigns actually make a difference.
Yet when it comes to the Angels campaign, the county apparently is not tracking the kinds of data that marketers often use to measure whether the ads are effective.
Orange County officials do keep data on how many times people saw the ads, saying they were seen millions of times through national TV coverage of the games and among those who watched in person.
But they can’t really say much beyond that.
For example, they were unable to say how many people actually followed through on what the ads suggest, such as visiting the educational website (suiceispreventable.org) mentioned in the ads.
Yet that’s often measured in marketing campaigns, through things like link tracking, website data and surveys.
Matt Holzmann, who chairs the citizens panel that advises the county on mental health programs, questioned the approach when asked about it by Voice of OC.
Holtzmann, who lost his step-son to suicide in 2014 and has volunteered with a host of mental health initiatives across Orange County, says he’s watched Angels games and seen the ads.
But he isn’t impressed with the quality of the effort.
“The signs at the stadium itself, they were poorly designed, they were poorly done. And basically they fade into the woodwork” of all the corporate logos and ads that surround them, said Holzmann, who chairs the county government’s Behavioral Health Advisory Board.
“If you’re talking about the physical advertising, if you look at it you’ll see it’s surrounded by corporate trademarks,” he added.
“You know the [corporate] logos immediately, and the [suicide prevention] one is just sort of there.”
Asked for their response to concerns that this isn’t the most effective use of these dollars, county health officials said the Angels ads are effective – without providing data beyond the number of times the ads were seen.
“The Angels package was determined to be an efficient media purchase to drive awareness of Mental Health topics and services,” said a statement from the Health Care Agency’s mental health staff, who are overseen by the agency’s director, Dr. Clayton Chau.
“Orange County’s broad-reaching media options are limited by L.A. boundaries for television and radio making them inefficient platforms for use within Orange County,” the statement added, saying none of the ads take away money from counseling services.
Before the ads go live, county officials say they test them through focus groups or online surveys to see which work better.
“Our goal is to reduce stigma of mental health issues, drive awareness of the services being available and keep that awareness top of mind so when a need for those services arises for someone or their loved ones, they may recall how and where to go for help,” Health Care Agency officials wrote in response to Voice of OC’s questions.
The Angels, which are owned by billionaire Arte Moreno, said they’re proud of their work, which they charge taxpayers $6 million for.
“We are proud of our partnership with OC Health Care Agency and the awareness it brings to support mental health in the county,” said Angels spokeswoman Marie Garvey.
She declined to answer whether the team’s management or Moreno considered gifting the ads as a public service, in light of the Angels using a taxpayer-funded stadium.
Angel Stadium was built by the city of Anaheim in the 1960s for the equivalent of about $200 million in today’s dollars.
The Angels get to use the taxpayer-funded stadium for an amount that averages to about $180,000 annually over a recent 12-year period.
That’s roughly $15,000 per month – equivalent to what five apartments rent for locally on average.
The Angels made $100 million in ticket sales at the stadium, as of 2019.
All of this has left some wondering whether a corporate entity that gets to use a taxpayer facility at bargain basement price should be running public service ads for free.
“I suppose you could argue this is a public service ad and should be provided free,” said Susan Shelley, vice president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.
The Angels have the county’s biggest contract for sucide prevention outreach, according to data provided by county officials.
Out of the 30 Major League Baseball teams, this could be the only usage of taxpayer dollars to hire a baseball team for such mental health outreach.
A search of online news articles couldn’t find any other examples.
While officials track how many people see the Angels mental health ads – which marketers call “impressions” – they do not track how effective the ads are at actually getting people to seek help, according to the Health Care Agency.
A county-funded poll found most people in a mental health focus group reported that they had seen some form of mental health-related ad.
But “the poll did not specifically ask whether the ad seen was from Angels Baseball,” according to the presentation.
When it comes to suicide prevention outreach during most of the coronavirus pandemic, the county spent the vast majority of its dollars on the Angels marketing deal, according to a county presentation.
Of the $2.2 million the county spent on suicide prevention outreach during from spring 2020 until late 2021, 83 percent went to the Angels.
“This [Angels] campaign was the only continuously active mental health awareness campaign that was running from April 2020 through October 2021,” the county presentation states, citing the coronavirus pandemic as the reason.
Yet the Angels ads often lacked a consistent message or theme, Holzmann said.
“If you’re going to put together a program that doesn’t have that zing to it…it’s not going to work nearly as well,” Holzmann said.
While a search could not find another Major League Baseball team to get federal COVID recovery dollars, minor league teams have been beneficiaries of these funds.
County officials in Upstate New York devoted $12 million in federal coronavirus relief funds towards renovating a minor league stadium to bring it up to the Yankees’ requirements for their feeder teams, according to the Associated Press.
In a statement to the AP, that county’s chief executive called that spending “completely and absolutely consistent” with Congress’ intent for the COVID relief funds.
County officials in Florida also devoted $1.7 million in CARES Act dollars to upgrade a minor league stadium in Tampa where the Yankees do their spring training.
And officials in Memphis, Tennessee also devoted $749,000 of their CARES Act dollars to maintaining and operating a minor league baseball stadium in their city.
Major League Baseball’s press office didn’t return a phone message and email asking if other teams have gotten federal COVID relief dollars.
Suicide prevention is a very serious issue and it’s fair to ask whether this is the most effective way to spend these dollars, said Shelley of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.
“I think it’s a fair question to ask – what else did they consider, what were the costs for the different kinds of outreach, and in terms of measuring the effectiveness,” Shelley told Voice of OC.
“It’s something that should be transparent to the taxpayers of whether what they’re spending it on is the best choice.”
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.