A bulk of Orange County’s funds intended for mental health awareness and outreach is going to two professional sports teams, yet it’s unclear what the multimillion dollar contracts have produced.
In the last five months, OC Supervisors have signed contracts that brought the total spent on the Anaheim Ducks’ and Los Angeles Angels’ sports advertising campaigns to just under $14.5 million.
Those contracts are set up to highlight the OC Health Care Agency’s mental health programs offered to residents struggling with mental illness and to raise awareness on the issue according to Dr. Veronica Kelley, the agency’s chief of Mental Health and Recovery Services.
But Kelley also said they’re not sure how effective the ad campaign will be.
“We look forward to analyzing data from the proposed metrics once a history is established and context can be provided on the effectiveness of the outreach efforts,” Kelley said in a Wednesday email, responding to a question on what benefits the advertising would generate.
The contracts have gotten mixed reviews from local mental health advocates, with some saying the support from athletes brings greater awareness while others question if it’s the best use of taxpayer’s money.
The Duck’s contract runs through June 2025 and is worth just under $8.5 million and the Angels’ is set to end this year, worth nearly $6 million.
Together, the two contracts take up a big piece of the advertising budget for mental health outreach, set at $9.25 million a year for the entire county.
That means the Ducks’ contract alone accounts for almost a third of the entire budget for the next three years.
The contracts are paid for under the county’s funding from the state’s Mental Health Services Act.
County staff justified the expense of the Ducks’ contract by saying it would expose their services to people who wouldn’t ordinarily seek them out, claiming that Ducks fans care the most about a “healthy lifestyle,” over the fans of any other team in the National Hockey League.
“Without this contract, (the county) would lose a significant opportunity to provide mental health and well-being information to large Orange County audiences, many of whom may not otherwise be exposed to this information,” staff wrote in a report detailing why the advertising contract did not go out to bid.
“There are no others to compare to as the Anaheim Ducks are the only National Hockey League team in Orange County,” county staff wrote.
During their public meetings, Orange County Supervisors didn’t have many questions on the contracts, but Supervisor Katrina Foley brought up concerns with the Angel’s contract when it was increased in April, saying there wasn’t enough information on what the money was doing.
But Foley was a supporter of the Duck’s contract at the board meeting last week when the contract was approved, and was the first vote to spend the money.
In a Monday phone interview, Foley said the difference between the two projects was the Ducks came in with a plan.
“With the Angels’ contract there was no meat on the bones, I couldn’t even tell what they were going to do,” Foley said. “This program to me seemed much more well thought out and I think the execution looks a lot better … there’s defined metrics for success so we can track the progress of the campaign.”
In the Duck’s contract, the team announced plans for several advertisements including County of Orange logos on team helmets and in the stadium, social media outreach campaigns, TV ads and ticket giveaways.
There’s also plans to track the engagement from all those options through unnamed outside consultants.
To read the entire plan, click here.
Those outreach plans resemble much of what the Angels did, with messaging around the stadium and online to promote the campaign.
While the Angels offered statistics on how many people saw previous ads, estimating the total impressions from the stadium and TV ads in the tens of millions, there wasn’t any information on if the ads impacted how many people showed up for mental health services.
The baseball team’s social media outreach received less than 1,000 engagements total in 2021, with an average of around 6 engagements per post from their 3.5 million followers across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, according to a county staff report.
Foley pointed to the Ducks’ plans to use team members for “Mental Health Mondays,” where athletes are slated to talk about their own struggles with mental health and what they do for help.
That’s a move that can really change the conversation around mental health according to Steve Pitman, president of the Orange County chapter for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“People think ‘Certainly leaders of organizations like the Angels and the Ducks, they wouldn’t have mental illness,’ and I’d bet my house that they do and they just don’t talk about it because there’s such stigma involved,” Pitman said in an interview.
”When a really strong leader … comes forward to say ‘I’ve struggled with this or my family has struggled with this and there’s a way out of this and you are not alone,’ that’s powerful.’”
But there have also been questions on why so much money is being spent on sports franchises to promote the PSAs on mental health.
Matt Holzmann, chair of the county’s Behavioral Health Advisory Board, voiced concerns about the Angels’ contract when it was approved, questioning if the cash was really going to the right place.
“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,” Holzmann said in April. “You know the [corporate] logos immediately, and the [suicide prevention] one is just sort of there.”
Holzmann declined to comment on the Ducks contract.
When Voice of OC reporters asked the county Health Care Agency what other options were considered for the mental health outreach campaigns, there wasn’t a clear answer.
“HCA advertisements support the HCA goal of expanding the reach of mental health wellness to a local Orange County audience and to specific target populations at higher risk for mental illness,” Kelley wrote in an email. “This is done using a variety of traditional and digital media platforms.”
Foley said the advertisements help target one of the demographics that suffer most from thoughts of depression and suicide – middle-aged white men.
“The targets for risk for mental health right now are middle-aged white men and LGBTQ youth,” Foley said. “Based on that data, targeting sports events, for that middle aged white male that’s probably a great target.”
But Foley also said the county needs to do more to reach out to other affected groups, adding she wanted to see more work getting done in schools with outreach and for veterans.
“It’s not mutually exclusive,” Foley said. “There’s so much money in the Mental Health Service Act right now that one of the challenges I’ve placed on staff is we need to get some good quality programming going with these dollars.”
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a Groundtruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.