Mark Kaufman has a unique perspective on the Cubs-Cardinals playoff series. Just over a year ago, the CEO of physical therapy chain Athletico was wrapping up his company’s seventh season as a Cubs sponsor and negotiating to renew the contract for a second time. But things had changed since the last deal was signed. The Cubs were getting better and eyeing physical therapy as a category it could sell exclusively to one company for a lot of money.
The deal was too rich for Kaufman’s blood—no small feat, given that Athletico is one of the only companies that sponsors every major professional sports team in town—and the two sides parted ways in October 2014. Five months later, after the Cubs replaced Oak Brook-based Athletico with rival ATI Physical Therapy as one of its top-tier partners, Kaufman and Athletico announced a partnership with, yes, the rival Cardinals.
Of course, it wasn’t designed as a slight to the Cubs. Kaufman’s then-23-year-old company had recently acquired Chicago-based competitor Accelerated Physical Therapy, instantly transforming Athletico from a 90-location chain primarily in the Chicago area to a regional behemoth with around 350 locations in nine states. It was beginning to rebrand all the locations under the Athletico banner and needed to tell its story in new markets, including St. Louis.
Intentions aside, Kaufman is playing diplomat this week when it comes to the playoff series. “You’ve got to just be a sports fan in situations like this,” he said before Game 1 of the National League Division Series. “We were with the Cubs and still have a lot of friends over there.”
Athletico has been one of the most prevalent sponsors on the Chicago sports scene this century. Its first big splash in local pro sports came in 1997, when it began supporting the nascent Chicago Fire Major League Soccer team. A few years later it added the Bears, White Sox, Blackhawks and Bulls. The company eventually signed on with Northwestern Athletics, the Cubs and the Big Ten Conference.
Teams with smaller followings also are part of the company’s team portfolio, including the Chicago Red Stars women’s pro soccer team, the Chicago Steel minor-league hockey team and the Chicago Bandits pro softball team. “Historically we’ve done it because our customers and patients are in the seats and we want to connect (them to) what we really do,” said Kaufman, a native of southeastern Iowa. “People look at physical therapy as a commodity. We want to be seen as a differentiated leader.”
The industry is growing as a larger number of baby boomers remain active and need such services. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 36 percent jump in physical therapy jobs nationwide from 2012 to 2022. That’s why Athletico has boosted its marketing budget, most of which has been directed at sports sponsorships, its largest single marketing expense.
In a market with so many companies competing for attention from rabid sports fans, Athletico is a sponsor of nearly everyone, said Jim Andrews, senior vice president of Chicago-based sponsorship consulting firm IEG. “They have a ubiquity strategy,” he said, noting that companies use sponsorships differently depending on whether or not they offer need-based services. “We all need a bank, we don’t all need physical therapy. So when the time comes that you need physical therapy, you’ve got that association in your mind. That may be all they need to do.”
Part of the reason Athletico is so involved in local pro sports is that the company provides physical therapy to most of the teams themselves as part of the sponsorship agreements. But Kaufman, who declines to disclose company revenue, said he also has spent more to maintain his deals with teams even as sponsorship competition has made contracts more expensive. The company recently reupped with the Bears, Northwestern and the Big Ten.
“It’s been more competitive,” he said. “But it forces good decisions and forces sponsors to take a look at what are the real relationships, what are the real values being driven.” And as Athletico expands its Midwest footprint, Kaufman has no choice but to get comfortable hitching up with other teams around the region, rivals included.
Its newest partner as of today? The Detroit Red Wings.