For the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota and others, Jerry Kill’s case has become a hard-to-pass-up opportunity.
The University of Minnesota football coach spoke at the foundation’s annual galas the past two years — before his latest well-documented seizures — and they sold out for the first time. The charity, which had $1.38 million in revenues last year, has seen an increase in donations this year.
On Saturday, the charity will help sponsor a second annual epilepsy awareness event at the university’s home game against Nebraska in another sign that Kill’s condition has become important to both charities and for-profit companies with ties to the world of epilepsy.
The New Jersey-based Anita Kaufmann Foundation, named after an East Coast lawyer with epilepsy who died a decade ago, is also playing a key role in the planning for Saturday’s game in Minnesota. “Anytime we see we have someone [like Kill] who can help us, we just grab them because we need everyone” to help promote epilepsy awareness, said Debra Josephs, the foundation’s executive director.
The pharmaceutical company Eisai, based in Japan, is also helping out at Saturday’s “Go-pher Epilepsy Awareness Game,” and will have its corporate logo — along with the University of Minnesota’s logo — on 50,000 rally towels to be given to fans. The company already markets one epilepsy drug, Banzel, and has recently won federal approval for another seizure drug, Fycompa.
“We’re not marketing anything” during the game, said Eisai spokeswoman Laurie Landau, who stressed the company’s focus would be on epilepsy awareness. “[But] sponsoring a football game is somewhat unusual for us.” Eisai also will have people in action-hero costumes at the game to distribute comic books explaining details of epilepsy.
The economic stakes that are at least indirectly tied to the media attention that Kill’s epilepsy has garnered are high. Eisai reached $1 billion in U.S. sales in 2002, and three years later doubled that figure to $2 billion. The company in August filed a federal appeals court petition accusing government officials of “unreasonably” and “egregiously” delaying its ability to make Fycompa available to patients. Eisai said that, as a result, “thousands of potential patients suffering with partial onset seizures — a serious medical condition for which there is great unmet medical need — cannot obtain the drug.”
Before the latest boost in revenues, the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota meanwhile had seen its revenues fall slightly from $1.68 million in 2011 and $1.39 million in 2010. The foundation estimates 60,000 Minnesotans and North Dakotans have epilepsy.
Purple for branding
In New Jersey, Josephs said it was her son, Eric, a former National Football League scout, who told her about Kill’s high-profile seizures after watching reports on ESPN. “So, he says, ‘Mom, I have a great idea,’ ” she said. “We contacted the coach and Rebecca,” Kill’s wife, and they flew out to meet Rebecca Kill to pitch their idea.
“She loved it,” added Josephs, who then said she contacted the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota to be a local partner.
Josephs said Saturday’s game will have several epilepsy awareness features — the “spirit squad” will wave purple pompoms, the official color of epilepsy awareness — and said the goal is to have similar events at other college games much like the National Football League has had its players and coaches wear pink to highlight breast cancer awareness. “The ‘color’ of epilepsy is purple, and so we’ve been branding that, and branding it and branding it,” she said.
The Anita Kaufmann Foundation had $106,075 in revenues in 2011, and foundation officials said preliminary figures show the charity is growing — with new contributions up at least 44 percent.
University athletics spokesman Chris Werle said that, while the school is helping to market Saturday’s event, it is trying to keep some distance. Officials at the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota also insist they have not tried to influence the school’s decisionmaking involving Kill, who remains on an indefinite leave as head coach.
But the ties are easy to notice.
The Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota has nearly run out of T-shirts it has featured bearing the word “Jerry-sota,” a nod to the coach and the school. Vicki Kopplin, the executive director of the foundation, was sitting with Kill’s wife at the game earlier this fall when the coach had his latest on-the-field seizure.
“It seems, as you look at it now, that people might be climbing on,” said Werle. But he added that the first epilepsy awareness game was held last year, before Kill’s seizures this fall and his decision to take a leave of absence.
The university declined to make the Kills available for comment.
Kopplin said the Minnesota foundation has also given out a limited number of tickets to Saturday’s football game that she said were donated by Upsher-Smith Laboratories, a Minnesota-based pharmaceutical. She said that “there’s just a heightened energy around the organization.”
She added that, since the headlines surrounding Kill’s recent seizures, there has been “a bit of an uptick” in “pure financial impact” to the foundation that was “certainly not hundreds of thousands of dollars,” and could be as little as $10,000. “[It’s] hard to measure,” Kopplin said.
Brett Boyum, board president for the foundation, is also not shy about the marketing opportunities that Kill’s high profile offers. Boyum, a vice president for marketing at Marvin Windows and Doors, was featured this week on Gopher Sports Update, an independently produced radio recap of the school’s on-the-field exploits.
Awareness of “epilepsy, seizures, through Jerry Kill, has probably never been more prevalent in the news,” Boyum said on the segment. “Most certainly there’s a [marketing] opportunity. Unfortunately, it comes at Coach Kill’s circumstances.”
Boyum said he has suffered from seizures, and so has his son, Travis. He said Kill invited Boyum and his family to a spring football practice, and Boyum said his family will be at Saturday’s game. “All five of us are going to be there, handing out [rally] towels,” he said.
Kevin Goodno, a lobbyist for the foundation, said the foundation’s partnership with the university “should have been a natural thing” because of the school’s medical expertise.
But, Goodno continued, “I have to say that the whole issue with Coach Kill is the catalyst to bringing everything together.”