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In what's become an annual ritual, President Obama turned sports analyst today. He filled out his bracket for March Madness, the NCAA's college basketball tournament. Obama told ESPN he's picking Florida, Arizona, and Louisville to make the final four and Michigan State to win the national championship.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I think they know how to win. I think they're getting healthy. I think they're going to do really well.
CORNISH: It's not just the health of the Michigan State players on the president's mind. The White House is using this as part of its own full-court press. As NPR's Scott Horsley reports, their goal is to boost enrollment in the government's health insurance exchanges.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: It's a big sports week at the White House. President Obama not only appeared on ESPN, he also dialed in to a Spanish-language sports channel run by Univision, where he was asked about soccer's World Cup and the fast approaching deadline to sign up for health insurance.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
HORSLEY: The administration also unveiled a new 30-second TV ad that will air throughout the college basketball tournament.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
LEBRON JAMES: Hi. I'm LeBron James. I know how important it is to take care of yourself, your friends, and your family. That's why I want to tell you about the health insurance marketplace at healthcare.gov.
HORSLEY: So far, more than 5 million people have signed up on the website. Sports marketing expert Bob Dorfman says the administration is still trying to attract more young people, a notoriously difficult audience to reach.
BOB DORFMAN: It's a very elusive demographic. And if you listen to LeBron's spot, it's talking about anybody can get sick and have an emergency, trying to talk to people who sort of feel immune and carefree about it.
HORSLEY: Yesterday, the White House hosted a conference call to make the point that even healthy and athletic young people run the risk of injuries that can be costly if they don't have health insurance. James' Miami teammate Shane Battier did a quick inventory of the bumps and bruises he's suffered on the basketball court.
SHANE BATTIER: I think I have over 90 stitches from elbow to the face, broken elbow, over 25 ankle sprains...
HORSLEY: Dorfman, who writes the Sports Marketer's Scouting Report, says the White House effort to piggyback on March Madness makes sense, since the tournament attracts a cross-section of both serious and casual fans. Last year, the president's 2013 bracket was the most popular blog post all year on the White House website. Dorfman says it's natural for Obama, whose credentials as a sports fan are well established. The bigger stretch is for the celebrity athletes in the ads.
DORFMAN: It's not easy to get big-name, pro athletes to come out and talk political issues. You're tying yourself to the president. You're tying yourself to a Democrat. And as Michael Jordan is sort of famous for saying, Republicans buy sneakers, too.
HORSLEY: Last summer, when the administration tried to draft the National Football League into promoting the insurance exchanges, Republican senators warned the league not to get drawn in to what they called one of the most divisive political issues of our day. Lawmakers sent similar warnings to Major League Baseball, the NBA, the NHL, the Professional Golf Association and NASCAR. So the administration turned to individual stars. Dorfman says LeBron James hasn't shied away from taking controversial stands and it doesn't seem to be hurting his shoe sales.
DORFMAN: He's probably the most successful endorser of active athletes right now. I think he's making, like, $40 million a year. Two championships in a row can solve a lot of problems. As they say, winning cures everything.
HORSLEY: The White House can only hope some of that winning spirit rubs off with 12 days to go before the buzzer sounds for the insurance exchange. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.