SBJ/20081124/This Week's News

Party’s off for some at Super Bowl

Editor's Note: This story is revised from the print edition

The mother of all sports party scenes — the Super Bowl — will be leaner come February in Tampa.

With the nation’s economy headed toward recession, gala parties, such as Sports Illustrated’s annual bash, and smaller, private parties like those hosted by talent agencies CAA and Octagon, have been canceled. And though the official stance for Playboy, which usually holds a lavish gathering, was that its plans are “up in the air,” the magazine seemed poised to throw in the party towel.

“While we are huge fans of Super Bowl weekend, and are participating in the DirecTV Celebrity Beach Bowl event, our plans for a party have yet to be confirmed,” said Lauren Melone, Playboy’s senior vice president of public relations. Playboy Enterprises announced cutbacks and staff reductions earlier this month.

Penthouse magazine, which usually hosts one of the bigger parties, didn’t return calls by press time for this story.

Kimberly Krouse, a partner in Toast, a leading events producer and one of the creators of the first Maxim Super Bowl party in 2001, said a mega-Super Bowl affair can cost about $1 million to stage. In years past, some party sponsors have helped foot the bill by putting up $200,000 or more.

“People are scaling back a lot,” said Krouse, whose firm is helping to stage Coors Light’s Super Bowl party in Orlando. “We’re a luxury business, and people just don’t have the money to spend on luxury anymore.”

Toast’s own $700-to-$1,000 per-person party in Tampa, called “Vice-A-Go-Go,” is feeling the economic crunch. In its third year, it has some sponsors, but not enough.

“So we’re feeling it, too,” Krouse said.

Maxim, by the way, whose party has become the official bacchanal of the Super Bowl, still plans to stage its party, said spokeswoman Nora Haynes.

At NFL headquarters, spokesman Brian McCarthy acknowledged that the league’s fabled “Commissioner’s Party” may have fewer revelers this year. “In part, because we anticipate our business partners will be cutting back on the numbers they bring to town,” he said. “We are not immune.”

Among others still on the schedule: ESPN The Magazine said its party is on, but that it isn’t ready to announce sponsors. Three parties over three nights called “The Good Life Experience,” starring boxer Winky Wright and rapper entrepreneur P. Diddy, will be staged in St. Petersburg, Fla., with tickets going for from $200 to $800 a night. And actor John Travolta still plans to hold his annual Super Bowl party. Meanwhile, former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo, who doesn’t usually throw a big Super Bowl party, is planning to host one this year. His company, DeBartolo Sports & Entertainment, is based in Tampa.

Spokesman Scott Novak said Sports Illustrated canceled its hot-ticket event because, “In this challenging economy, we decided hosting a party wasn’t the right thing to do.” Layoffs and buyouts have been under way recently at the magazine and at other Time Inc. properties.

CAA Sports, the sports division of Creative Artists Agency, has held two Super Bowl parties since being created in 2006. The event became a must-attend when clients Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes danced there in 2007. But not this year.

Super Bowl party organizers and party planners say the party scene around the game has been changing in recent years. A flurry of parties staged by event companies and backed by some sponsors — often alcoholic beverage companies — have sprung up, saturating the market.

Rapper Common at Playboy’s Super Bowl party
in February. Playboy hasn’t announced whether
it will throw a party in Tampa.

Except this year, there’s a pullback among the established bashes, removing some of the big-time buzz of the week.

“Our corporate clients and the individuals we send [to the Super Bowl], they want to go to Playboy and to Maxim because of the sexiness of the name,” said Jim Zissler, vice president of sales and marketing at Inside Sports & Entertainment Group, which customizes Super Bowl hospitality packages and typically sells as many as 700 to corporate clients and wealthy individuals. Cost: $2,000 to $10,000 a person.

Zissler said his business is down a bit, but not as much as he would have thought, given economic conditions. Some clients signed on for Super Bowl plans earlier in the year, before the economy tumbled.

Super Bowl parties often are announced late in the calendar year, and Super Bowl tourism usually sees guests make decisions closer to the event than some other major sporting events, such as the Olympics. Still, this year decisions on the game and hospitality seem to be getting made later than ever.

Another issue: Many corporate sponsors are staying in Orlando, 75 miles away from the game site in Tampa.

“It’s a late-breaking kind of thing,” said Brian Learst, president of Quint Events, the NFL’s official corporate hospitality provider. “With things being spread out this year and, to some extent, with the economy, people are waiting to see.”

As of late last week, the Florida Aquarium, which played host to four parties in 2001, the last time the game was in Tampa, had no major events booked for Super Bowl week. Aquarium spokesman Tom Wagner said there are discussions with some potential clients, but that sponsors seem to be slow to commit.

Busch Gardens, another key Tampa venue, played host to four Super Bowl events in 2001. A spokeswoman said two Super Bowl events are set for 2009.

Dexter Santos, vice president of player marketing for Players Inc., said the NFL Players Association’s marketing arm facilitated about 500 player appearances for NFL sponsors and licensees during Super Bowl week last season. Although it is too early to tell how many appearances NFL players will make in Tampa, Santos said that some sponsors are trying to be more efficient in their spending.

“I have heard some sponsors say they still plan on hosting the event, but they are going to cut back on their support staff at the event,” he said.

A telling aspect of the cutbacks is that those with social responsibility themes could, in an odd way, benefit from the struggling economy.

Agent Leigh Steinberg, one of the pioneers of big Super Bowl parties, is planning his third, environment-themed green party. “We are absolutely going to hold ours,” he said.

And while the Taste of the NFL, the centerpiece charity event of Super Bowl week since 1992, is feeling some of the economic pinch, founder and chairman Wayne Kostroski said he still expects to sell out, with 3,000 guests on the field at Tropicana Field to eat the food of chefs from all the NFL cities.

With ticket sales ($500) and full table sales ($6,000) a bit behind previous years, “Things are just moving at a slower pace,” Kostroski said. But he’s confident of success again because Taste of the NFL is, perhaps, the one Super Bowl party that’s not about being ostentatious. It’s about raising money — more than $8 million over the years — to fund America’s Second Harvest food banks.

That philanthropic aspect, Kostroski said, might insulate the Taste of the NFL from some corporate cutbacks.

“We, more than ever, have to put on this party at the Super Bowl and have to raise as much as we possibly can because the need is so great,” he said. “This Super Bowl and our party are so timely. It helps corporations justify some real dollars they have to spend there in Tampa.”

Jay Weiner is a writer in Minnesota.

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