SBJ/20090126/Super Bowl XLIII

Companies trim spending on Super Bowl events

The Super Bowl long has been a prime chance for corporate activation, and so it is again this year. Most companies setting their sites on Tampa, however, are planning far less than in years past.

Not surprisingly, the ongoing recession is the most-cited reason for a change of plans, but at least one marketer said Tampa’s game was facing a challenge even before the economy soured.

“We knew in March that it was going to be a light year, having nothing to do with the economy,” said Brian Gordon, president of Miami Marketing Group, which helps organize events around the Super Bowl.

Gordon said his company ordinarily operates four to six Super Bowl-oriented events annually, if not more, including for clients Victoria’s Secret and Pontiac. This year, he’s working on two, and he says the host site has something to do with that. He notes not only the relative lack of luxury accommodations for Tampa proper — visitors will stay in St. Petersburg or even Orlando  — but also how the city compares with recent and future Super Bowl hosts.

“Tampa is … sandwiched in between two very good Super Bowls, from a celebrity and entertainment standpoint: Phoenix and its proximity to L.A., and 2010 in Miami,” Gordon said. “We felt there [were] going to be a lot of people on the entertainment side that would just want to skip it.”

GM won’t advertise during the Super Bowl
broadcast, but will maintain the sponsorship
of the MVP award through its Cadillac brand.

For many league-level sponsors, the task is finding ways to reduce costs while still being active at the NFL’s premier event. Among them, General Motors, recently the benefactor of billions of federal bailout dollars, and Circuit City, which in November filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, both plan to use the Super Bowl again this year as a targeted way to leverage their brands.

In the case of GM, the company two years ago had more than 400 courtesy vehicles on the ground to shuttle VIPs across town during Super Bowl XL in its home city of Detroit. This year, that number has been scaled back to several dozen, according to GM spokeswoman Kelly Cusinato.

In addition, the company in the past has held national dealer meetings at the Super Bowl site. Those meetings, which already had been scaled back in recent years, are “pretty much nonexistent this year,” Cusinato said.

“All part of cost reductions,” she added.

The company is, however, maintaining with its Cadillac brand its years-long sponsorship of the Super Bowl MVP award. That sponsorship is part of GM’s larger partnership with the NFL. “We still see this great opportunity to showcase our products to a large TV viewing audience,” Cusinato said. “Our affiliation with the NFL and with the Super Bowl still provides us with a high-profile partnership.”

Similarly, Circuit City  is title sponsoring the Celebrity Flag Football Challenge on Saturday as an extension of its relationship with the NFL. Lisa Levine, a spokesperson for SPP Sports, which is organizing the event, said the outing is still seen as a strong promotion despite the company’s recent Chapter 11 filing. “For everybody in a hosting city,” she said, “it enables them to really appreciate what Super Bowl has to offer, since most of your average consumers will never get to the game.”

Pepsi, in its seventh season as the official soft drink sponsor of the NFL, plans to host a handful of events leading up to Super Bowl Sunday, including a pair of concerts on Thursday and Friday nights featuring musicians such as Rihanna, Enrique Iglesias and Fall Out Boy. “The NFL is a big hit with our consumers” said Pepsi spokeswoman Michelle Naughton. “We find it invaluable to be able to use league marks for our football-themed marketing efforts.”

ESPN The Magazine will
host its biggest event of the
year (top) in support of its
“Next” effort, while DirecTV
will return as sponsor
of the Beach Bowl.

NFL media partners ESPN and DirecTV will be active players around this year’s big game, as well, hosting events in Tampa similar to what they’ve done at recent Super Bowls. Both value the on-site presence as a way to leverage their brands, but they also see it as a way to thank their partners, according to company executives.

ESPN The Magazine, in support of its “Next” effort, will host its biggest event of the year in Tampa: a VIP party for corporate sponsors and dignitaries on Friday, and an all-day free tailgate for fans on Saturday.

“The Super Bowl is the great secular national holiday,” said Gary Hoenig, ESPN Publishing general manager and editorial director. “It is essentially the biggest sports convention you can possibly conceive of. If you’re trying to push the idea that you are about the future of sports, and if you have this big event celebrating the athlete you pick as the ‘Next’ athlete, there’s no other place to do it.”

The “Next” event garners more sponsorship, both in quantity and dollars generated, than any other event the magazine puts on throughout the year. ESPN this season locked in seven sponsors for the two-day gala, up from five for the event in Arizona last year. All told, according to a company spokesperson, the venture is a money-making effort, with several million dollars in revenue being generated.

Ford, as part of a greater relationship with ESPN, will leverage its F-150 truck as the presenting sponsor for the “Next” soirée. “This year, more than any other year, we’re not going over the top,” said Eric Peterson, Ford Truck communications manager. “But being at the Super Bowl, and being part of a partnership that gets us there, makes a ton of sense.”

The third annual DirecTV Beach Bowl, with live coverage on DirecTV on Saturday, offers the satellite provider the opportunity to reinforce its Sunday Ticket partnership with the NFL. “The Super Bowl is the biggest event of the year,” said Jon Gieselman, DirecTV senior vice president of advertising and public relations. “You’ve got to be a part of it.”

But as companies continue to scrutinize their finances, sports inevitably will see the adverse effects of a thriftier corporate America, even for the Super Bowl.

“I think the game is going to change, not just with the Super Bowl but with all events,” said Miami Marketing Group’s Gordon. “If you can’t make people feel like their business objectives are going to be met, then the money isn’t going to be there just for hospitality or having their brand associated with a really cool party.”

Brian Helfrich is a staff writer for sister publication SportsBusiness Daily.

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