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Super Bowl Excess Out of Fashion

Times Staff Writer

When the Super Bowl last came to San Diego five years ago, corporate hospitality manager Kaye Burkhardt was on a roll. She booked one client’s guests into a pricey hotel, arranged a pregame soiree in a room facing the Pacific Ocean and then wowed the revelers with a final, Gatsby-esque touch.

“We hired boats to cruise up and down in front of their hotel all night long, with their company name in lights,” she said. “So every time someone looked out the window, they saw their company name.”

Not this time. Instead of being on a roll, corporate Super Bowl celebrations are being rolled back.

Caught in the shadow of Sept. 11 and the headlights of war with Iraq, worried about a sputtering economy and the public relations fallout from accounting scandals, companies are being more cautious about spending during America’s premier sporting event, according to the National Football League and hospitality consultants.

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Companies are booking fewer hotel room-nights, buying cheaper stadium seats, hiring fewer celebrities to impress clients and planning less elaborate dinners.

Even the NFL, which kicked off the season with an unprecedented party for half a million people in New York’s Times Square, is scaling back its own storied largess for Super Bowl XXXVII, to be held Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego.

Instead of throwing three parties for 8,000 people the night before the Big Game -- as it has done -- the league is now putting on just one, for 3,500 guests.

“Everybody’s playing the budget game,” explained Jim Steeg, the NFL’s senior vice president for special events.

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For years now, the Super Bowl has been as much about corporate strutting as gridiron glory. Companies have handed out game tickets and party invitations to curry favor with key clients or as in-house incentives to reward outstanding workers. The tickets have a face value of $400 to $500 but can cost $5,000 apiece through brokers -- far beyond the means of most fans.

Firms use the telecast as an international springboard for advertising campaigns, which draw an estimated 40% of the day’s television audience. And their merrymaking leading up to game day often makes the action on the field seem anticlimactic.

Exceptions to Austerity

Certainly, some companies this year intend to keep partying like it’s 1999.

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Maxim magazine is converting an empty downtown San Diego warehouse into “Maximville.” Guests will stroll through a “red-light district” featuring burlesque dancers, a casino and a gift-counter-as-pawnshop and peek at an indoor carwash run by scantily clad women. “We’re definitely not cutting back,” said marketing director Amy Newman.

Most companies, however, are downsizing their Super Bowl spending.

Corporations typically refuse to discuss their Super Bowl preparations or how much they cost. While corporate America isn’t staging a hunger strike, the people who plan the festivities say they are continuing a trend that began after the terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The motivation behind this year’s concerns stems from fears of overspending and offending shareholders. Firms are being particularly careful before approving Super Bowl expenditures that can range from $4,000 to $15,000 per guest, planners say. Most companies are spending $4,000 to $7,000 per person, they add.

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And even if there’s plenty of money for a Super Bowl splurge, executives don’t want to be seen preening while troops are sent to the Middle East, memories of record bankruptcies and huge executive loan packages linger, and the stock market struggles like the lowly Cincinnati Bengals.

“The days of the boondoggle are over,” declared David Guenther, president of Roadtrips Inc., a company that creates employee and customer incentive programs around the Super Bowl and other sporting events. Added Burkhardt, president of Dallas Fan Fares Inc.: “It’s no longer politically correct to be splashy.”

That means Burkhardt won’t be arranging any $1-million extravaganzas, such as the one for a corporate client who flew in 250 cardiologists for the 1988 Super Bowl, also held in San Diego. The firm, which she declined to name, put the doctors up in a posh Newport Beach hotel, threw a huge party, hired 16 Hall-of-Fame-caliber former football players to lead the guests in a mock Olympics, and then had a new pharmaceutical product delivered to the doctors’ hotel rooms at the stroke of 12:01 a.m. before the game.

Gone, too, will be the boats festooned with lights. She said companies also are forsaking themed parties that add from $10,000 to more than $100,000 to the catering bill. Instead they’re opting for renting out restaurants and treating guests to a quiet first-class meal. Firms are passing up the coveted seats on the 50-yard line for less expensive tickets closer to the end zone. And they’re scaling back the number of celebrities, mostly pro football players, hired for $2,500 to $45,000 each to mingle, give motivational speeches or recount locker room anecdotes.

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Invitations Pared Down

The biggest change is in the number of people that companies are inviting.

What used to be considered the ultimate junket is now determined by return on investment, said Jay Kenney, senior vice president for consulting at International Management Group, a sports representation firm. Companies are targeting only key clients and crucial decision-makers with invitations and they’re making it tougher for employees to win Super Bowl trips in sales contests. Spouses are being left behind, and tickets are nontransferable.

“There’s got to be a lot more business reasons for these invitations,” said Kenney, who advises corporate clients interested in using “pinnacle” sports events for stoking employee productivity.

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As a result, corporations are reserving about half the rooms they did during the last Super Bowl in San Diego, according to RoomStar.com, the game’s designated hotel reservation service. Companies sold two-thirds of the hotel nights RoomStar.com had available five years ago before the NFC and AFC championship games; this year, firms have reserved only about one-third.

“If you’re on the board of a company, it’s hard to spend a half-million dollars on a game when your profits are down and your stock is down,” said RoomStar.com President Matt DeLine, whose firm is handling 5,000 of the county’s 52,000 hotel rooms. He said the glut has driven down room rates, from $332 charged for the 1998 Super Bowl to $275 today.

His wish is that avid fans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Oakland Raiders will fill the void by streaming into town and taking up the slack.

The NFL itself is finding it tougher to rent out space in the league’s corporate “hospitality village,” a collection of about two dozen meeting tents set aside for corporate parties on 18 acres of the Qualcomm Stadium parking lot. The village traditionally serves as party central for companies immediately before and after the game.

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Although the number of attendees and tent upgrades probably will be about the same as two years ago, it’s been a much harder sell, said Debbie Wardrop, the NFL’s director of special events. Rather than sit back and wait for companies to sign up as before, Wardrop said she’s “had to reach out ... in new and unique ways,” including setting up a Super Bowl booth for the first time during a recent business-travel trade show.

Inhospitable Times

While some hospitality consultants say there are more than enough firms eager to take up the slack, others report that corporate reluctance has put a crimp in their business. At Burkhardt’s firm, one client trimmed its manifest from 70 employees and spouses last year to 30 employees for this year’s contest.

Former college football coach Vince Gibson said things are even worse at his New Orleans-based company, Spectacular Sports Specials, in the Super Bowl corporate-bash business for 18 years. The firm used to take 1,500 people to the championship game for corporations; this year, it will be about 800, he said.

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Gibson said one big reason is that his former clients included Enron Corp. and WorldCom Inc., both of which filed for bankruptcy last year. Just when corporate partygoing will make a comeback at the Super Bowl is anybody’s guess, Gibson added. Even the obvious advantage of entertaining at the country’s most publicized sports spectacle can’t negate some things.

“The Super Bowl’s a big deal,” he said, “but the economy’s killing us.”


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