The Super Bowl's Other Big Payday

It's the National Football League's championship game and the most-watched sporting event of the year. But the Super Bowl has some big winners off the field too. A look at how small businesses cash in on the big game.
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Super Bowl Sunday has become a national holiday of sorts, arguably the biggest media event of the year, when millions gather in front of their TVs for the commercials, the snacks, and, oh yeah, that football game.

But the annual economic boomlet doesn't just extend to the National Football League, the broadcast networks, and snackmakers. Indeed, entrepreneurs in a variety of industries have found a way to cash in on the big game.

Super Bowl-related sales approached $10 billion in 2008, with consumers spending an average of $59.90 each on everything from beer to new TVs, according to the National Retail Federation. Because of the recession, those figures will probably deflate this year, according to Patrick James Rishe, a professor at Webster University in St. Louis, who studies the economic impact of sporting events. Still, he notes that the Super Bowl's iconic status could insulate it from the economic downturn.

"People do like to treat it as a national holiday, so you could argue that the recession's effect on consumer spending might be a little less for the Super Bowl," he said. "People are going to be less sensitive to the prices because they want to get those things for the big game."

This year, the Super Bowl will be held in Tampa, Florida, on Feb. 1. And recession or no recession, businesses across the country are banking on this game to be one of their biggest sales drivers, akin to the holiday shopping season for other retailers. Here's how four entrepreneurs are capitalizing on pro football's signature event, and how they plan to buoy sales during these tough times.

"A very big impact on our business"

Last year, before the economy was in tatters, the NRF released a report estimating that consumers purchased 3.9 million televisions in anticipation of Super Bowl XLII. Now, as consumers cut back on frivolous spending, many people planning Super Bowl parties will forego buying a new television in favor of renting one for the weekend.

The business of short-term audio and visual equipment rentals kicks in to high gear before the Super Bowl, and firms like Meeting Tomorrow, a Chicago-based company that rents equipment for corporate events such as sales meetings and trade shows, have seen substantial increases in their business because of the event every year since their inception.

Mark Aistrope, Meeting Tomorrow's president, says his company never actively marketed its services for the Super Bowl, but people kept inquiring anyway. As the calendar turned to December and January, the company's phones were constantly ringing with earnest football fans requesting equipment for their Super Bowl blowouts.

In recent years, Meeting Tomorrow's Super Bowl business has been thriving. The increase began in 2006, when Aistrope created specially-priced package offerings and advertised them on the company website.

The company's Super Bowl packages now account for up to 60 percent of their business during the week of the event. This year they are on pace for a 65 percent growth in orders for their packages, according to Aistrope. The company even managed to land an A-list client in the Chicago area -- a player for the Chicago Bulls reserved Meeting Tomorrow's services for his Super Bowl party's AV setup, Aistrope says.

Meeting Tomorrow's Super Bowl success blossomed in spite of Aistrope's initial reluctance to embrace directly marketing the company's services to football fans. "I was cynical over whether people would go for it because we never really targeted private events, since our company is so corporate event-oriented," Aistrope says. "While I wasn't quick to embrace it, once we did it, it had a very big impact on our business."

The Super Bowl helps Meeting Tomorrow weather a usually slow season for corporate events, according to Aistrope. "It helps us smooth out what would otherwise be a difficult time of year when our other business is flat," he says.

Meeting Tomorrow's specialty packages start at $599, including roundtrip delivery and setup of all equipment, meaning its services might make more fiscal sense for those throwing large-scale gatherings. The company touts its ability to alter setups based on a customer's needs, as well as its quick turnaround time. As Aistrope says, "One of our core beliefs is that we can just about get anything done even in very tight timeframes, in any major city in the country."

"The entrepreneur in me just saw a huge opportunity"

Equipped with just an SUV and a card table, Steve Sodell first started hawking T-shirts at major sporting events in 2001. The Arizona Diamondbacks made it to the World Series that year, and Sodell, hoping to score some extra cash, set up shop in a parking lot outside of Chase Field in Phoenix. In a few hours, he completely sold out of the 200 logo-clad T-shirts he had bought earlier that day from Sam's Club.

"I felt like I struck gold that day," Sodell says. "The entrepreneur in me saw a huge opportunity, and I said to myself, 'There's got to be a local demand for these products.' Honestly, I didn't know much about retail at the time. I just knew how to hustle T-shirts."

Sodell is the CEO of Sports Fan Marketing, a Scottsdale, Arizona-based company he founded in 1999. Following a chance meeting with a representative from Reebok -- the NFL's top sportswear licensee -- he overhauled his company's business model to revolve around the Super Bowl. After submitting a proposal to the NFL, he soon joined an elite group of fewer than a dozen companies with reselling rights to the league's branded products. Temporarily renting retail space in the host city, he started selling the swag in 2003 at Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego. Today, it generates more than 75 percent of his business.

For Sodell, the Super Bowl starts long before kickoff on game day. He often begins planning two years in advance, making multiple trips to the host city to scope out potential store locations. This year, Sodell has kept three stores open since the start of the holiday shopping season. During the week of the Super Bowl, his makeshift chain will total 17 stores across the Tampa Bay area. The stores will shut down one week later, and Sodell will turn his focus to next year's game.

NFL-licensed merchandise -- hats, T-shirts, and other collectibles sold at the game venue -- is a booming business. Sales of such merchandise peaked at about $125 million in 1997, according to the NFL. And though Sodell won't disclose his exact revenue figures, he says the company pulled in between $1 million and $5 million last year.

The key is to target the local retail market, Sodell says. "I found a niche in the market where there was demand for Super Bowl merchandise among local fans in the city that was hosting the Super Bowl," he adds. "Now my business keeps increasing in volume and sales, and my stores keep getting nicer every year."

And even as the recession deepens, Sodell expects the novelty of Super Bowl-branded items to prop up sales, especially if the Pittsburgh Steelers play this year. "Not everybody can get a ticket for the Super Bowl, and the next best thing is a piece of memorabilia or a piece of history," he says. "The Steelers fans are just so rabid and passionate. If that team makes it to the Super Bowl, then we expect business to be just as good as ever."

"It's fun to come up with all these off-the-wall events!"

Many people don't realize it, but the Super Bowl is the biggest party of the year, according to Sherri Foxman, a Cleveland-based event planner and founder of Party411.com, an online retailer selling party supplies.

January is one of Party411's busiest months. Orders start in December and continue until the week of the Super Bowl.

"People call the Friday before the game asking if they can get their orders by Sunday," Foxman says.

The website's homepage points the way to their Super Bowl party-planning guide, which leads customers to their selection of football-specific products. Offerings range from personalized bottle labels to a beer cooler topped with a goalpost. The company sells football-themed balloons, confetti, banners, candles, and, of course, inflatable footballs.

The novelty decorations come from a wholesaler, but Party411 also designs, makes, and sells an array of customized products, including a popular series of invitations designed to mimic Super Bowl tickets.

Foxman's path into the party-planning industry was an unconventional one: It began when she married a blow-up doll.

In the early 1980s, Foxman wrote a guide to personal ads. But on her book tour, she repeatedly encountered people who wondered how she, a single woman, could be a relationship expert. She responded by returning home and marrying the doll, a move that generated a great deal of publicity. Charities began to write, asking her to plan similar attention-getting events.

"The next thing I knew, I was in the events business," Foxman says.

In 1997, she launched her party-supply site. Her events firm supported her e-commerce venture until online sales took off, and Party411 now far exceeds the party planning company.

But Foxman, who writes for the site as "the Party Girl," continues to draw on the enthusiasm that brought her to the business to create their party guides. "It's fun to come up with all these off-the-wall events!" she says.

"It's a complicated business"

As anyone who has ever attended a major sporting event knows, scoring tickets is only half the battle. Where to stay, where to party, and where to find transportation in an unfamiliar city all complicate a visitor's plans.

That's where PrimeSport steps in. This subsidiary of venture-backed ticket vendor RazorGator offers clients travel packages that include hotel rooms, game admission, and other amenities for popular events like the Masters, the Rose Bowl, and the NCAA Final Four.

But according to CEO Jeff Lapin, the Super Bowl is hands-down their biggest event of the year.

PrimeSport's major challenge lies in the game's venue changing annually. Every year, the company goes in early and reserves hotel rooms, scouts locations for the pre-game party, and interviews local vendors. Meanwhile, the staff continues to plan for other events as varied as Formula One races and Major League Baseball games.

"It's a complicated business, and it requires a lot of people and logistics," Lapin says.

While the sports travel industry is competitive, PrimeSport has seen three years of growth. Lapin attributes his company's success to its commitment to excellent customer service for corporate clients. "They come back year after year, and that's really a testament to our people."

RazorGator was formed in late 2004 with the merger of several companies, one of which was PrimeSport. Lapin, who had been involved with several companies, including Starwood Hotels, was recruited as CEO.

The two companies are a perfect fit, Lapin says. "We move a lot of people to those large events, to the Rose Bowl and to NCAA games, and we're good at it," he explains. "It's a natural extension of the business to sell packages."

Lapin, a big sports fan himself, says he loves the excitement of the Super Bowl and the chance to talk to PrimeSport's clients. "It's a three- or four-day event with constant parties leading up to the game itself," he says. "It's great."

Last updated: Jan 16, 2009




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