Mitchell Lombard, owner of Fort Lauderdale's Atlas Embroidery and Screen Printing, isn't forking over $2.7 million for 30 seconds of airtime at Sunday's Super Bowl XLIV – for him, just doing business with the NFL is ad enough.

"It's a feather in our cap," says Lombard, whose 60-person company will churn out thousands of t-shirts bearing the champions' name once the whistle blows. "It's a very small piece of our business – it's more of an accomplishment than anything else." (There's maybe a bit of understatement there: Lombard also says the contract allows employees "to get overtime and make back some of what they didn't get in 2009.")

For the big game, the NFL will hire dozens of small companies for jobs ranging from crafting mini metal lockers (tickets for premium seat holders are delivered in them) to arranging floral centrepieces for pre-game dinners. The businesses jump through major hoops for contracts that usually require a last-minute sprint – and low margins. The big prize, though, is not the money from the work itself – "though it's sweet because the economy is so rocky," says Lombard – but the experience, contacts and credibility that result in big payoffs later. Lesson: Don't judge a contract's worth only in dollars.

"Once you're able to put on your client listing that you did business with the NFL for the Super Bowl, it gives you a lot of credibility," says Solomon Davis, vice president of Tampa's Sol Davis Printing, which had contracts with the NFL totalling $31,000 for Super Bowl XXXV in 2001.

"Did we make a substantial amount of money? No. Did we get some exposure? Yes," he told Tampa Tribune. "Money-wise, it certainly wasn't what people thought we got." (Page 6 of the NFL's handbook for its Emerging Business Program, which targets women and minority-owned business, reads: "Do not expect to 'get rich' through this program." The words "Do not" are underlined and printed in boldface type.)

Still, the publicity played a huge part in the company's ability to exp and, adding equipment and employees (Sol Davis Printing has grown from Davis and his son to 13 people, for example.) 

Francine Powers' Miami catering company We're Having a Party has participated in three Super Bowls, and Super Bowl 2010 – for which she's making boxed meals for parking lot attendants and soup for an NFL tailgate party – will be her fourth.

"Each time I bid, I act like it's the first time," Powers told CNN Money. "I don't take any of it for granted. This type of work is not going to make you a ton of money, but it puts your business on a better footing."

Case in point: Another big job - a contract for the Academy Awards Governor's Ball in Los Angeles - came from the corporate caterer she subcontracted for during the 1995 Super Bowl. And the exposure and experience (she says it taught her to handle high customer volume) Powers gained from working the Super Bowl allowed her to move her business from her home into commercial space. She also could afford new equipment.

Looking for a slice of next year's Super Bowl in Arlington, Texas? Don't wait - the game of contracts actually already has kicked off. For details, click here.