Thrown for a Loss: Super Bowl Parties

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Michael Buckner / Getty

Last year 22 Bunnies were on hand for Playboy's Super Bowl party. This year, only four are slated to attend

Add this to the growing pile of previously unthinkable fallout from the nation's economic crisis: in 2009, the star-studded parties and corporate blowouts of Super Bowl week might take a backseat to, believe it or not, the actual game.

With the economy sacked this season, even the activity surrounding the Super Bowl, which will be played on Feb. 1 in Tampa, Fla., between the Arizona Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers, is slowing down. "It's never been this soft before," says Alan Bachand, a party promoter and hotel broker who has been working the Super Bowl for the past 12 years. "There just aren't as many good parties going on. Hot tickets that were going for $3,000 are now selling for between $400 and $700. The parties aren't getting as much sponsorship." (See pictures of Super Bowl entertainment over the years.)

A case in point is Playboy, whose Bunny-filled blowout is usually the signature event of Super Bowl week. Last year in Arizona, Hugh Hefner hosted 2,500 people in a 52,000-sq.-ft. pavilion for his party, and tickets were going for $3,000 in the secondary market. This year, with Playboy's stock down more than 70%, Hef has canceled its Super Saturday Night party. Instead, the company is sponsoring a DirectTV event; four Playmates will be on hand, compared with the 22 who showed up at last year's Playboy bash. (See the best and worst Super Bowl commercials of 2008.)

Sports Illustrated, which throws another popular bash, is also feteless this year. The magazine (which, like TIME, is owned by Time Warner) just suffered a round of job cutbacks. "In this historically challenged economy, hosting an extravaganza was not realistic," says SI spokesman Scott Novak. Nike is passing on a party. Cadillac, which has sponsored a celebrity go-kart race the past six years, also shuttered its event. Warrick Dunn and Derrick Brooks, who play for the hometown Tampa Bay Buccaneers, had scheduled a celebrity party and golf tournament for Jan. 29-30. But the event fell about $100,000 short of the $200,000 sponsorship goal and was shelved. Even CAA and Octagon, the sports agencies, aren't throwing parties.

The floundering economy actually puts companies like Octagon and Playboy in a tough spot. If you usually throw or sponsor a party but cancel this year, people may assume that your company is struggling. In many cases, like Playboy's, that's obviously true. But for firms like Octagon, perception does not match reality. The agency represents Michael Phelps and had the best year in its history. "We looked at the circumstances out there," says Octagon executive Phil de Picciotto, "and decided that being more understated would be more appropriate for these times." (See pictures of Michael Phelps winning eight gold Olympic medals.)

Octagon's calculation makes sense, but it's a delicate balance. Even if your company can afford a little frivolity now, shouldn't that cash be stocked away in case things get even worse in 2009, as every economist in the world is predicting? "You absolutely walk a fine line of sending the wrong message to your business, vendors or clients about the health of your business," says Paul Swangard, director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at Oregon University. "You have to be respectful of the environment, but if you're a marketer looking to reach a certain audience through a party, or a company trying to keep clients happy, you might have to spend a little bit to get out of this recession." (See pictures of the recession of 1958.)

For many who flock to America's annual weeklong bacchanal, of course, the Super Bowl is all about the parties. Star athletes and entertainers go to be seen; corporate employees look to schmooze and booze; and average yokels, cameras firmly placed in fanny pack, come to soak up the scene. And just because many corporations are scaling back doesn't mean there won't be any pregame celebrating going on. (See pictures of celebrities at the Inauguration.)

The biggest partier on the planet, Diddy, will be in town to host a bash. Lad mag Maxim, Playboy's rival for absurd Super Bowl extravagance — its 2004 bash in Houston, "Circus Maximus," featured Ferris wheels, fortune tellers, cancan dancers and Paris Hilton — is proceeding but with half as many guests as last year. "We're not immune to what's going on," says Glenn Rosenbloom, president of the Alpha Media Group, which publishes Maxim. "But having said that, our readers love football, our advertisers love football, and so do we." The sponsors for the party, which will take place on Friday and feature two well-known DJs, include Samsung and Gillette.

Sponsors have also lined up for ESPN The Magazine's big affair, which will take place in a 22,000-sq.-ft. outdoor space in downtown Tampa on Friday. Wyclef Jean will perform for 1,250 people. The party is a no-brainer for ESPN because the marketers are paying for the whole thing. "If we did not have full sponsor support, we would not do the event," says ESPN The Magazine publishing director Steven Binder. Ford, Corona, Old Spice and H&R Block are picking up the tab.

And even if some companies are scaling back their event spending, the pinch isn't being felt by NBC, this year's broadcaster. While veterans like FedEx and General Motors are sitting out this year, the network says it has sold 90% of its advertising inventory, at a record average price of $2.9 million per 30-second spot. Which means that, in the end, the game will probably continue to be eclipsed by the commerce, if not the parties, built around it. (See pictures of the Giants' stunning Super Bowl victory last year.)

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