TAMPA — For the first time since 1996, the Gasparilla Pirate Fest doesn't have a title sponsor for its parade, the city's largest and most expensive annual event.
Beads will fly and beer will flow as freely as usual. Aside from fewer banners, revelers won't notice the change, Gasparilla leaders promise.
"While we don't have a title sponsor, we have enough strong sponsors that there will be no decrease in presentation,'' said Don Barnes, executive officer of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, host of the annual pirate invasion and parade.
Planners won't disclose how much a title sponsorship costs. But it takes a "significant investment,'' said Darrell Stefany, president of EventFest, which organizes Gasparilla.
The Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino had been the top sponsor for the past three years but decided in July not to renew. It will continue to have a float in the Parade of Pirates and appearances from the Hard Rock Girls.
"It was a business decision,'' said Gina Morales, a spokeswoman for the Hard Rock. "You have to evaluate and figure out the best ways to participate in the community. We're still committed to the parade and excited about it.''
Event organizers work year-round landing sponsorships for the pirate festival, to be held Jan. 26 along Bayshore Boulevard. They had some interest in the naming rights but weren't able to close a deal, based, they said, on the economy and concerns about potential federal tax increases.
"We know there are companies out there that want to sponsor it," Stefany said, "but they are sitting on their money because they are afraid to make a decision.''
The rewards for a title sponsor are considerable, he said. Companies get their names on marketing materials and a float in the parade attended and watched on TV by hundreds of thousands of people. They also become associated with a beloved tradition among Tampa's elite, dating to 1904.
A look at federal tax returns for the nonprofit Gasparilla krewe show revenue from all sponsorships totaled $130,095 in 2010. Membership dues of $1.8 million made up the bulk of income.
Money from sponsors goes toward general operations, from the never-enough portable toilets to fencing and bleachers. The city of Tampa — through taxpayers — covers the cost of setup and trash removal, estimated at $165,000 by city officials in 2011. That doesn't account for more than $500,000 in in-kind services the city would provide anyway.
Support from other sponsors helped make up for the loss of a title sponsor, Stefany said. Gasparilla's website lists about 30 sponsors, several of them media outlets including radio stations and the Tampa Tribune.
Southwest Airlines held the title role for 14 years, starting in 1996 as part of its entry in the Tampa market. Mission solidly accomplished, the airline opted to shift its resources elsewhere.
"We get a lot of requests and have to make difficult decisions. Gasparilla was a tough one,'' said Andy Allmann, director of customer engagement and partnership marketing for Southwest. "They were extremely disappointed when we weren't able to continue. They were great folks to work with.''
Competition for sponsors is increasingly tough as companies have less money to give and more opportunities to choose among. Last month, the Champions Tour golf tournament called off its stop at TPC Tampa Bay in Lutz because it didn't have a title sponsor.
Gasparilla fared better with its children's event, this year called the McDonald's Children's Gasparilla Extravaganza presented by Chevrolet on Jan. 19. McDonald's of Tampa Bay has been a sponsor since 2011 and this year stepped up as a title sponsor of the kids' parade and presenter of the "Piratechnic" Extravaganza. Chevrolet moved up from sponsor to presenting sponsor.
Even if a title sponsor for the pirate fest popped up today, it would be too late to properly promote it, Barnes said. But talks are already under way to nail down a title sponsor for 2014.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.