In a normal December, St Pete Pride president Nathan Bruemmer would be working the phones, checking in with the usual corporate sponsors, shoring up backing for the next summer’s parade and festival, one of the largest LGBTQ events in the United States.
This, of course, is not a normal December. And after a year off due to the coronavirus pandemic, Bruemmer is finding sponsors for Pride 2021 a bit more hesitant to sign on.
“It’s about getting your logo or your brand in front of the most number of people,” he said. “If you’re not positioned to be able to do that, what’s the investment return? And do they just think it’s too risky to have their brand on something, from a public health perspective? To sponsor an event that is potentially a superspreader?”
With cases still spiking nationwide, event organizers everywhere are facing the same problem. That’s particularly evident in Tampa, which in a few weeks will host the branded event of all branded events: the Super Bowl.
Corporations that usually leap at the chance to ride the NFL’s bandwagon and host private parties or other ancillary events are bailing on this year’s big game. AT&T and Bud Light have said they won’t host in-person festivities. Other companies long associated with Super Bowl events, including SiriusXM, Rolling Stone and ESPN, have not yet settled on plans.
Buccaneer Rob Gronkowski’s annual “Gronk Beach” party was in talks to take place in Treasure Island. But this month, organizers halted it partly because “several big sponsors of their event are not supporting in-person events,” according to one email between city officials. Last year’s Gronk Beach sponsors included Monster Energy, Bose and Wendy’s.
“We’re seeing brands continue to show interest in potentially doing events, but they’re naturally being very measured in solidifying exact plans, considering the ever-evolving circumstances,” said Will Weatherford, co-chairman of the city’s Super Bowl Host Committee.
Financial services company USAA, a partner of the NFL’s Salute to Service program, usually hosts an exclusive gathering for veterans and family members, but won’t do so this year, said Yvette Segura, vice president for the Tampa market. The company will still support the cause, she said, just not through an in-person event.
“Every company of any size, and every one of us, is really struggling with this notion of, ‘Boy, I really want to be a part of it,’ and at the same time, ‘I don’t want to be responsible for creating a superspreader kind of event,” said Segura, the chairwoman of the Tampa Bay Chamber. “Yeah, there’s brand damage that goes with that. But first, it’s just flat-out irresponsible to do something like that, knowing the environment that we’re in.”
The dilemma isn’t unique to the Super Bowl. Organizers of all kinds of events hoping to return in 2021 keep running into similar roadblocks.
“There’s a lot of sponsors that are just hesitant,” said Ivy Box, marketing coordinator for the Tampa Bay Black Heritage Festival. “You can’t really sponsor a table for something that’s not going to have a lunch.”
Sponsorships aid with the cost and logistics of producing an event, from booking performers to printing souvenir swag. In return, companies get exposure, community goodwill and perks like free tickets. But if there are no in-person events — and thus no crowds staring at their logo — companies have less incentive to buy in, which puts those events in jeopardy.
“A lot of these sponsorships involve activations, which, by sheer definition, are meant to draw a crowd and get as many people around them as possible,” said Monica Varner, a partner in Tampa’s Big City Events, which runs events like the Tampa Bay Margarita Festival and Summer of Rum Festival. “Those things don’t make sense for them anymore.”
If an event doesn’t line up with a company’s image or values, it can create friction, no matter how big it is. Organizers of the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic found that out while planning a socially distanced event for February, later postponed to May.
“We did face a couple of issues with one or two of our partners who currently have mandates in place for their employees that they cannot participate in a gathering larger than 50,” said executive director Susan Harmeling. “So how could they fully support an event that was going to bring 20,000 people together? We worked all that out, and by postponing the race, we’re back in the saddle with everybody. But there was some concern there.”
For other events, postponing doesn’t help. The Black Heritage Festival has pushed its annual outdoor concert from January to April. But there’s no guarantee all sponsors will return, Box said, as some have cut marketing resources and staff as a result of the pandemic.
“A lot of them lost funding during 2020, and they’re trying to recoup that in 2021,” Box said. “So they’ve been minimizing the amount of organizations that they’re able to support. It’s not a fault of their own. They’ve had to lay off people. So it’s been an adjustment on every end.”
St Pete Pride’s Bruemmer said that even with sponsors who are interested, the conversations have changed. Some are okay sponsoring smaller events spread out over several days and venues. Others are okay sponsoring virtual events. But either way, their total spending would be lower than in years past.
“You can only pick one sponsor, but you need all the money to make the event happen,” he said. “Either way, we’re re-envisioning what we’re doing in 2021, which will be impacted by what’s available, sponsorship dollar-wise, and what is the safest thing to do for our community.”
While past sponsors still listen when Bruemmer calls (”I haven’t had a hard no yet”), other Pride festivals, he said, haven’t been as lucky.
“A lot of other cities, a lot of other Prides that are much smaller, that don’t have the support, I don’t think are going to be putting events on,” he said.
Big City Events tries to make around 40 percent of its event budget through sponsorships, with the rest coming through ticket sales and on-site purchases. The company postponed all of its festivals in 2020, and does not expect to resume them until late 2021, when both they and their sponsors feel more comfortable with the risk.
“If you put up an event on social media, it’s really tough to look at when somebody puts on an event and everyone calls it a superspreader event,” said Big City Events partner Ferdian Jap.
“It’s not worth it for multiple reasons,” Varner added. “Number one, the bad reputation, bad P.R. and cleanup you’ll have to do from that. And second, you’re probably still not going to get enough people for it to make sense. So why even bother doing it?”
For all the Super Bowl backouts thus far, some league partners will still sponsor events in Tampa Bay.
Pepsi is still the title sponsor of this year’s halftime show with the Weeknd. Tampa Bay’s host committee recently held a shoreline restoration event in which volunteers planted mangroves at several area parks; the event had the backing of companies like Tampa Electric, Verizon, Oikos Triple Zero and Castrol.
“It’s safe to say that we anticipate there being less of the ancillary parties and events than you would traditionally see pre-pandemic at a Super Bowl,” Weatherford said. “But we feel the tremendous social impact and media value associated with our hosting of this Super Bowl specifically are going to be huge wins for our hometown.”
Despite the risks, some local entities see it that way, too.
Steve Hayes, president and CEO of Visit St. Pete Clearwater, said his group will have a presence at NFL events at the Tampa Riverwalk and Tampa Convention Center, hoping to sell out-of-towners on Gulf Coast tourism. They’ll mask up staffers on site, and try to keep their brand activation low-risk.
“We can push whatever kind of message we want to push that’s out there, whether it’s a safety message, a “Come visit later!” message, a variety of things,” he said.
They’ll also be handing out freebies, he said, including an item that’s always been one of their most popular: hand sanitizer.