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Corporate America buys star execs ultimate party

And if you don't flash tons of cash or have the right connections, you don't get in to hobnob with the rich and famous.


© St. Petersburg Times, published January 29, 2001

TAMPA -- It was an hour before game time at the Super Bowl, and the corporate schmoozefest was already in full swing.

Media mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg was hanging out with CBS newsmen Dan Rather and Bryant Gumbel in the network's luxury suite at Raymond James Stadium. Filmmaker Spike Lee briskly walked with football legend Jim Brown into the NFL Films suite.

And in a large suite down the hall with room for 40 guests, Pittsburgh Steelers alums-turned-businessmen Lynn Swann and Franco Harris entertained bigwigs from the Wyndham hotel chain as friends like Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. dropped by.

"Where else are you going to see all these people in one place?" asked a star-struck Dave Johnson, Wyndham's marketing chief, as he watched retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf meet Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath. Johnson was clutching a football signed by Namath, Penn State football coach Joe Paterno and other celebs.

This is corporate America's most exclusive party, and unless you have the right corporate connections or plenty of cash, you won't get in. The luxury suites in the stadium and the sprawling corporate hospitality tents just outside were a particularly tough ticket.

As many as half the fans in the stadium Sunday night were there courtesy of companies, including some of the world's biggest names -- Ford, Motorola, Coca-Cola, Quaker Oats and Lucent Technologies among them.

The Super Bowl is corporate America's biggest opportunity to reward top employees and execs, woo major customers and even give a few tickets away to lucky consumers who win contests.

"This is a way for us to make a lot of people happy," said Dave Weisz, director of global sports and event marketing for Motorola, one of the National Football League's top sponsors.

Motorola received 300 tickets for the game, including 36 in a luxury suite. The game capped a weekend when guests stayed at the Dolphin hotel at Walt Disney World, attended parties with guests such as NFL quarterbacks Donovan McNabb, Doug Flutie and Brad Johnson, and made a pregame run through the NFL Experience football theme park.

Companies hate to talk about how much money they spend on the event, fearing a backlash from consumers and shareholders. But the NFL's biggest sponsors shell out tens of millions of dollars a year, while a luxury suite for Sunday's game was believed to go for $30,000 or more.

Then there were the corporate tents south of the stadium, covering an area of 800,000 square feet. These were tents in name only, with such touches as carpeting, wood furniture, live bands, even tiled-and-wallpapered restroom trailers.

Tents were sponsored by such companies as Ford, Coca-Cola and Sports Illustrated. In the largest tent, coordinated by the Super Bowl XXXV Task Force, guests heard music from Jimmy Buffett's backup band.

On a pedestal above the food line, a pseudo referee blew his whistle with admonishments such as "ladies first!"

Former Steelers star Jack Ham and former Cincinnati Bengals star Anthony Munoz signed footballs for guests, who were filling plates with Lower Keys Conch Chowder, cabernet rice pilaf and salmon filet. Individual tables were sponsored by Avis, Nortel, Delta Air Lines and Merrill Lynch, among others.

For the Tampa Bay area, perhaps the most important benefit of the game is that it introduces so many decision makers to this part of Florida.

Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce officials hosted a dozen corporate relocation consultants from around the country over the weekend. And the Wilson Co., a Tampa real estate company, brought in four key execs from its business partner, First Union Corp.

Not that this was all business.

On one wall in the Task Force's hospitality tent, guests could post $25 bets on the game, with a promised payout of as much as $1,000.

And just in case fans got bored with the schmoozing, the hospitality area had a strolling magician and a Carmen Miranda wannabe juggling fruit.

"I'm Banana Fanana Rosita Chiquita de Cinco," she said exuberantly, "as in the fifth one in the line."

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