CHICAGO – While the road to Gay Games Chicago has been a bumpy one, its organizers have lined up an impressive roster of sponsors for the athletic competitions that kick off Saturday, signaling that corporate America is opening its eyes to this lucrative but once-taboo consumer sector.

The 300-plus sponsors include a bevy of blue-chip brands, among them Walgreens, Orbitz, The New York Times, Absolut Vodka, American Airlines, Ernst & Young, Gatorade, Nike, Best Buy, Kraft, Aon, CNA, Chipotle, Merrill Lynch and Motorola.

The fact that some of America’s top brands are attaching themselves to such a highly visible and international event signals a sea-change in corporate thinking.

All told, corporate, small business and individual donors chipped in $13.5 million of the estimated $20 million in projected revenue and contributed goods and services that will fuel the games, said Sam Coady, co-chairman of the Gay Games Chicago board of directors. This level of support far surpasses any private backing since the launch of the quadrennial games in 1982.

Of the $13.5 million, an estimated $2.5 million will be cash donations, $1 million will come from the sale of broadcast rights and $10 million will come in the form of donated goods and services, he projected. The games also get revenue from athlete registrations, ticket sales, merchandise sales and licensing fees.

“If those numbers are accurate, that’s significant, coupled with the quality of the companies investing,” said Tony Schiller, executive vice president of Paragon Marketing Group, a sponsorship marketing agency based in Skokie.

Yet the Gay Games’ level of cash support from business still significantly lags the amounts poured into top mainstream sporting events.

The Western Open, for instance, probably rakes in $15 million to $20 million in sponsorship money, Andrews said. North American companies will spend an estimated $13.39 billion on sponsorships this year, a 10.6 percent increase over 2005, according to IEG.

But relative to its own recent history, and to rival games to be held for the first time in Montreal later this summer, the Gay Games in Chicago is doing very well in terms of business support.

Unlike in the U.S., the 2002 games in Sydney had significant government support. And at the most recent U.S. games in New York in 1994, corporate and business cash sponsorships totaled about $500,000, Coady said.

“In 1994, it was too ahead of the curve,” said Tracy Baim, co-vice chairman of the Chicago games. While the past four Gay Games lost money, Chicago organizers project they’ll make a profit, with any surplus going to nonprofit sports and cultural organizations locally.

Originally, the 2006 Gay Games were to be held in Montreal, but disputes over finances and management led the San Francisco-based Federation of Gay Games and Montreal to part company in late 2003. A rival international competition, Outgames 2006, emerged, to be held July 29-Aug. 5 in Montreal.

That event has garnered close to $5.3 million in governmental backing, close to $1.6 million in cash sponsorships, and nearly $10 million in goods and services, said spokeswoman Libby Post. In contrast, the only government support for the Chicago games is a $125,000 tourism grant from the state.

For this year in Chicago, the level of corporate support reflects “companies realizing the brand loyalty and buying power of the gay demographic,” said Larry Kuhn, director of development and corporate alliances for the Chicago games. “It’s an incredible marketing opportunity.”

Within the U.S., gays and lesbians are expected to spend $641 billion this year, or about 7 percent of total U.S. buying power, according to Witeck-Combs Communications, a communications company that specializes in the gay market. Compared with the general population, the group tends to be more urban and have more two-earner couples. In addition, they are “unusually brand-loyal to companies and brands that reach out them,” according to a recent Witeck-Combs report.

“The Fortune 500 have learned the gay market is visible, welcoming, eager to travel and wants to be courted,” said Bob Witeck, chief executive officer at Witeck-Combs. “Their economic contributions are too large to ignore.”

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While the Gay Games Chicago is expected to draw 12,000 athletes from 70 countries, it remains, to many, a local event that could pump as much as $33.4 million in delegate spending into the economy and help the city build its case to host the 2016 Olympics. Indeed, many of the big-name corporate sponsors are rooted here and got on board, at least in part, as a civic gesture.

“The city is pushing for 2016, and this is a great backdrop, a way to highlight the city,” said Charles Boesel, a spokesman for sponsor CNA Financial Corp., which is backing volleyball and flag football.

CNA, and others, including Kraft and Gatorade, view sponsorship as a way to promote diversity and inclusion.

“Everything we do should reflect the diverse society we are,” said Niya Moon, a spokesman for Kraft Foods, whose shareholders overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to rescind the company’s support.

For Walgreens, the goal was HIV/AIDS prevention, said spokesman Michael Polzin. The company will distribute informational brochures and offer HIV testing at the Hilton Chicago for the first three days of the event.

Conservative groups, including the Illinois Family Institute of Glen Ellyn, last year targeted early-bird sponsors, including Kraft, Harris Bank and Walgreens. The attacks made other companies wary of signing on, and the resistance lasted several months until it became clear the companies were standing their ground, Baim said.

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“No one pulled backed, so everyone kept coming on,” she said. “And this encouraged others, because some had said they’d come later, when there were more brand names.”

As it turned out, the protests never escalated to boycotts or pickets.

“There was never a coordinated push, they never felt the heat,” acknowledged Peter LaBarbera, executive director of the Illinois Family Institute, which is hosting a series of alternate presentations during the Gay Games.

Still, he said, “there is a cost to this stuff which has yet to be determined, and the cost is alienation of large segments of the population … this is turning a lot of people off.”

That seems to be a risk increasing numbers of corporations are willing to take.

“Everyone is entitled to their opinion or belief regarding our support,” said Kraft’s Moon. “But this is about being inclusive and supporting the communities we serve, and they are diverse communities.”



(c) 2006, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-07-14-06 2011EDT


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