September 1st, 2006

Blue-Ribbon Idea or Fairs Selling Out?

By John Horton
Cleveland Plain Dealer

Sponsorships help yearly events raise cash

The banner hangs atop the main grandstand at the Geauga County fairgrounds, draped across the wooden wall of white. Anyone on the midway can clearly read the words: Lake Hospital System.

Consider it a sign of the times, when just about anything - even wall space at a county fair - is for sale.

The corporate branding of America is searing a deeper mark on fairs and festivals across the nation, including several in Northeast Ohio. Fair sponsors can buy advertising space on items big and small, from entry gates and entertainment stages to picnic tables and golf carts.

It’s all about generating cash. With costs rising faster than revenues, some fair organizers said they feel obligated to chase those dollars as a matter of survival.

How far are they willing to go? In some cases, all the way to the name.

Summit County offers sponsors top billing on all fair fliers and advertising for $10,000. In Cuyahoga and Lake counties, fair officials said they’d consider adding a company name to the marquee: This fair presented by . . . Coca-Cola? McDonald’s? Starbucks?

“We would do it, if the money was right,” said Rob Sidley, a director at the Lake fair. “But we haven’t gone that far.”

The precedent, however, has been set.

In Vermont, the logo for the Champlain Valley Fair includes its presenting sponsor, the Progressive Group of Insurance Companies.

The nonprofit fair - billed as the state’s “greatest show” - agreed in 2005 to saddle up with the Northeast Ohio-based insurance provider.

The decision was not easy, said George Rousseau, the fair’s director of sales and marketing.

“We asked ourselves, ‘Are we selling our souls?’ “ said Rousseau, who would not reveal the financial terms of the agreement. “But the more we talked about it, everything seems to have naming rights. It’s very pervasive now. Why not take advantage?”

Fairs and festivals represent just a sliver of the multibillion-dollar sponsorship industry. This year, analysts projected that $499 million in sponsorship dollars would flow into annual events ranging from small community celebrations to large state fairs.

That’s a 12 percent increase over 2005, according to the IEG Sponsorship Report, a publication that tracks the industry. Expect similar gains in future years as businesses pursue new promotional outlets and more events open their doors, said William Chipps, senior editor of the report.

“Territory once thought of as off-limits to corporate marketing is now open prey,” Chipps said.

Geauga’s fair, which opened Thursday, decided earlier this year to break with tradition and make a more aggressive push for sponsors. Lake Hospital System paid $3,500 to place its name on the grandstand; other businesses paid $2,500 to place banners at entry gates.

All told, sponsorship deals netted more than $20,000, money that will go back into the grounds, said Paul Harris, president of the fair board. He called the sponsorships a necessary intrusion.

“For 183 years, this fair stood on its own,” Harris said. “But nothing’s as easy as it used to be. Everything costs more.”

Officials at other area fairs echoed his words. To some degree, all are in the process of expanding sponsorship programs.

The growing pursuit of these dollars saddens Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, an organization founded to fight advertising’s sprawl. Society is being bombarded with marketing messages, he said, with fewer and fewer places offering escapes.

The wholesome atmosphere of a county fair is becoming tainted for a few bucks, Ruskin said.

“It’s all about profiteering, and that’s sad,” Ruskin said.

But fair officials said they’re just trying to get by.

Revenues simply aren’t rising fast enough to maintain the expansive grounds, they said. There’s also a reluctance to raise ticket prices and put fair attendance out of reach for some families. It’s not a matter of wanting sponsorships, they said; it’s a matter of needing them.

“You do what you have to do,” said Cathy Cunningham, a director at the Summit fair. “So if you know someone interested in a sponsorship, pass them along.”

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