Sonoma County's wine and tourism industries make nearly $1 million bet on the Super Bowl

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Sonoma County’s wine and tourism industries are making a nearly $1 million bet on the Super Bowl.

In an ambitious bid to draw more visitors to Sonoma County and sell more wine, the two industries have teamed up in a bid to raise the region’s profile by showcasing local wines at official events around the Bay Area, most notably at a wine lounge located at the heart of Super Bowl City in San Francisco.

“The whole idea is to make sure that Sonoma County is foremost in everybody’s mind,” said Ken Fischang, president of Sonoma County Tourism, the county’s tourism marketing organization.

The tourism agency joined with Sonoma County Vintners and Sonoma County Winegrowers to become an official partner with the Super Bowl 50 Host Committee, the regional nonprofit group charged with planning and producing the events leading up to next Sunday’s game. The group has raised about $50 million from its sponsors.

Capturing a visitor’s attention will be a tough task amid all the high-profile activities this week, from concerts by Alicia Keys and Metallica to the NFL Experience theme park at the Moscone Center and even the rival Bud Light Bar, which is stationed just a short walk down Market Street from the wine lounge. And that is all before kickoff.

“It’s a risk. It’s something we have never done before,” Fischang conceded.

Will the Sonoma County effort see an adequate return, given all the money and wine the groups have donated? Some economists contend the economic impacts on Super Bowl host cities are vastly oversold to the public, especially the impacts on an area that is a two-hour drive north of Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.

“I think this is one particularly risky venture,” Victor Matheson, a professor of economics at the College of the Holy Cross, said of the Sonoma County effort.

Matheson specializes in measuring the economic impact of major sporting events. Despite some claims that the big game may bring in up to $500 million in economic impacts to host cities, his 2009 research paper on the Super Bowl found that “a review of the literature suggests that the true economic impact is a fraction of this amount.”

Much of the focus will be at Super Bowl City, a mixture of Disneyland, an upscale street fair and premium concert platform that may attract up to 1 million visitors at the Justin Herman Plaza through its eight days.

That’s where the Taste of Sonoma lounge will feature up to 16 local wineries each day, such as Paul Hobbs winery of Sebastopol and Trione winery of Geyserville. It is expected to attract at least 1,000 visitors daily, according to local organizers.

In addition to the wine lounge, the contract with the host committee calls for Sonoma County wines to be poured exclusively at the opening night ceremony in the Ferry Terminal, media night at the Exploratorium and at the committee’s pre-game and post-game parties, said Mark Crabb, chief sales officer for Sonoma County Tourism. The wines also will be poured at a VIP club near Super Bowl City that has been organized by the host committee.

While working to schmooze with top corporate executives and the estimated 2,500 media personnel, the local effort will also focus on convincing visitors to take a day trip or longer up to Sonoma County. An estimated 100,000 visitors may come into the Bay Area for the game, even though Levi’s Stadium will have a capacity of 75,000 fans during the game.

Local tourism officials concede the metrics to determine whether the Super Bowl-related activities are a success could take years to materialize and, in some respects, are nearly impossible to quantify.

“It’s part risk, part gut, part strategy,” said Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers, more formally known as the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, which represents more than 1,800 local grape growers. Kruse disputed the notion the local effort should be considered a bet, given the strength of the NFL’s brand.

The consensus from local tourism and wine officials is that the Super Bowl was just too big of an opportunity to turn down.

“At the end of the day, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Kruse, who has previously worked on accounts for General Mills, Universal Studios, Mattel and Dairy Management, which has a partnership with the NFL.

The Sonoma County bid resulted from more than two years of planning that involved the three groups working with the host committee, whose CEO, Keith Bruce, is a North Bay resident.

While wine will be the focus of the promotion, the pitch to visitors will also include making a trip up to Sonoma County to visit wineries and vineyards. Fans will be able to book daily tours offered by Pure Luxury Transportation from Wednesday through Saturday.

Hotels could benefit as well. For example, some people come to the Super Bowl host city even though they do not have tickets to the game and may opt to stay at hotels around the Bay Area, Fischang said, noting that they just “want to be part of the Super Bowl experience.”

But independent economists contend that visitors during Super Bowl week will have a minimal economic effect in a host city. Such events, they say, can displace tourists who would have ordinarily come to the area but opt not to because they want to avoid the overpriced hotel rooms, heightened security and traffic congestion. Those studies take into account sales tax data, occupancy rates and airport data.

“You may have 100,000 people at one place at one time,” said Philip Porter, professor of economics at the University of South Florida, who has studied the economic effects of at least 40 Super Bowls. “But there is nobody at the zoo and nobody here on Monday. …What you don’t see is the absence of activity.”

Porter said he was especially skeptical that Sonoma or Napa counties would receive a significant boost from Super Bowl tourism during the event. “I think the impact declines as it’s farther and farther away,” he said.

The Sonoma County effort was aided in some respects by the Napa wine and tourism industry’s decision to invest in a smaller footprint for the Super Bowl. That left an opening for the Sonoma County effort.

“When they asked us to jump, we said, ‘How high?’ ” Fischang said of negotiations with the host committee.

Napa’s reluctance comes in the aftermath of its sponsorship of a wine lounge during the America’s Cup in 2013. Some in the Napa wine industry felt they did not get an adequate return on investment from the lounge at Piers 27/29. That comes despite a claim by Visit Napa Valley Tourism, the agency that represents the county’s tourism efforts, that the America’s Cup contributed $26.7 million in overall direct spending to the county.

“You learn a lot when you engage in these sponsorships,” said Patsy McGaughy, communications director for the trade group with more than 525 members. “We’ve elected for a VIP behind-the-scenes approach. …We will not be at the fan village.”

McGaughy noted that Napa is not a high-volume wine producer and that in the aftermath of the America’s Cup, its vintners decided on “limited events that are better suited for our brand alignment.”

Instead, her group will provide wine for four VIP events leading up to the Super Bowl with about 100 vintners participating. For the promotional effort, the two Napa groups combined to provide between $500,000 and $900,000 in cash and services such as wine to the host committee, according to Nathan Ballard, spokesman for the host committee.

Sonoma officials said they do not believe their Super Bowl experience will be the same as Napa’s was with the America’s Cup, given football’s popularity and its place in the country’s cultural fabric.

“It’s the No. 1 sporting event,” Fischang said of the Super Bowl. “It’s difficult to compare the two.”

Local officials concede it will be difficult to provide an estimate on the economic return of their effort compared to other tourism events. In contrast, a 2013 report by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board found that Russian River Brewing’s Pliny the Younger event brought almost $2.4 million in economic activity to the area, based on a study that surveyed 736 attendees at the Santa Rosa brewpub.

Volunteers working the wine lounge will attempt to get the email addresses of those who drop in for a glass, carafe or flight of wine. Each email address will result in $225 in potential future spending in Sonoma County, according to a formula used by Sonoma County Tourism, Fischang said. The full economic effects of the Super Bowl efforts could take as much as five years to reap.

“It may be higher for the Super Bowl,” Fischang said of the potential for more affluent visitors attending the game. “It’s a demographic we haven’t had.”

Porter, the economist, said he was not familiar with Sonoma County’s formula, but called it an application of what he termed “proof by obfuscation.”

Napa tourism officials want to make contacts with executives at the VIP events in an attempt to later land retreats for corporate boards and associations at hotels, especially during the slow midweek period, said Clay Gregory, president and CEO of Visit Napa Valley.

The Napa team will pass its leads to local hotels for follow- ups to close on such sales, but Gregory said his group will not know if the effort resulted in success, unless the hotels report back to Visit Napa Valley. “At least we know what leads come in,” he said.

Some events will be extremely hard to quantify. For example, the Sonoma contingent will host a visit for selected media at St. Francis Winery and Vineyards in Santa Rosa today in an attempt to educate them about efforts to promote sustainable grape growing, which has been the priority for Sonoma County Winegrowers. Kruse even joked about sending wine to the nearby CBS Sports media booth at Super Bowl City to get a plug. But would those media mentions ultimately translate to dollars for Sonoma County?

“It’s really hard to follow out,” Kruse said. “You would have to intercept them at the (hotel) door for the next five years to ask them why they came.”

Indeed, one marketing expert said an actual return on investment may not be the driving factor for those that have signed contracts with the host committee, which range from Apple Corp. to Kaiser Permanente to Old Navy, as opposed to the chance to be associated with the prized NFL brand. Some companies have provided at least $2 million in funding and services to the host committee, which in turn, will ultimately disperse $13 million to local charities, Ballard said.

“The fear of being left out is driving a lot this,” said Rich Campbell, a marketing professor at Sonoma State University who specializes in sports business.

One prominent county official said he had no misgivings about the local strategy. Board of Supervisor Chairman Efren Carrillo said last week he was “100 percent” behind the local Super Bowl effort because of “the dividends that are going to come” from the promotional and marketing events.

Staff Writer Robert Digitale contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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