Super Bowl contract released by Sonoma County Tourism Bureau

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The Sonoma County Tourism Bureau released a copy of its contract with Super Bowl organizers as part of a settlement with the First Amendment Coalition, which sued the agency after it withheld the document from The Press Democrat and the nonprofit public interest group.

The Tourism Bureau also agreed to pay $10,300 for the coalition’s legal fees and other costs, said Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, which announced the settlement Tuesday.

The coalition filed the lawsuit last month in Sonoma County Superior Court, arguing the tourism agency violated state public records laws when it repeatedly refused to turn over a copy of its contract with the Super Bowl 50 Host Committee.

“I don’t believe they really ever had any legitimate grounds for withholding the contract,” Scheer said in an interview.

Tourism officials argued they were bound to a confidentiality agreement and could not release the document until they notified all involved parties.

“Sonoma County Tourism was obligated contractually to treat the contract as confidential information, and, in all likelihood, would have been sued by the NFL and the Host Committee if the contract had been turned over immediately in response to the initial request,” said Bill Arnone, an attorney representing the tourism agency.

Under the contract, the terms had to be kept secret “unless required by operation of law.”

Scheer said the agency had no right to withhold the information in the first place. He found the confidentiality agreement troubling, saying it unnecessarily pressures public officials to deny the public information without grounds and forces residents to sue to gain access to the records. However, he added, many citizens don’t always have the resources to pursue litigation.

“It’s the public’s job to assess and evaluate the performance of public officials that work for the people,” he said. “Unfortunately, the people can’t do what they’re supposed to do if they don’t have access.”

The 17-page contract lays out the terms of the relationship between Super Bowl organizers and three trade groups representing Sonoma County’s tourism and wine industries: the Tourism Bureau, Sonoma County Vintners and Sonoma County Winegrowers. They joined forces to become an official partner with the Super Bowl 50 Host Committee, the regional nonprofit tasked with organizing the events leading up to the big game.

Under the contract, the Tourism Bureau agreed to pay $150,000 to the Host Committee. The figure was previously disclosed to The Press Democrat by the bureau’s president and CEO, Kenneth Fischang. Sonoma County Vintners and Sonoma County Winegrowers each agreed to pay an additional $50,000, according to the contract. A quarter of the $250,000 sum was designated for the Legacy Grant Fund, a philanthropic initiative created by Super Bowl organizers.

The Sonoma County groups also pledged to provide $50,000 in credit at lodging and hospitality establishments “in and around Sonoma County” for Super Bowl 50 Host Committee events and NFL executive events, according to the contract.

Lastly, the three Sonoma County groups also agreed to donate “no less than” 1,000 cases of wine to be poured at the various private events. The actual number was not disclosed in the contract.

Overall, the three groups pledged nearly $1 million total in cash, wine and other services to the Super Bowl committee, Fischang said in a previous interview.

In return, they received a total of 12 tickets to the Super Bowl and an associated pre-game event, which Fischang previously said were auctioned off for charity. They also acquired:

The opportunity to pour wines in Super Bowl VIP areas and hospitality events.

The ability to provide custom travel packages to NFL On Location, the league’s official source for event experiences.

Access to the Host Committee’s partners and sponsors to promote Sonoma County as a travel destination.

The ability to use the Host Committee’s logo for publicizing events (albeit not on condoms, distilled spirits and flavored malts, male enhancement products, strip clubs or other items prohibited by the NFL).

Perhaps the most visible provision of the contract allowed the Sonoma County groups to build a lounge at Super Bowl City in San Francisco to tout the county and its wines.

Tim Zahner, the tourism agency’s chief marketing officer, said the Taste of Sonoma Lounge was set up in a prime location — right in front of the Ferry Building. The lounge’s staff were able to meet with travelers, journalists from around the world and decision-makers who could bring future corporate meetings and retreats to the county, he said.

The groups’ involvement in Super Bowl 50 resulted in more than 78 million media impressions, excluding instances where the wine lounge was seen in the background on CBS and NFL Network programs, Zahner said.

“It was an effective and excellent way to get in front of the one million people who came to Super Bowl City during the 8-day celebration and to get exposure on national newscasts where the Sonoma County brand was prominently displayed,” Zahner said in an email.

Sonoma County Tourism is a nonprofit agency that has contracted with the Board of Supervisors to promote tourism in the county, serving as the official destination marketing organization. The Super Bowl initiative was funded with money from the assessments on hotels, not hotel taxes collected by the county, Fischang previously told The Press Democrat.

Scheer first learned about the contract from a Press Democrat reporter who was denied a copy. He submitted a request for the document in January under the provisions of the California Public Records Act, which is designed to give the public access to information in the possession of public agencies.

Scheer urged officials to release the contract and make public the money and other forms of compensation the tourism agency provided to promote the county and local wines at Super Bowl events around the Bay Area. Arnone twice denied that request, saying the contract was exempt from public records laws because it contained trade secrets and proprietary information about the bureau’s partners in the project.

Arnone said Tuesday that the contents in that agreement qualified as trade secrets under a state definition.

“(Marketing) organizations develop and implement attraction strategies that are reflected in their contracts,” he said. “If one competitor learns the strategies developed and implemented by another competitor, that knowledge can be very valuable.”

However, Scheer said he didn’t see anything in the contract that could be considered a trade secret. “Nothing at all,” he said.

The First Amendment Coalition is a nonprofit public interest organization formed to promote freedom of expression and the public’s right to know. The Press Democrat is a member of the coalition and has a representative on its board of directors.

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @eloisanews.

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