A line for passes to the U.S. Open of Surfing forms under a banner in front…
When two-time defending U.S. Open surfing champion Brett Simpson was eliminated in his heat Wednesday, his week did not end there. Instead, he made appearances at Huntington Beach bars on Wednesday and Thursday nights, and will do so again Friday, in partnership with Pacifico Beer.
Pacifico also has a healthy presence at the beach, though not a drop of alcohol is served at the event. Then why is Pacifico here? Well, it is just one of many sponsors who make the nine-day competition completely free for its hundreds of thousands of spectators.
"People have asked why don't we charge admission," said James Leitz of IMG, which owns and operates the U.S. Open. "One year they tried, something like 15 years ago, and it kind of ripped the soul right out of it."
Without ticket sales, IMG turns to aggressive sponsorship sales to offset the long list of expenses, which includes more than 20 days of setting up and tearing down, 12 generators, 140,000 square feet of carpet and platform, and a staff of 1,500.
"We are already selling for 2012, so I can even say it's a 12-month process," Leitz said. "We are using this year's event as a hospitality tour to invite people to come down and take a look at it … We are always trying to renew and upgrade with current sponsors, and bring younger ones along."
Of the current sponsors, the biggest ones can be spotted from a mile away. Officially, the 2011 Nike U.S. Open of Surfing also hosts the Converse Coastal Carnage (a skateboarding competition), the Nike 6.0 HB BMX Pro (a BMX freestyle competition), the Hurley Walk the Walk National Championship (a high school fashion show) and the Pacifico Nose Riding Invitational (a longboard competition). Nike has owned Hurley since 2002 and Converse since 2003.
Paying for these naming rights, and the booths and displays that come along with them, is not cheap, though sponsors wouldn't give any actual figures.
"This is our largest event sponsorship in the nation," was all Pacifico brand manager Steve Nichols would say.
Pacifico complements its alcohol-free beach presence with deals at many local bars, including $5 taxi vouchers given on Pacifico's behalf.
"The core thing is we want people to be able to go there and enjoy the event for free and get to see some of the best surfing talent out there," Nichols said. "The fact that they can't get a beer on the beach, that's OK with us. We know that those people who are old enough to legally drink can go into the establishments in the area just across the road and do so."
Relying on that business strategy has helped Pacifico and the Open avoid a key difficulty with the spectators on the beach.
"Three-quarters of our crowd comes down in their bikinis and board shorts and probably doesn't have anywhere to put their money anyways," Leitz said.
"I think my bosses would be very pleased if we charged admission, and probably ask themselves that every year. But they also recognize the event has a certain position in the space, and it is a California public beach, and it is kind of unique in that way."
The surfing competition continues through Sunday, while the Coastal Carnage qualifiers are Saturday and finals Sunday.