Summer is still a few months away, but that doesn’t make the future of the Gorge Games any less of a hot-button issue.
Ever since last year’s title sponsor, Ford, opted out of its contract in the fall, East Coast-based event organizers Octagon Marketing have been feverishly trying to find a new title sponsor for the 2003 festival, which would feature outdoor events such as kayaking, freestyle windsurfing and kiteboarding, rock climbing, mountain biking and adventure racing.
Octagon has set a “drop dead” date of Feb. 15 to find a replacement for Ford, which decided not to renew its one-year deal despite an eminently successful event in July 2002.
“As for a reason why Ford didn’t renew its sponsorship, I don’t really have one,” said Gorge Games founder Peggy Lalor, who also owns Limitless Events & Marketing in Hood River. “They only signed a one-year contract, and even though last year’s Games were a big success, they chose not to come back.”
Lalor said she has heard that Ford didn’t have support from some of its regional dealerships, which made any future commitments difficult. She also pointed to the uncertainty of advertising budgets, which are often outlined one year in advance — perhaps even before the Nielsen Ratings for the 2002 Games were released.
“I’d say that the TV ratings were great,” Lalor said of NBC’s two broadcasts on Sept. 1 and Sept. 8. “Considering that the first broadcast ran over Labor Day weekend when most outdoor enthusiasts are outside, the ratings were quite good.”
NBC reported a 1.4/3 rating for its two-hour program on Sept. 1, and a 1.3/3 rating for the Sept. 8 broadcast. Both broadcasts surpassed ratings in 2000 and 2001, and beat out competing broadcasts of the WNBA Finals, Men’s Basketball World Championships and the IRL Delphi/Indy 300.
“The ratings showed us that we are now marketing to a different demographic than before,” said Lalor, who started the Gorge Games in the summer of 1996 and partnered with Octagon in 1999. “We’re not just selling the sports; we’re selling the lifestyle.”
Lalor said that one of the reasons the Gorge Games has succeeded is that it brings all of the outdoor extreme sports together. While each has an avid following in its own right, the reality is that most of the sports could not support their own festival — at least one that matches the magnitude of the Gorge Games.
“At this point, we are the number-one outdoor sporting event in the country,” Lalor said. “The reason the Gorge Games is what it is, is because we unified all the sports and started selling the collective experience. That’s what gives it such a broad public appeal.”
That growing interest in the outdoor lifestyle is something that Lalor and Octagon are trying to capitalize on. Just as they did with Ford, Subaru and Timberland — the event’s three title sponsors to date — the marketing teams are focusing on the growth and popularity of the Games with other potential sponsors.
Lalor said that Octagon has already had preliminary discussions with two “large corporations” about sponsoring this summer’s Games, which have tentative dates of July 16-20.
But if an agreement cannot be reached by the Feb. 15 cutoff, the marketing team will then shift its focus to 2004.
“Octagon has made a commitment to outdoor adventure, and is doing everything it can to ensure that the Games continue,” Lalor said. “But if they can’t secure a title sponsor in the next two weeks, they will begin to look ahead to next year.”
Lalor explained that it doesn’t make sense for any company to move ahead with a gameplan if it is going to lose money. “They don’t want to take on any additional risks, and you can’t really blame them,” she said.
If Octagon is unable to line up a big-name sponsor by Feb. 15, Lalor said she plans to have a public forum to discuss some alternatives.
“Some people are concerned that the local businesses will suffer if there isn’t a Gorge Games,” Lalor said. “It only makes sense to have a meeting with the community to discuss our options and see what else we can do.”
One possibility would be to hold a smaller, more locally funded festival that would still allow the Northwest’s best to compete against one another in one of the finest outdoor sporting arenas in the world, the Gorge.
“We’ll have to cut and focus regardless,” Lalor said. “If we have to go with a ‘Plan B,’ we will do whatever makes sense. At this point, I don’t know what that is, but everything will be on the table.”
Indications from local business owners and the Hood River Chamber of Commerce suggest that the people of Hood River want to do whatever they can to keep the Gorge Games alive for 2003.
The chamber’s Public Affairs and Marketing Director, Genevieve Scholl, said that she has already received “tons of calls” about this summer’s Games, and believes that they will succeed with or without the large corporate backing or national media coverage.
“It makes sense to have one special event that brings all of our local businesses and outfitters together,” Scholl said. “I have already heard local business owners talking about how they can work together to preserve the Games. And when there is so much support from within the local business community, it gives others that much more motivation to join in.”
Scholl said that the biggest downfall of losing the Gorge Games would be from a marketing perspective.
“Without the Gorge Games, there would be a huge vacuum in getting the word out to potential visitors,” she said. “But I think the athletes will come regardless. The Gorge Games will survive without the national media coverage, and there seems to be enough local support to keep them alive.”