PLAYING YACHT-SEE;AMERICA'S CUP WEATHERS '95 WITH SPONSORS FIRMLY ON DECK

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What do you get when you mix a larger-than-life leading man, a strong cast of female performers and a boat that sinks in front of a national TV audience?

If you answered "Gilligan's Island," well, that's true, but you could also be referring to the past four months of America's Cup '95.

While the 1960s TV show had the Skipper, Ginger and the Minnow, this year's yachting competition has Dennis Conner and the all-female crew of America3, and it used to have the boat named One Australia, which literally sank to new depths in an effort to sail faster.

And like the highly rated "Gilligan's Island" during its time, AC '95 boasts a fleet of satisfied sponsors.

Final leg under way

It's a competition that would be worthy of Thurston Howell III. An America's Cup yacht can cost as much as $100 million, and sponsorships typically bring in only $10 million. The final leg began May 6, with Cup defender Mr. Conner taking on New Zealand's Black Magic I.

AC '95 began in January in San Diego, which has hosted the past three Cups, ever since Mr. Conner (representing the San Diego Yacht Club) successfully rebuffed an Australian challenge in '88, after he won back the Cup a year earlier. The economic impact on the city totals $300 million. The '95 event budget, culled mostly from sponsors, was $10 million, down from $20 million in '92.

"Since we draw sponsorship money from the same pool that teams do, we decided to seek sponsorship dollars for only certain purposes to save more money for the teams," said Charles Nichols, AC '95 president.

Sponsorship is a recent phenomenon in the Cup's 144-year history. In fact in '92, the relatively new practice of putting sponsor logos on sails sparked outrage. Mr. Nichols said the art of America's Cup sponsorship is still evolving. Hopes for extensive cross-promotion among sponsors were dashed when a sponsorship summit was held too late last year for sponsors to amend their plans.

For AC '95, $1 million-plus gold level sponsors are the Port of San Diego, Bayliner, Citizen Watch Co. and TV rights holder ESPN. Nine other marketers purchased official supplier designations. These marketers get signage, plugs on AC's Internet site and space at the America's Cup Pavilion, a veritable mall that opened April 9 and has so far seen 40,000 visitors spend more than $300,000 on sponsors' merchandise.

Many more marketers tie in by sponsoring a particular team.

Risks and rewards

Here there are greater risks. When One Australia sank, the image of the boat's sail, bearing the Foster's and Kraft logos, disappearing under the waves was splashed across the media around the world.

But the rewards are also greater, especially if you go with a proven winner like Mr. Conner.

"Dennis Conner is the most identifiable figure in the America's Cup; he's a committed sportsman and has an established track record," said Peter Levin, Cadillac's director of advertising. "That's an image we want to be associated with as we use the event to market to young, affluent customers."

The biggest reasons to get on board with the Cup are:

Exposure-logos usually cover a boat's sail, hull or keel. Most sponsors support their activities with a media buy on ESPN. Conner team sponsors Citizen, Cadillac, Ocean Spray Cranberries and Sears, Roebuck & Co. have all featured the yachtsman in ads.

Incentives and schmooze-ability-Citizen conducted a fourth quarter '94 incentive promotion that offered Cup travel packages to sales people. On-site facilities allow for sponsors to throw country club-like parties for retailers and others.

Licensed products-Citizen created separate timepiece lines tied to the Citizen Cup, the races that determined the U.S. defender, and the Louis Vuitton Cup, for the races determining the foreign challenger. Sears sold an upscale line of Stars & Stripes casual sportswear, inspired by the name of Mr. Conner's boat, in its America's Cup boutiques; Sperry Top-Sider marketed a line of footwear also sold at Sears.

Mr. Conner almost threw his sponsors a curve this year in opting to use a competing defender's boat, Young America, for the final leg instead of Stars & Stripes. But the move shouldn't hurt marketers of Stars & Stripes merchandise, since last week Mr. Conner changed the name of his team from Team Dennis Conner to Team Stars & Stripes.

Widening appeal

America's Cup had a reputation for being a little stuffy-auto racing on the water for rich white guys. But the story of AC '95 has been the widening of its appeal, thanks to the involvement of mainstream marketers like Sears and Ocean Spray, the female crew of America3 and the perceived everyman appeal of Mr. Conner.

"The America's Cup has transcended itself to become one of only a handful of events that all Americans can get behind. It's patriotic fervor," said John Costello, VP-marketing for Sears.

For that reason, sponsors say they plan to stick with the America's Cup even if New Zealand should win, and even after One Australia sank and even after it was revealed that America3 had added a male tactician.

"It's an intricate, intriguing sport," said Barbara Schwartz, director of communications and public relations for the Conner team, "and it's one of the reasons people keep coming back."

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