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Small businesses angle for piece of the big game

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The Big Game isn’t necessarily big business for small firms, but entrepreneurs across Indiana nevertheless are eager to be part of the greatest spectacle in football.

More than 400 companies statewide qualified for this year’s NFL Emerging Business program, an initiative that aims to open doors for minority- and women-owned enterprises seeking a sliver of Super Bowl spending.

“It is truly a business-development program,” said Marshawn Wolley, director of emerging business and community outreach for the 2012 Indianapolis Super Bowl Host Committee. “Many of these businesses are being exposed to the [bidding] process for the first time.”

Firms selected for the program are listed in the Business Resource Guide, a searchable database made available to the NFL and its “procurement family”—the host committee, league sponsors and private contractors—as they line up vendors for hundreds of Super-Bowl-related events. The list also is available to the general public.

It’s a big opportunity, but Wolley has been careful not to elevate expectations. Despite the size and scope of the game and its associated activities, he said businesses shouldn’t count on landing a quick trip to Easy Street.

“There are limited opportunities and nobody is going to get rich,” he said, repeating the message he’s been sending since the local program kicked off in November 2010. “We are trying to position businesses beyond the game. It’s what happens afterward that is important.”

Indeed, Trans-Plants owner Chris Combs has landed several Super Bowl gigs—providing centerpieces and rental plants for a Feb. 1 event at the Indiana Roof Ballroom and putting together VIP gift baskets for the host committee, among other tasks—but doesn’t expect much movement in her bottom line.

“The best part is, you’re involved,” she said. “We may never get another Super Bowl. Whether we make a ton of money or not—and it’s not—we’re part of it. … It’s a shot in the arm.”

Combs said she already has made connections through the program that she’s hopeful will pay off down the road. Her six-employee Indianapolis firm has struggled to make inroads at the Roof, for example, but it is on the event coordinator’s radar screen now.

The 54-year-old founded Trans-Plants in 1986, providing plant-leasing services to companies and property management firms. It has added products and services, including gift baskets, over the years as clients requested extras.

Despite her experience, Combs attended all three of the NFL Playbook business-development workshops developed for program participants. Other benefits include access to special scholarships from WGU-Indiana and the Emerging Business Challenge, which offers customers of participating firms the chance to win Super Bowl tickets.

“It’s definitely a wonderful program,” Combs said.

Still, it has had detractors. In the past, critics complained that the program was cumbersome and oversold.

Wolley is unapologetic about the selection process, which varies from year to year. He said Indianapolis’ Emerging Business committee—composed of representatives from local certifying agencies and chambers of commerce—wanted to make sure the companies on the list would be able to deliver on their promises.

So the committee hosted “Super Pitch Monday” before procurement began, lining up experts to give businesses feedback on their Super Bowl proposals. Organizers also stayed focused on firms that actually provide the services NFL buyers need.

“It was very targeted,” Wolley said. “We didn’t go looking for accounting firms or law firms because we knew we didn’t need them.”

All told, 880 businesses in 10 states applied for the program. More than 400 Indiana-based firms completed all the requirements to be selected. Over 900 businesses made the cut in Dallas last year.

Although the number varies from year to year based on participation, about 25 percent to 35 percent of the selected businesses land a Super-Bowl-related contract, according to the NFL’s participant handbook.

Keith Walker, owner of Indianapolis-based Above and Beyond Limousine, is gearing up for five days of around-the-clock activity. He plans to more than triple his work force during the Super Bowl buildup, bringing in 35 to 40 temporary employees to meet the needs of corporate clients.

Despite the boost in business, he’s just as excited about the connections he has made through the Emerging Business program.

“We can help each other down the line when all of this is over,” Walker said.

Wolley said the local Emerging Business committee plans to meet periodically even after the game, continuing what has become a valuable collaboration.

To get the most out of the Super Bowl, local businesses can’t throw in the towel when the final whistle blows.

“This is a great moment in time, but it’s just that—a moment,” said Tony Mason, senior vice president of the Indianapolis host committee.

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