Supermarkets are becoming more of a playing field for sports-oriented promotions. Increasingly, chains and independents are plugging into activities linking them to race cars, the Super Bowl and a myriad of other sports activities.Retailers are sponsoring athletes and sports-related events. They are also linking loyalty-card programs and community giving efforts to sports-related activities.Retailers

Supermarkets are becoming more of a playing field for sports-oriented promotions. Increasingly, chains and independents are plugging into activities linking them to race cars, the Super Bowl and a myriad of other sports activities.

Retailers are sponsoring athletes and sports-related events. They are also linking loyalty-card programs and community giving efforts to sports-related activities.

Retailers see the link with athletics and racing as a means of competing with their peers. "We need to be different from the competition," said Stacey Black, manager of IGA advertising for Fleming Cos., Oklahoma City.

Indeed, Fleming's IGA group got interested in racing when a retailer in Tennessee told the company that his competitors "are walking all over me," Black noted. "We needed a marketing tool that the retailer could use to differentiate himself from the competition."

Thus, the wholesaler took on sponsorship of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing-sanctioned No. 57 Team -- IGA Busch Grand National Show Car driven by Jason Keller. "It has been far and away the strongest promotion ever run for our retailers," declared Black. Of 834 retailers affiliated with the Fleming IGA group, 630 are participating in the NASCAR events.

"The NASCAR demographics are strong," said Black. "We were impressed that 40% of NASCAR's fans are women, because 80% of our customers are women."

Described as the world's fastest-growing spectator sport by Cindy Sisson, president of Agency Won, which specializes in NASCAR promotions, racing pulls huge crowds and fosters intense loyalty for drivers and for sponsor's products. Attendance at NASCAR events soared by 74% between 1991 and 1997 -- followed by a second-place growth of 41% for the National Hockey League. It is not uncommon for 200,000 or more fans to cram into a NASCAR oval -- some of them bringing their campers and staying for a few days. The average patron drives 228 miles to get there.

A study by a research firm, Performance Research, notes that NASCAR sponsors get 72% product loyalty -- meaning that nearly three out of four times a racing fan purchases a product, it will be from one of a car's sponsors. Tennis commands the second-best loyalty -- with a 52% figure.

Fleming's name, IGA, and those of partners Nabisco, Kraft, Coca-Cola, Kellogg's and Anheuser-Busch are plastered around the Keller car and on crew uniforms.

The program is 100% vendor-funded, Black noted. The retailer commitment is to purchase a certain number of cases of the partner's product. The retailer gets at little or no cost a point-of-purchase kit for his store, the visit of a "show-car" replica of the real racer, and a Daytona USA NASCAR simulator, which can be driven by store customers. The latter also can get a 1/64-scale replica of the IGA car with required proofs of purchase of sponsor products.

It's a natural that two Southeastern supermarket chains would be tied to NASCAR -- itself with a big fan base in the Southeast. Winn-Dixie Stores, based in Jacksonville, Fla., pays a "lot of money" for its sole sponsorship of Mark Martin's racing team in the Busch Grand National Series, said Mickey Clerc, company spokesman. He declined to give an actual figure, but sources pointed out that sponsorship of a Busch series car can run from $1.5 million to $5 million.

The firm's logo is prominently displayed on the hood of the car -- and on drivers' uniforms, on raceway walls and even around the cockpit on "in-car" cameras that are featured in televised races.

Winn-Dixie heavily promotes its store brands and beef -- using "Mark's likeness on products that lend themselves to tailgating, such as soft drinks, buns, chips and luncheon meats, Clerc said. From small campers to large RVs, many fans spend several days at the track.The Busch races feature "up and coming " drivers and the premier Winston Cup races usually occur in the same city -- on consecutive nights.

Clerc said that success of the program is "very difficult to measure. But we like to place ourselves in areas where there is customer interest. NASCAR racing was born in the Southeast, as was Winn-Dixie. Many of our customers are fans."

Food Lion, Salisbury, N.C., has been the official supermarket sponsor of NASCAR for the past three years -- and has won approval of the designation for another three years, said Chris Ahearn, director of communications. The chain runs frequent promotions involving NASCAR, also because of the close overlap between its Southeastern market and NASCAR's fan base.

Typical was a "scratch and win" game during May in all 1,100 stores in 11 states. Contestants got game pieces at store visits -- normally one per visit, but two if using a loyalty card. Ahearn said that 35 million of the game pieces were issued.

"SuperFan Festivals," on the other hand, are "local events that are designed for specific markets -- and those are for racing fans who may or may not be going to the race itself. The festivals will be held in 19 cities this year that are host to Winston Cup races. They include such things as racing simulator games and a mini-raceway for kids."

Then there is the Food Lion Speed Street festival each year, which draws more than 300,000 race fans. NASCAR simulators, interactive racing exhibits, musical entertainment and appearances by some of NASCAR's hottest stars make the festival the largest NASCAR fan celebration of the season, said Ahearn.

Observers point out that supermarket involvement in racing is no longer confined to primarily rural areas of the Southeast. Fleming's Black said that the IGA program has won support from retailers from Miami to Buffalo -- and across the Midwest and Southwest. Besides Food Lion and Winn-Dixie, retailers involved in NASCAR in some capacity include Albertson's, Bi-Lo, Food City, Kroger Co., Save Mart Supermarkets and Wegmans Food Markets, observers note.

In Kansas City, Associated Wholesale Grocers' Price Chopper group of independents has become interested in NASCAR -- and is negotiating to be the exclusive supermarket sponsor of a track under construction. The track is slated for Winston Cup races and others in 2001, according to John Meggs, Price Chopper's advertising coordinator. The firm already has exclusive contracts for signage at two local tracks that stage NASCAR-sanctioned races.

Going a step further, Ball's, operator of 11 of the nearly three-dozen Price Choppers in the Kansas City market, individually brought drivers such as Darrell Waltrip to its stores for remote radio broadcasts -- and to display race cars. "People came from everywhere to see the cars and racing teams, " said a company spokesman.

Price Chopper, which holds a 45% market share in the Kansas City trade area, for years has been sports-minded -- with promotional forays into football, soccer and baseball.

Most noteworthy is the stores' sponsorship of the fun-loving "K.C. Wolf" who is the mascot of the Kansas City Chiefs. The wolf goes to stores, churches, schools on behalf of moral causes -- and does some stunts at games."He is as popular as any Chiefs player," said Meggs, and provides great recognition for the supermarkets. "Some people have asked, are you [Price Chopper] part-owners of the Chiefs?" Meggs said.

Food ads each fall contain a "Chiefs and Chopper" logo and list about 100 specials, many of them appropriate for tailgate parties. "Wolf-Packs" consisting of chicken on a roll are sold in delis. In a manufacturer tie-in, a special promotion last fall involved Price Chopper, Coca-Cola and the Chiefs. Shoppers using loyalty cards were automatically entered in promotions ranging from front-row season seats to a passing competition leading to a new pickup truck.

The "Chopper Shopper" loyalty card also can be used for certain baseball deals. For example, on Monday and Thursday nights, patrons showing their cards at Kansas City Royals ticket windows get the tickets for half-price. Attendance on those nights is up substantially, Meggs noted. The stores also are official sponsors of the Wizards professional soccer team.

This fall's Price Chopper/Chiefs promotional schedule is still being formulated, said Meggs, but it will contain many of the elements of past promotions.

For a Woodbury, Tenn., Piggly Wiggly, sports marketing means helping the local football team.Owner Arna Smithson said he donated $1,000 to the team for equipment and any other needs. In return, the school allowed him to hang a big sign over the pressbox reading: "Piggly Wiggly sponsors Canon County football." Smithson, who competes with a Wal-Mart Supercenter and several chains 16 miles away, said that business is better than ever.

Smithson also gave $1,000 for basketball -- $500 each for girls' and boys' teams. In return, he gets a sign under the scoreboard, which is also seen at other events.

Soon after the donations, new customers who had never shopped at Piggy Wiggly began coming into his store. Smithson knew that his support of the team helped with sales growth because customers took the time to say thank you for supporting the team -- and to let him know his efforts had influenced where they shopped.

The grocer also made a $100 donation to help cheerleaders get new uniforms and invited them to hold fund-raisers during the weekends by cleaning windshields for customers.

At the end of the football season, Smithson held a tailgate party sale in his parking lot that generated a 5% increase in sales for the day.

Piggy Wiggly stores in many sections of the country have been active in sports marketing in their communities. In Wisconsin, Mike Houser, Schultz Sav-O/Piggy Wiggly executive vice president, said that response was "incredible" to a "Brett Favre/Pack Attack Kids Contest. As the result of a drawing from thousands of entries, a Sheboygan, Wis., 10-year-old and seven close friends won the opportunity to meet and eat with Packers' quarterback Favre.

They dined with the football hero at his steakhouse during the filming of "The Pack Attack" TV show sponsored by Schultz Sav-O. A little farther west -- at Omro,, Wis., Jim Duggan, owner of Omro's Own supermarket, invited his best 300 customer households to a Super Bowl Pizza Party, held in the town of 3,000 people one week before the game.

The party, staged in the store on a Sunday night after closing, featured free beer and pizzas, supplied respectively by Miller and Tombstone, basketball games, a football toss, videos of past Super Bowl games, and door prizes. Frito Lay provided inflatable couches. A crowd of about 300 persons devoured 50 pizzas. Duggan said that the party will be repeated next year.

Many supermarket/sports hookups involve charity -- and nowhere is the concept more prominent than in golf, where proceeds are earmarked for a local or national cause.

For example, in California, the 1998 Raley's Gold Rush Classic raised $768,000 in cash and in-kind services for Sacramento-area charities. Since the tournament's inception in 1987, it has generated more than $3.25 million for organizations such as Food for Families, the American Cancer Society and the Salvation Army. The Raley's Gold Rush Classic Children's Dental Clinics -- a series of clinics offering free dental care to more than 1,000 children -- provided $424,000 of in-kind services in 1998.

Across the country, Clemens Markets, Kulpsville, Pa., operator of stores in Bucks, Montgomery and Chester counties of Pennsylvania, in August was slated to hold its seventh annual James Clemens Sr. Memorial Golf Tournament. Proceeds are earmarked for the "Clemens Foundation."

Hy-Vee, West Des Moines, Iowa, which regularly sponsors events such as the "Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa" and the "Iowa Games," Olympic-style contests for all ages, this year paid an undisclosed sum to get the company name linked to the USGA Senior Open -- held in De Moines in July.

Hy-Vee stores were official ticket venues for the tourney, and helped sell 220,000 tickets. Also, as part of the deal, the company was authorized to set up a corporate tent in which employees from across the state could come for hospitality.

The sponsorship is good for the community and nice for employees to socialize in the tent, said Ruth Mitchell, assistant vice president for communications.

Jacksonville, Fla.-based Winn-Dixie Stores' Atlanta division is on the charity trail, though with baseball. The division is in the fifth year of a program in which $100 is donated to the "Braves' Foundation" each time a member of the Atlanta Braves hits a home run, at home or away. Since the club hits 190 to 210 home runs a year, about $20,000 a year goes to the foundation, with funds earmarked for the rebuilding of inner-city ballparks in Atlanta.

Whether proceeds are for charity or for profit, athlete-licensed food products often do well in supermarkets. More than 1.5 million boxes of Flutie Flakes have been sold in New England area supermarkets, said Ty Ballou, president of PLB Sports, Pittsburgh, marketer of spots-oriented food products.

The sugar-frosted cornflake cereal boxes bear the name of the popular Buffalo Bills quarterback. A portion of sales revenues goes to the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism. Recently, PLB rolled out Nolan Ryan's Steak Sauce in the Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth areas of Texas in time for Ryan's induction into the Hall of Fame this summer.