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Resort Retracts Beer-Sponsor Ban

Jackson Hole's quandary over popular ski program highlights alcohol's strong links to sport

ANYONE seeking a case study of how intertwined beer sponsorship and the American sports scene have become might take a look at the recent saga of the Jackson Hole Ski Resort in Wyoming and skiing's popular National Standard Racing (NASTAR). With more than 3.3 million entries since its inception in 1968, NASTAR is recreational skiing's most popular competitive program. At some 180 ski areas coast to coast, it allows amateur skiers to win medals, establish racing handicaps, and measure prowess and progress, not to mention have fun. The program is so popular that it's almost a necessity for major ski resorts courting the lucrative vacation business of large ski clubs and groups.

Adult NASTAR is sponsored by Miller Lite Beer; a junior version is sponsored by Coca-Cola. Skiers 19 years and older wear racing bibs promoting the beer; junior bibs promote Coke, while race course flags and banners display both logos.

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In recent years, NASTAR pace-setters (they set the times against which other skiers compete) have been members of the US Ski Team. NASTAR publicity frequently links the logos of Lite Beer, the US Ski Team, and NASTAR over the tag line: ``The Official Beer of Skiing.''

So more than a few eyebrows were raised last year when Jackson Hole, one of the nation's biggest resorts (and the only one with more than 4,000 vertical feet of skiing), announced this would be its last season offering NASTAR. ``In an industry that promotes sport, health, and fitness, it seems entirely inappropriate that we rely on alcohol and tobacco to sponsor and promote racing events,'' a press release quoted founder and chief executive Paul McCollister. ``These are the very chemicals that destroy b odies; it's time we set an example.''

Initial decision hailed

The resort also noted its ``bold move'' of already having eliminated three other racing events, sponsored by two vodka distillers and a major cigarette company - all national programs.

The decision brought requests for television and radio interviews and approving telephone calls and letters from as far away as Hawaii, according to McCollister and Jackson Hole marketing vice president Harry Baxter. The Aspen Skiing Company called to say it had also abandoned tobacco promotions, though not alcohol-based ones.

What Jackson Hole's announcement did not prepare people for was the turnaround press release it issued last week: ``NASTAR is ... of national and international importance to skiers. Our recreational racers, a large segment of the ski industry market, demanded that we retain our NASTAR programs. With skier satisfaction as our paramount concern, Jackson Hole Ski Corporation has determined to continue NASTAR for the foreseeable future.''

The question is: How did Jackson Hole get from Press release A to press release B? Arduously, it would seem.

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Baxter and McCollister say the issue arose more than a year ago at a local Rotary Club luncheon slide show narrated by a physician. While Baxter watched a slide of a youngster skiing down Jackson Hole's self-timing race course strung with banners promoting its cigarette sponsor, the physician berated ``corporations that don't care what values they promote to kids.''

The news led McCollister to accompany Baxter to the next Rotary luncheon and announce not only was Jackson Hole doing away with tobacco-sponsored events, it would also terminate alcohol promotions at season's end.

Considered sufficiently independent to defy conventional wisdom and develop a ski resort thousands of miles from most major cities, McCollister recently explained why he decided to drop alcohol-sponsored events, ``even though at the time I didn't even realize NASTAR was sponsored by Miller.''

``We've lost a number of kids around here in drinking and driving accidents,'' he said. ``Two daughters of close friends of mine lost two kids.'' Noting that ``kids are easily influenced,'' McCollister said that promoting beer with sports that young people heavily participate in ``doesn't make a lot of sense to me.'' But he said he doesn't object to promoting beer to adults.

McCollister said that in repeated phone calls he vainly tried to persuade NASTAR officials either to get Miller to sponsor NASTAR with its non-alcoholic beer, or to furnish gate flags and banners without any beer logo, which he said the resort would put up for Junior NASTAR races.

But he also said that his ski-school director, 1964 Olympic triple medalist Pepi Stiegler, a former NASTAR pace-setter himself, warned him that without the program, Jackson Hole would lose its ski club business. Besides internal corporate pressures to keep NASTAR, there were difficulties in finding appropriate non-alcoholic sponsors that might back a ``Pepi Stiegler Standard Race.'' Still, McCollister indicated, he planned to stand firm and also intended to bring the issue to the United Ski Industries A ssociation convention in May.

`It's a legal product'

Reached at his Aspen, Colo., ski-promotion corporation, NASTAR commissioner and TV sports commentator Bob Beattie called the entire issue ``silly'' and ``a limb'' onto which he was sure his old friend and valued client McCollister wished he hadn't climbed.

``We feel there is no problem,'' Beattie said. ``Nobody's trying to make kids drink. Nothing's wrong with adults drinking beer. It's a legal product.'' A former US Ski Team coach and long considered one of skiing's most successful promoters, Beattie dismissed the idea that beer companies have ``slush funds'' for sports promotions, which help them to dominate the field. ``We probably work with 12 to 15 clients, and only one of them is a brewery,'' he said. He also indicated Jackson Hole might yet be in t he NASTAR fold next season.

A spokesman for Miller Lite beer said his company would continue to sponsor NASTAR, which has been ``extremely beneficial both for the people on the ski slopes and to Miller.'' He added that Miller's non-alcoholic beer is ``not considered to be a substitute for Miller Lite for this program.''

Jackson Hole marketing director Baxter said he expected some problems because, without NASTAR, it could lose some ski club business. But, he added: ``I do not want Paul [McCollister] to back off on this. I think it's important that we stand our ground.''

Not long after came word of the shift in Jackson Hole's position. Asked why, McCollister declined to comment. Asked if this was a difficult situation he wished he never had tackled, he replied: ``A lot of people wish they weren't in this situation, I can tell you that.'' He called it ``a pretty delicate situation.''

Said Baxter: ``Actually, the breweries have done a lot for sports. I just wish other industries would do more.''

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