WASHINGTON (CNNMoney.com) -- When caterer Francine Powers got summoned to the big leagues, the call came out of the blue: The phone in her home office rang, and on the other end was an invitation to try out for a shot at the Super Bowl.
Powers ran her fledgling company from her kitchen in Miami. Her caller was a large Los Angeles corporate caterer, Ambrosia Productions, that had been hired by the National Football League to coordinate the pregame reception for the 1995 Super Bowl. It wanted local caters to subcontract on the deal, and in the member directory of a Miami minority business development group, it found Powers' phone number.
She was dubious. "Are you really sure I'd be a fit?" she remembers asking. Ambrosia's answer: "No problem -- show us what you can do." After an audition that featured submissions from two dozen caterers, Powers was one of three chosen. She made a return Super Bowl appearance in 2007 -- this time, as a prime contractor for the Miami game's half-time spread.
Fifteen years later, the NFL has grown more formal about recruiting small companies into the bidding process for America's annual football extravaganza. Its Emerging Business Program, coordinated each year by the host city's organizers, helps train the leaders of minority- and woman-owned businesses to win contracts for the big game.
Powers bid on three contracts for the 2010 Super Bowl, and has landed two. Her firm, We're Having a Party, will be providing boxed meals for parking lot attendants and offering a soup station for the NFL tailgate party.
"Each time I bid, I act like it's the first time," Powers says. "I don't take any of it for granted. This type of work is not going to make you a ton of money, but it puts your business on a better footing."
Catherine Minnis, director of community outreach for the South Florida Super Bowl Host Committee, has been working with small firms for months on procurement opportunities for next month's Super Bowl XLIV. Planning starts early: The first contracts for this year's game were awarded in April. The North Texas Super Bowl Host Committee has already begun holding small business training workshops for 2011 bids. Its first workshop, in October, attracted 1,000 attendees.
Each host committee has its own twist on the procurement process. In South Florida, interested firms were asked to complete a four-page application detailing what services they offer and delving into gritty details like their insurance and bonding situation. Businesses also had to get a certified as a woman-owned or minority company. The prize for jumping through those hoops is a listing in the South Florida organizing committee's Business Resource Guide, which can translate to big business for a small company. This year, more than 540 companies made it into the guide.
Florist Sher Tannozzini, who runs Fort Lauderdale-based Flowers From The Rainflorist, is among those bidding for a piece of this season's showdown. Two months before the game, a handful of contracts are still being decided. Tannozzini already lost out on one subcontracting project she went after -- providing floral centerpieces -- but remains in the running for two more.
"The NFL opens doors very wide for me, and even if I don't win any contracts, it's worth it," she says. Simply participating in the bid process has introduced her to businesses in related fields, like limousine rental and party planning firms. Those contacts have generated new, non-NFL business for her flower shop.
Tannozzini says she was a bit naïve in "thinking that joining the program suddenly I would have people beating down my door for Super Bowl contracts. That's not the reality -- it's much more competitive than that."
Tisha Ford, the NFL's special events business development manager, says that working with local businesses brings a community vibe to the Super Bowl.
"This is a traveling event, and each region is unique and has its own nuances," she says. "Getting to know a particular local community helps us tap into tremendous resources."
The league decided to target its programs at minority and women-owned businesses "because perhaps they haven't had the opportunity to touch an event of this scale," Ford says. "We want to give them a voice and create a link with our purchasing entities."
Veteran Super Bowl contractors say the low margins and logistical scrambling are worth it for the glamour of being part of the big game.
Tico Casamayor, president of AC Graphics in Hialeah, Fla., landed a contract to print the media guide for the 2007 Super Bowl.
"The printing that I do for the game I don't make much money on," says Casamayor. "You're not going to become rich through the contract, but the fact that I do work for the Super Bowl has made it that much easier to get work with others."
Casamayor recalls a nail-biting moment in 2007 when he had to field changes to the NFL media guide almost right up until kickoff.
He raced through the Dolphins Stadium parking lot to deliver his hot-off-the-presses guides. But without a ticket, he found himself locked out of the heavily credentialed stadium. Casamayor sweet-talked his way through two parking attendants before running out of luck with a third.
"It was crazy, but they finally got there after they sent someone out to the parking lot to pick up the guides," he recalls. "I've never been to a game. I couldn't really afford it, but I love sports -- and, you know, it's the NFL."
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