By Darren Rovell
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Once in a while, a stalwart brand faces a wake-up call that forces its executives to realize that if they don't work harder, they might fall behind the competition.Saturday night in Jacksonville just might have been that night for Playboy. For years, the Playboy name has been synonymous with domination in the men's magazine category, but publications like Maxim and FHM, which, unlike Playboy, do not feature their women naked, have been gaining market share. Normally, Playboy and Maxim dual it out for the most over-the-top Super Bowl party. A win on Super weekend delivers bragging rights for the rest of year. In the past, tickets have been counterfeited while real ones have changed hands for thousands of dollars. The two skin mags went head-to-head with their parties Saturday night, and Maxim was clearly the party that stole the night. Buzz: Edge to Maxim
The people who run the Maxim party realize how important this category is. Last year in Houston, they bused attendees from downtown Houston to a secret location 30 miles away. This year, they tried to keep the location of their party quiet for as long as they could. Late in the week, there was a rumor the party had been cancelled because of legal issues with the venue.
"Things like that tend to circulate when everyone wants to come to your party," said Maxim spokesperson Lewis Kay, who was running the show on location.Maxim also has an advantage in this category because its brand targets a younger demographic. Playboy readers on average are 32 years old, while Maxim readers are about 6 years younger -- that tends to spread buzz faster than the older population. Location: Push
Playboy's party was in downtown Jacksonville at a nice place called the River City Brewing Company, where the EA Sports party took place two nights earlier. Due to the lack of cabs, anyone without a car or who was within city limits could have walked. But this required wading through large crowds and sometimes jumping over concrete barriers. Anyone in a vehicle or pedicab had plenty of traffic to confront. The Maxim party was about five miles from downtown. Although streets were closed near the entrance, a huge parking lot, which was clearly marked off, was only a few blocks away and made access easier than we were expecting. Food: Edge to Playboy
This is the only category where Playboy differentiated itself. River City Brewing Company offers some terrific food, and it showed. Highlights of the main room buffet included fried shrimp with a sweet-and-sour dipping sauce, slices of ahi tuna loin and delicious grilled vegetables. Upstairs the desserts were outstanding, ranging from the gelato (with a server named Michele who flew in from Italy for the party) to a lemon sorbet with vodka in it to a variety of cheesecakes, including a delectable coffee variety. Food was few and far between at the Maxim party. Although skewers of teriyaki beef and chicken and eggrolls were good and plentiful, there wasn't enough variety. If there were any desserts, I couldn't find them. Drinks: Edge to Maxim
The variety of alcoholic beverages served at both parties was adequate, but the wait to get a drink at the Playboy party was much longer -- and we went earlier in the night when the facility was less crowded. The bar downstairs was too small, and the bar upstairs didn't have enough bartenders. Despite the huge crowds, getting a drink at Maxim was surprisingly easy. Bars were everywhere, and the main room featured a huge circular bar with plenty of people behind it to serve attendees. VIPs were served a new high-end Stoli product. Scenery: Push
Women at both parties were beautiful. Those at Maxim appeared to be a bit more approachable, but those at the Playboy party were easier to spot due to the confined space. The age of the women was reflected in the demographic of their readers -- the Playboy models, not surprisingly, were older than most of the Maxim models. Atmosphere: Edge to Maxim
Maxim won this category in a runaway. Due to the fact that the Playboy folks picked a location that was a restaurant that was doing business and hosting other parties throughout the week, they were limited in terms of how much they could dress up the facility. Outside the door, a Playboy model awkwardly danced on a podium, which didn't work because she had no music to dance to. Inside, they struggled to carry out their theme for this year, "What happens in the grotto, stays in the grotto." In the main room, the restaurant's usual lighting was on, which was strange for a nightlife party like this where the lights are usually dimmed. It's hard to control this aspect of things, but too many people at the Playboy party weren't appropriately dressed for the event -- some were wearing football jerseys and jeans -- which had an effect on the overall environment. Maxim had much more space because the party was held away from downtown. Plus, the organizers bought out a facility, which made it possible to do some outrageous things. Their wedding theme "Maximony" was cleverly planned. A string quartet played at the beginning of the red carpet. Male attendants were dressed like best men in white tuxedos and gloves, while a four-woman band performed and danced in sexy wedding gowns. In the courtyard between the two main buildings where the party took place, women had a chance to fish for a real diamond ring in a pool of rose petals. Out of the 1,000 wedding rings in the water, one of them was redeemable for a $2,500 ring from Ice.com. And to top it all off, a real couple, Eric and Alexandria Gebicke -- who prevailed in a screening process that happened just a couple days before -- actually got married to kick off the party. The couple was scheduled to get married in April, but moved things up to join the party of their lives. Other features that made Maxim stand out were a station where partygoers could get their picture taken, a game room featuring typical casino games, and scratch-off tickets for prizes from that included everything from T-shirts to Bulova watches. Although the courtyard was outside, kudos go to the Maxim party staff for the plethora of heat lamps, which allowed guests in scantily clad clothing to brave the night's 40-degree temperature. However, I think the whole outside thing is nixed for next year's game in Detroit. Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He's in Jacksonville, covering the Super Bowl scene for Page 3.