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Shirley Leung

The Boston Pops fireworks show needs to change

Video shows time-lapse of the 2016 Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular for the 4th of July.
Video shows time-lapse of the 2016 Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular for the 4th of July.

No corporate titan in this town was willing to be this year’s sponsor of the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular on the Esplanade?

That’s what David Mugar, the grand poobah behind the annual fireworks concert, has been saying. Others will tell you that there were businesses that wanted to write big checks for Monday’s celebration, but they couldn’t reach an agreement with Mugar.

Then there’s casino mogul Steve Wynn, who took a serious look at underwriting this year’s celebration, according to people briefed on the matter, but he took a pass because he wanted to first break ground on his casino in Everett.

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While Wynn’s $2.1 billion project has the blessing of the state, he is still battling a legal challenge from the City of Somerville. Wynn is expected to revisit the sponsorship opportunity in the fall. It wouldn’t surprise me if some of his folks show up Monday on the Esplanade on a scouting trip.

Wynn would be a great Fourth of July sponsor. People from Las Vegas know how to put on a show. He must have music stars like Celine Dion and Garth Brooks on speed dial.

Boston’s Independence Day party is a tricky one for corporate sponsors, who don’t usually like one-day events. The cost — while free to the public — is steep for the underwriter: $2 million to cover the fireworks, production costs, set up, and clean up. And this year got complicated because of changes to the event. First, it was going to be a country music lineup and locally televised; then it became pop stars Demi Lovato and Nick Jonas in a national broadcast. Ultimately, there were too many loose ends and too many strings attached for corporate America to ink a pricey deal on short notice.

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Press Mugar, and he’ll acknowledge that there were a couple of companies that were willing to make sizable contributions, including a bank that wanted to give close to $500,000. He said no to the bank because it was asking too much in return.

“When we saw the list of what they wanted, the results were not sensible,” Mugar said.

I write all this not to blame anyone, certainly not Mugar, who is still bankrolling the affair himself. We have him to thank not only for funding this year’s celebration but also for coming up with the ingenious idea of pairing the Pops with fireworks.

I write all this because Mugar at 77 is retiring. Monday will be his 43rd and final show, and I’m thinking about what is going to happen Tuesday when the clock starts ticking on securing a sponsorship for 2017 and beyond.

Am I confident companies will step up? Yes.

But here’s what I am worried about. The fireworks concert has been Mugar’s baby, and it will be his nonprofit organization, Boston 4 Productions , that will continue the tradition. Making a deal will require that the next sponsor or set of sponsors is assured that they can make this event their own.

Liberty Mutual ended its decade-long relationship with the fireworks concert in 2015. Even though the event draws close to a half-million people, Mugar’s experience this year showed that selling the July 4th sponsorship is tougher than ever. That’s because it’s not what companies do these days to market themselves.

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They crave months-long exposure. When a business signs a sponsorship deal with a sports team like the New England Patriots, it gets a whole season of promotion.

So what is the right price to underwrite our fireworks extravaganza? For that, I turned to David D’Alessandro, who inked marquee sponsorships with the Boston Marathon and the Olympics when he was the CEO of John Hancock.

D’Alessandro estimates that the sponsorship value of the July Fourth program is $1 million or less, which means the organizer should revamp the business model to cover expenses.

“It is primarily, with all due respect, a community/vanity sponsorship,” D’Alessandro said. “The smart move would be to monetize it.”

In other words, sell every piece of it you can, as NESN does with a Red Sox broadcast. (“This call to the bullpen brought to you by . . . ”)

D’Alessandro suggested that Mugar’s successor aggressively sell merchandise and food concessions, even cutting deals with brands like Coca-Cola to make it the show’s official beverage.

“It is T-shirt heaven,” he said. “If you cannot get a half-million dollars of merchandise and concession, you are a dolt.”

Another idea: a multiday patriotic festival on the Esplanade leading up to the fireworks concert.

“If you want to institutionalize this thing, you need to commercialize it,” he said.

I can’t see the Pops or fireworks going away, but we need fresh eyes to look for ways to trim operating costs and develop revenue opportunities to make our Independence Day bash attractive to sponsors.

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Change is never easy for this town, especially when it comes to tinkering with tradition. But this time change is necessary if we want every Fourth of July to end with a bang and Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.”


Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.