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An economic heavyweight as opening act Observers watching WrestleMania with an eye to Super Bowl impact

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The Super Bowl may be bigger, but the Meadowlands chamber will still be busy in coming days as it shows members ways to take advantage of WrestleMania, says Jim Kirkos. Kirkos poses here with cutouts of WWE superstars Sheamus, left, CM Punk and John Cena.
The Super Bowl may be bigger, but the Meadowlands chamber will still be busy in coming days as it shows members ways to take advantage of WrestleMania, says Jim Kirkos. Kirkos poses here with cutouts of WWE superstars Sheamus, left, CM Punk and John Cena. - ()

Volare's restaurant, in Rutherford, is hardly 10 minutes from MetLife Stadium, but owner Denise Dantec knows it's up to her to attract some of the thousands of fans who will descend on New Jersey starting next week for WrestleMania.

That means a promotion allowing children to eat for free, not to mention decking out the Italian restaurant with World Wrestling Entertainment posters. She's also considered offering a shuttle to and from a local hotel, she said.

"You can make a lot of money if you really do the right thing and you know how to market," said Dantec, who will attend WrestleMania with her family April 7. "Even if we get 200 people, that's 200 people that we didn't have. … We're just trying to do anything we can to get them in."

With less than two weeks to go, businesses like Volare's are hoping to cash in on the WWE's flagship show and the six days of related events that are expected to bring more than 100,000 visitors to the region. State officials and tourism leaders have also been counting the days until WrestleMania week, which is ringing in the state's push to attract major events. And plenty of observers are watching to gauge the economic impact, hoping to get a sense of what's to come when the Super Bowl arrives in February.

WrestleMania's arrival is one of the first major planks in Gov. Chris Christie's economic development plan to attract high-profile sports and entertainment events. A law Christie signed in June reorganized the state Sports & Exposition Authority to better focus on tourism and marketing for such events, but with WrestleMania, the state was sketching the blueprint for its new strategy well ahead of the bill signing.

Wayne Hasenbalg, the agency's president and CEO, said the state's pitch to the company about two years ago led to the creation of working groups the state now assigns to each major event, providing the structure that gives entities like WWE access to officials during planning. In the case of WrestleMania, the structure is known as a local organizing committee, which Hasenbalg co-chairs.

And with MetLife preparing to host the Super Bowl, stakeholders are eager to put the state's plan into action with WrestleMania — a similar event that takes over the state for a week and brings tens of thousands of people to the region.

"We've worked for almost a year on the planning, and it will give us an opportunity to see whether or not we're on the right track with this event," Hasenbalg said. "And if we've got to change some things, we'll be able to do that to get ready for the Super Bowl."

WrestleMania has filled several hotels, like the Hampton Inn Secaucus, which had 100 of its 150 rooms reserved a year in advance by a retailer that sells WWE merchandise, said Natalia Ortiz, the hotel's group sales coordinator. It has also prompted restaurants from Rutherford to Hackensack — at the urging of business leaders — to create discounts for WrestleMania fans and make their establishments welcoming to the visitors.

"There's a lot of local activation going on," said Jim Kirkos, president and CEO of the Meadowlands Regional Chamber of Commerce. "Now is when the excitement really kicks in."

But Kirkos also said there is much to be done toward building awareness about business opportunities from WrestleMania, so his group will spend the next several days connecting with members to grow participation.

Such exposure could be huge for local merchants, with out-of-towners accounting for roughly three-quarters of attendees in recent years, the WWE said, and with the Meadowlands Sports Complex hosting two of WrestleMania's three main companion events. Organizers could not say how many hotel rooms have been reserved for WrestleMania week, but the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, whose city hosted last year's event, found about 12,000 were occupied as a result.

With attendance expected to be similar this year — including some 80,000 fans at WrestleMania and another 40,000 for the other events — stakeholders hope New Jersey is in line for a similar windfall. Jose Diaz, chairman of the Miami-Dade Sports Commission, said in his planning, he had expected a $50 million impact, but the WWE reported in the fall the event generated nearly $103 million for the county.

Critical to that success was having the WWE as a partner, Diaz said, noting the company's expertise in marketing and running its events.

"It was easy, because they really know their game," Diaz said."We worked it very closely, and the results were incredible."

Executives with Stamford, Conn.-based WWE also plan to connect with the region's corporate community. John Saboor, senior vice president for special events, said WWE will hold its annual global business partners summit April 6 to showcase its economic impact and its business plan in front of large companies "that we would hope to work with in other business that we conduct" each year. Aside from connecting with fans, he said, "there's also been a purposeful emphasis on having corporations from throughout New Jersey and New York have a chance to become familiar with the work of WWE."

E-mail to: joshb@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @joshburdnj

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