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Marketing' Gold In The Gay Games

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They came. They competed. They looked fabulous. Then they shopped and partied and poured, officials say, more than $100 million into New York City's economy before leaving at the conclusion of the Gay Games IV on June 25.

What started out in 1982 as a uniquely San Francisco event with 1,700 athletes and a $100,000 budget has grown into something worth competing for. This year, with funding of $6.5 million, the games drew 11,000 athletes, their significant others, and 500,000 or so out-of-town spectators.

And with the cooperation of New York, the Gay Games became less a series of sporting events than a nine-day celebration of culture, complete with parades, plays, music, art shows, and food fests. As merchants worked overtime to accommodate the revelers, the outside world watched. "There's a lot of future impact there in terms of tourism," says a spokeswoman for the New York Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Others saw business opportunities in the games themselves. Legitimized by mainstream corporate sponsors such as AT&T, Miller Brewing Co., and Hiram Walker & Sons, organizers hope their success marks a sea change in the way companies view these customers. "Marketers who support events like these are rewarded with an immense sense of loyalty from the gay and lesbian community," says Harold Levine, director of marketing for the games. "I think we've laid to rest the myth of backlash."

As a group, the estimated 13 million to 14 million adults in the U.S. who identify themselves as gay or lesbian have more education and more disposable income than straight consumers, says Andrew A. Isen, president of WinMark Concepts Inc. About 60% of the gay population has a college degree, compared with 18% of the general population, Isen says. And gay consumers are five times as likely to earn more than $100,000 a year.

Amsterdam already has snapped up the Gay Games V in 1998, beating out competing bids from Sydney and Atlanta. It no doubt knows that if it lays out the welcome mat, the gay and lesbian community will turn out. And spend.Julie Tilsner in New York

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