This Fourth of July, the cannons roared and the fireworks burst in brilliant colors as a world class orchestra drove home the climactic finale of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” as they have for decades over Boston’s Charles River.
Pop stars Nick Jonas and Demi Lovato and country group Little Big Town were schedules to entertain the over 500,000 expected to attend and the millions more across the country watching live on CBS.
But the future of the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular — one of the nation’s signature Independence Day celebrations — is uncertain.
Businessman and philanthropist David Mugar is stepping down as founder and executive director of the celebration after 43 years and it’s not clear who’s going to fill the sponsorship and leadership void.
Longtime sponsor and Boston-based insurance giant Liberty Mutual decided not to renew its contract last year.
And Mugar, whose family founded the Star Market grocery chain in the Boston area, couldn’t secure another financial backer. So he’s covering the over $2 million production cost for this year’s event from his personal wealth.
Mugar, 77, said he wants to devote more time to his other ventures.
“I’m disappointed but I’m not discouraged,” he said earlier this week, as he oversaw preparations on Boston’s waterfront esplanade. “I don’t know why it’s the case that no one has come forward yet. We’re a perfect product. There’s no controversy around it.”
To be sure, others are contributing to this year’s production.
The Boston Pops orchestra donates its performance. Security costs largely fall on the state and city. And CBS is footing the bill for the telecast, including the performers’ fees.
Independence Day Events
But Boston’s struggles to find a primary sponsor reflects a common challenge facing Independence Day celebrations across the country. Other events are also dealing with rising insurance costs and depleted city and state coffers.
In neighboring Connecticut, for example, the state’s largest Independence Day celebration, Riverfest, was cancelled this year after the host cities of Hartford and East Hartford said they couldn’t justify their roughly $100,000 share of the costs in the face of budget problems being felt across the state.
Smaller towns and cities around the United States have had to cut fireworks’ shows each year, some even turning to crowdfunding donations to keep it going.
Ian Cross, who teaches marketing at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts, suggests companies are weighing the marketing potential of sponsoring a one-off event like a fireworks show and finding the costs outweigh the benefits.
“New marketing is about efficient use of money targeted at a carefully selected audience,” he said. “But who is the firework audience? Everyone and no one. Maybe it’s so general that it’s difficult to target a specific business opportunity.”
Boston residents relaxing along the esplanade earlier last week said they’re a little concerned and surprised at the uncertainty surrounding the event’s future.
“I think it would be really bad if it didn’t happen,” said Brian Harrington, 48. “It’s so important for the city and the country. It’s just a joyous occasion.”
Resident Fatima Green said she was optimistic it will all work out before next year.
“The problem is that everyone is looking for something in return. They’re not looking to do it from the same generosity that he’s had,” the 31-year old said, referring to Mugar. “This is about celebrating the independence we fought so hard to get. We got to keep it that way.”
As for Mugar, he’s open to helping as an adviser going forward but right before this year’s festivities he said he’s trying to enjoy his last ride at the helm.
“It’s nostalgic, of course. It’s been a long run and I’ve met some wonderful people. But I agree with the Bill Belichick philosophy,” Mugar said, referring to the New England Patriots’ famously tight-lipped coach. “We’ve got a 2016 show to put on and we’ll start working on 2017 afterward. Right now, we’re all focused on 2016.”
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