Nina Davuluri was far from a front-runner for the next Miss America crown.
Since she captured no preliminary wins or early scholarships, the media barely paid attention to the 24-year-old from Syracuse, N.Y., in the two weeks leading up to the final competition. The Miss America Organization’s press room coordinated just one interview for the aspiring doctor in Atlantic City, compared with the dozens of interview requests for tattooed, headline-making Miss Kansas Theresa Vail and the injured, baton-twirling comeback kid, Miss Florida Myrrhanda Jones.
With 10 million viewers watching by the end of the broadcast — the most since 2004, when the competition left the resort — Davuluri’s win Sept. 15 was not only unexpected, it was historic.
The first-ever Indian-American to wear the crown, Davuluri was quickly thrown into the media spotlight when social media sites erupted with angry ramblings going as far as to call her “Miss Al-Qaida.” She responded by talking about her platform of cultural awareness and was backed by groups wanting to hear her message.
As a result, the organization — and thus Atlantic City — has found itself in a unique situation. Interview requests for Davuluri from television, radio and print media in the week following the competition are double that of any previous Miss America, organization officials said. That also means double the opportunities to keep Atlantic City in the spotlight, said officials from the Atlantic City Alliance, who believe the Sept. 15 broadcast translated into $1.5 million in advertising for the city.
“Nina Davuluri’s platform on ethnic diversity has hit a hot button across this country, and she has been embraced by those who want to hear her message as well as those who have stepped up to defend her against those who have exhibited prejudice since she won the title,” Miss America Organization CEO Sam Haskell said.
That’s meant appearances on CNN, Fox News, Bloomberg television, NPR and “LIVE with Kelly and Michael” in Davuluri’s first week as Miss America. She mentions her crowning in Atlantic City each time without fail, and local officials say they couldn’t be happier with the additional media attention.
The alliance, a casino-funded marketing agency, has assigned a score to all of the media attention the resort has received through the competition, but tallies are still coming given the media fury following the crowning, CEO Liza Cartmell said.
“That has huge value. Enormous,” Cartmell said. “The whole controversy ... has created broadcast opportunities on mainline television and continued focus and attention on Atlantic City. She’s been very good about continuing to comment on Atlantic City throughout the interviews.”
That’s likely, in part, because a $7.5 million promise of financial support to the Miss America Organization by the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority over three years requires Davuluri to promote Atlantic City as a destination in all television interviews whenever practical. The more opportunities she has to do so, the better, officials said.
Much of the impact the Miss America Competition had on Atlantic City is difficult to measure. Officials have some indicators of success, but the impact of much of the competition can’t be measured specifically.
The alliance predicted the competition would deliver as many as 6,000 room nights over the weekend of the competition. The resort has close to 20,000 rooms available. But Cartmell said she can’t provide a room night count, as most groups chose not to book rooms through the blocks the alliance had set up.
“I don’t know that we’ll ever be able to get a true accounting of the rooms,” Cartmell said.
Many state organizations that had booked through the room blocks canceled their reservations and moved to the casinos where their contestants were staying, she said.
Other indicators saw minimal gains at best. Traffic flowing both directions through the Atlantic City Expressway’s Pleasantville toll plaza was down 3.4 percent Sept. 13 and 13.9 percent Sept. 15 — the final day of the competition — compared to a Friday and Sunday in September 2012, according to data provided by the South Jersey Transportation Authority.
Despite parade crowd estimates of 225,000 by city officials, traffic was up just 2.4 percent Sept. 14 — the day of the Miss America parade — with 75,180 vehicles passing through the Pleasantville toll plaza in either direction, SJTA spokesman Kevin Rehmann said. Sept. 14 was also the day of the Atlantic City International Triathlon and the Atlantic City Seafood Festival. It’s also possible that many in the crowd at the parade were local residents who didn’t use the expressway to get into the city that day, officials said.
Boardwalk Hall was nowhere near packed on the preliminary nights of competition, and the final competition drew 10,500 fans to the 12,000-seat hall.
Richard Perniciaro, director of Atlantic Cape Community College’s Center for Regional and Business Research, said in many ways it doesn’t matter how many people were at the events; it matters only where they came from — something that’s more difficult to track.
“It’s more important to know how many people you drew from outside of the area. Those are people who are spending money here who otherwise wouldn’t have been,” he said.
Still, officials are pointing to other indicators of success, particularly in the realm of television. Stacked against competition that included NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” Nielsen ratings show that ABC’s 9 to 11 p.m. broadcast of the competition was up 21 percent in total viewers and up 25 percent in the important category of viewers ages 18 to 49. With 10 million viewers in the last half-hour of competition, Miss America saw its best ratings since 2004 — the last time the competition was held in the resort.
While the competition has been broadcast on ABC in recent years, a direct comparison against last year’s numbers is difficult as the show had been held on a Saturday in January. Still, ABC saw stronger viewership than it had seen in several months with the broadcast. In total viewers and adults between 18 and 49 years old, ABC saw its strongest entertainment numbers in the time slot in four months, according to the Miss America organization.
Haskell said those ratings will only help the competition in future years. The organization has a contract keeping the competition in Atlantic CIty for the next two years. The organization also has a deal with ABC extending through that timeframe.
“With a significant ratings increase comes a positive ripple effect of success that changes perceptions in the advertising community (and) brings forth potential new sponsors, bigger celebrity judges, a better network deal, and more potential fundraising opportunities for our scholarship fund,” Haskell said.
As it is, Cartmell said the broadcast was extremely valuable to the city. The two-hour broadcast began with an eight-minute segment featuring the contestants dancing on Arctic Avenue in front of White House Sub Shop, smiling in front of the Absecon Lighthouse in the city’s South Inlet, and grinning atop the Golden Nugget in the Marina District. Atlantic City received dozens of mentions throughout the broadcast, and the resort’s Boardwalk and beaches saw prime air time as well.
All together, Cartmell said, she believes that equates to $1.5 million in advertising for the city.
“Ten million viewers is fabulous. It’s a national audience. Atlantic City — in terms of how full it looked, the level of activity and the quality of the broadcast — came out looking spectacular and we expect that to pay off,” she said. “I don’t know that anyone would say it was a great gaming weekend. These people are not sitting down to play baccarat and craps, but it was valuable in other ways.”
Similar valuations of the Miss America Competition have been done in the past. A 1991 study by the Atlantic County Division of Economic Development that was later used to support providing subsidies to the Miss America Organization, valued the two-hour broadcast of the competition as equal to $1.2 million in advertising. A Press of Atlantic City report at the time found the study to be problematic as the broadcast included a view of the city’s skyline that lasted less than a minute, and the city was mentioned only in passing.
Now, contractual obligations ensure that Miss America works to promote Atlantic City throughout the the broadcast and beyond as she makes appearances.
Tony Rodio, president of the casino Association of New Jersey and CEO of Tropicana Casino and Resort, said casinos saw a definite boost from the parade and competition.
“(Miss America) fans filtered into casinos and other Boardwalk businesses all weekend long. As a result, we were able to showcase Tropicana’s new dining venues and other non-gaming amenities to customers we may not have reached otherwise,” he said.
While plenty were watching the competition from home, the Atlantic City Alliance also made sure that new eyes were focused on the resort in person as Miss America came through town. A convention of travel writers was brought to the city through the competition. Officials hoped that showing off the resort during its busiest time could help Atlantic City gain more visitors later.
Among those who saw Atlantic City for the first time was Kathryn Straach, of Fort Myers, Fla, a freelance travel writer. Her only impression of Atlantic City previously was as a destination for gamblers, she said.
“I absolutely loved everything about Atlantic City. Being there for Miss America, you get caught up in the whole thing, and then there’s the great food and hotels,” she said. “It’s hard to tell what the rest of America thinks and whether it ail have much impact on them, but being there certainly did.”
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