Dad Vail Regatta opens today with renewed energy

Rowing crews practice on the Schuylkill on the eve of the two-day Dad Vail Regatta. In addition to securing a new title sponsor and other corporate contributors, the city has spent $360,000 to refurbish race facilities.
Rowing crews practice on the Schuylkill on the eve of the two-day Dad Vail Regatta. In addition to securing a new title sponsor and other corporate contributors, the city has spent $360,000 to refurbish race facilities.
Posted: May 07, 2010

Rotted bleacher seats have been replaced with new lumber.

The freshly painted grandstand along Kelly Drive sports gleaming coats of brown and beige.

New windows in the finish line pavilion not only look better but also improve the ventilation for judges, who used to swelter inside.

St. Joseph's University athletic director Don DiJulia said renewed energy around the venerable Dad Vail Regatta "makes this almost like an inaugural year. 2010, it's a whole new day."

The six-decades-old Philadelphia tradition, which nearly skipped town this year for North Jersey, returns to the Schuylkill Friday with a new name, facilities refurbished by the city for $360,000 - and, most important, enough new funding to secure the race's future here for at least the next four years.

In a deal estimated at more than $100,000, Aberdeen Asset Management, a Scottish investment firm with its North American headquarters in Center City and experience in British crew racing, will support the cash-strapped Dad Vail Organizing Committee through 2013 - the event's 75th anniversary.

And so the two-day spectacle is renamed: the Aberdeen Dad Vail Regatta.

In addition, Keystone Foods magnate Herb Lotman, a Haverford resident and prominent advocate of regional recreation, has brought in a group of $5,000-to-$25,000 corporate sponsors to help offset the $500,000 annual cost of the nation's largest collegiate rowing event.

Among the group are Miller Lite beer, Just Born candies (makers of Peeps and other confections), and BNY Mellon wealth management.

On Friday, Dad Vail officials are expected to announce a "presenting sponsor" for the 2011 races. Sources close to the organizers said it could be Coca-Cola. The company was a presenting sponsor for the McDonald's Ladies Professional Golf Association championships, which was under Lotman's leadership for 29 years.

Aberdeen, which from 1999 to 2005 sponsored the annual Oxford and Cambridge University boat race on the Thames River in England, will continue to get top billing as "named sponsor" for four years.

"We certainly won't have the difficulties we had in 2009," said Dad Vail committee president Jim Hanna, citing the synergy of fresh support.

"The events of last year were unfortunate. I think we all recognize that," Mayor Nutter said. "But this is a perfect example of what happens when we actively and aggressively keep talking to understand what the challenges are and then we get to work on solutions.

"Out of the crisis actually developed a better partnership, a stronger relationship. It's going to be a great event."

Late last year, citing the loss of corporate sponsors and soaring costs of police details, trash pickup, and other city services, the storied regatta had all but closed a deal to move 90 miles north to the Navesink River in affluent Rumson, N.J. Business leaders there offered to cover at least half the cost of running the event.

"We're a nonprofit organization, and we can't run a deficit budget," said Jack Galloway, regatta committee chairman, explaining the need for a move.

The November announcement set off alarms. City boosters were up in arms. Local rowers were up in oars. Some colleges said their costs of participation would increase because they would have to travel farther.

Underlying all the noise was a painful question: How could Philadelphia lose such a premier event to a small North Jersey suburb, even if Rumson is one of the 100 wealthiest communities in the nation? Philadelphia, population 1.4 million, versus Rumson, population, 7,000.

The threatened move produced recriminations that City Hall had not done enough to keep the Dad Vail, which organizers say brings the city $16 million in spending by 3,300 participants from more than 120 college teams and by 10,000 spectators.

Mayoral spokesmen countered that Dad Vail officials already had Rumson's check in their pocket and hadn't given the city a chance to compete.

Then came six weeks of high drama involving last-ditch efforts by Nutter, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (D., Pa.), Lotman, and others to win back the Dad Vail.

A week before Christmas, they declared victory.

"Dad Vail 2010 will be in Philadelphia," said Nutter, "where it belongs."

The regatta, founded in 1934 by University of Pennsylvania rowing coach Rusty Callow, is named for Harry Emerson "Dad" Vail, the charismatic crew coach of the University of Wisconsin. In its first 18 years, the competition changed locales, including Boston, Marietta, Ga., and Poughkeepsie, N.Y. It has been staged annually except for three years during World War II, making 2013 its 75th year.

Since 1953, the regatta has taken place on the Schuylkill on the second Friday and Saturday in May.

As part of the deal that wooed the Dad Vail back, the city agreed to spruce up the 1950 grandstand, the 1976 judges' tower, and the start and finish line areas using $360,000 allocated eight years ago but not released until this year.

The city sped up "its approval of capital expenditures," said DiJulia, the St. Joe's athletic director and a member of the Dad Vail board.

The near loss of the signature event to New Jersey, he said, "heightened awareness of the need."

Contact staff writer Michael Matza at 215-854-2541 or

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