Summerfest announces Harley-Davidson ends sponsorship with Milwaukee’s signature music festival

Festival-goers congregate at Harley-Davidson Roadhouse waiting for Lizzo as the rain begins to fall late Thursday afternoon at Summerfest.

The Big Gig is down a big sponsor with Thursday’s abrupt announcement that Harley-Davidson will no longer be part of Milwaukee’s signature music festival.

“Milwaukee World Festival, Inc. is grateful for the two decades that Harley-Davidson was a major sponsor of Summerfest, but that time has come to an end,” said a statement from Summerfest.

“We enjoyed having Harley-Davidson associated with Summerfest and celebrate the many diverse artists that played the Harley-Davidson Roadhouse through the years,” the statement said.

“As times change, Summerfest, the Milwaukee business community, and our sponsors evolve, bringing new opportunities. All of us at Milwaukee World Festival, Inc. are looking forward to a new chapter of the festival in 2021, including bringing on new partners to grow Summerfest.”

Harley-Davidson confirmed the end of the sponsorship deal, and said it was tied to a broad change of direction for the company.

“As we overhaul our business and execute The Rewire (a company restructuring plan), every function and process is being rebuilt from the ground up to prioritize our efforts and drive sharper focus, including The Harley-Davidson Foundation,” the spokesman said.

“We celebrate the Summerfest memories created through the years and will continue to provide essential support to the Milwaukee community through our Foundation giving.”

The loss of one of the festival’s main sponsor’s comes during a fraught period for the entertainment industry, which has been reeling from the coronavirus pandemic.

For the first time in its history, Summerfest was forced to cancel the 2020 festival because of COVID-19.

Milwaukee World Festival, which oversees Summerfest, took a big financial hit, announcing a $10.4 million loss before depreciation for the year.

Cash balances plunged to an all-time low of $5.1 million in 2020. They are projected to be around $3.8 million in 2021. The organization is working to rebuild reserves over the next few years.

The 2021 Summerfest is scheduled to be held over three weekends and will feature the unveiling of the upgraded American Family Insurance Amphitheater.

Harley-Davidson took over sponsorship of what had been the Pabst Showcase stage in 1997, renaming the stage the Harley-Davidson Roadhouse. Before that, the motorcycle manufacturer’s main involvement with Summerfest was sponsoring a motorcycle parking lot next to the festival grounds. 

The Roadhouse at Summerfest has hosted some of the biggest shows among the festival’s ground stages. There were overflow crowds to see Lizzo in 2019 and Wiz Khalifa in 2011.

Other big names that performed at the Roadhouse included Keith Urban, Pitbull, Hall & Oates, the Scorpions, Lil Uzi Vert, Louis the Child, Sugarland, Chaka Khan, Los Lobos, Taj Mahal, Jewel, India.Arie, Liz Phair, Death Cab for Cutie, Isaac Hayes and Common.

Some acts, like the Doobie Brothers, played the Harley stage often enough to be considered regulars. 

Harley-Davidson, the world’s largest manufacturer of heavyweight motorcycles, has undergone big changes as it attempts to revitalize the brand made famous in Milwaukee.

Recently, the company said it was exiting international markets where sales were flat to non-existent to focus on its markets in North America, Europe and some parts of the Asia-Pacific region.

In May, Jochen Zeitz, the former chief executive officer of sporting-goods manufacturer Puma, was named Harley’s CEO. He had held that role on an interim basis since February when Matt Levatich left following the company’s worst sales performance in at least 16 years.

Earlier this year, Harley-Davidson said it was launching “The Rewire” that includes “a set of actions” that would eventually lead to a new strategic plan for the company.

 Among the goals is to “…reset the company’s operating model in order to reduce complexity, sharpen focus and increase the speed of decision making.”

The Rewire program “…will focus more on the markets and products that can drive performance in terms of profitability and growth,” Harley said.