With the match-ups set, teams from coast to coast are braced for the tip-off that officially starts March Madness. Some even play basketball.
Far, far more are restaurant staffs braced for what was once merely the NCAA playoffs, the rapid-fire series of elimination games that determines the nation’s best college basketball team. Today, the multi-week stretch clearly reigns along with Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and New Year’s Eve as one of the restaurant industry’s biggest promotional opportunities.
The big chains try to squeeze traffic out of the contest through tie-ins that extend far beyond traditional advertising. Papa John’s, for instance, is the official sponsor of the official March Madness bracket, the schematic that traces who wins or loses at each level of elimination, on Facebook. Arby’s announced a sandwich giveaway that kicks in only if one of the lesser-ranked NCAA contestants should beat a top seed in the first round of games.
Taco Bell has one of the stronger connections. The Taco Bell Arena in Boise, Idaho, is hosting the first series of games.
Raising Cane’s, the chicken-finger specialist, is using the NCAA Tournament as a touchstone for its first-ever targeted marketing campaign. The effort plays off dunking—in its case, the type that involves sauce and chicken-finger-dipping. Fans who want a quick party meal are encouraged to take home one of the 80-unit chain’s Tailgate ready-to-serve platters.
The chains try to connect their brand name to the high-profile tourney. But countless independents and small multi-units use the event as a direct source of business, encouraging fans to watch the games in their booths and bar stools. The Berghoff, a landmark restaurant in Chicago, will be offering $3 “Bar Bites,” free raffle tickets, and beer and bourbon tastings between 2 and 7 p.m. everyday for the next 16 days.
Restaurants in Annapolis, Md., are joining forces in a March Madness-meets-Restaurant-Week sort of promotion, which in turn is tied into a larger sales push by the Annapolis Business Association. For a three-day stretch starting March 27, local merchants will conduct a sidewalk clearance sale, while their foodservice colleagues offer food and drink specials. The intent is to pull residents downtown, where one spouse can shop while the other warms a bar stool, yells at the TV screen, and has a beer.
With the increased reliance on March Madness as a key promotional opportunity has come stepped-up risk as well. Buffalo Wild Wings has warned investors when Ohio State was eliminated early from the tournament. The chain’s units in Ohio are popular places to watch the Buckeyes, and if they’re out of it, who cares how Michigan State might be doing? The fans stay home. (OSU is ranked third in its division this year.)
The rules of promotion are also being formalized. Establishments in Kansas City are reportedly being warned of a crackdown by NCAA enforcers on the unlicensed use of the athletic association’s patented trademarks, including March Madness, the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight.
It's not exactly a key concern for my alma mater, New York University. Once again our team, the fierce-sounding Violets, have yet to be invited to the dance.
The tournament begins Thursday.