Although it's not quite up to Super Bowl level, March Madness provides a boon for pizza businesses as well, and plenty of chains have geared promotional campaigns toward NCAA college basketball fans.
The timing of the tournament is ideal, as restaurants across all segments take advantage of increased spending this month from holiday gift cards being honored, said Darren Tristano, executive vice president at market research firm Technomic.
"Many chains are using LTO's in March to launch springtime menus, seasonal offerings and especially items to entice consumers who are looking for a venue for March Madness," he said.
According to CSMonitor, during the college basketball tournament – which spans about two and a half weeks – Americans consume 52 million slices of pizza, which equates to more than 100 acres of pizza a day. Here is what some pizza brands are doing to cater to bracket junkies.
March Madness deals
Domino's Pizza, the Official Pizza of the NCAA, kicked off its March Madness promotion earlier this week before the first tip-off. The Road to Domination is now featured on the chain's Facebook page, where fans can play for the chance to win more than 200,000 prizes, including new Parmesan Bread Bites and Pepsi products.
The grand prize is a trip for two to the 2013 NCAA Men's Final Four.
To play, fans simply enter their picks for each round of the tournament. Each correct pick could net a prize. Fans can make as many picks as they want, and also can invite their social media friends through the Road to Domination app.
The NCAA tournament is big enough for Papa John's to introduce a brand new pizza in time for the occasion. The Buffalo Chicken Pizza was unveiled earlier this week and features a combination of creamy ranch sauce, all-white sliced chicken strips, crispy bacon, fresh-sliced onions and 100-percent real cheese made from mozzarella, all topped with a spicy buffalo sauce.
A large version is now available for $10 at Papa John's restaurants nationwide and online. It will be available through the end of April.
"America told us that they wanted Buffalo Chicken and that bacon was a favorite. We've combined the two and delivered an exciting new pizza just in time for basketball tournament season. We think that this is a pizza all fans will agree upon," said Andrew Varga, chief marketing officer for Papa John's International Inc.
Also, Papa John's offered a March Madness promotion this week for its loyalty members, which included any large specialty pizza at regular menu price and a second medium one-topping pizza for 64 cents, in recognition of the 64-team tournament.
Although it hasn't happened yet, Little Caesars will offer families a free order of Crazy Bread at participating restaurants on March 19 if any 16-seeded team beats a 1-seeded team in the tournament.
Little Caesars isn't the only major pizza chain betting on a Cinderella upset in the early rounds of The Big Dance. Pizza Hut also has committed to a pizza giveaway if a No. 16 seed outlasts a No. 1 seed.
Such a first round upset has never happened in the history of the tournament.
Additionally, the Pizza Hut 10 Seed Bandwagon will support the No. 10 seeded schools in honor of the new $10 Dinner Box by hosting parties for their fans. Pizza Hut "adopted" the four No. 10 seeds – Purdue, West Virginia, Virginia and Xavier – and the chain's 10 Seed Bandwagon will descend on each school's campus to feed each school's fans. $10 Dinner Box pre-game parties also will be hosted in the cities where the teams are playing.
"We are again cheering for the underdogs in this year's tournament rooting for the ultimate upset and with the launch of our new $10 Dinner Box we are backing the No. 10 seeds to go all the way," said Kurt Kane, chief marketing officer at Pizza Hut.
Flippin' Pizza recently opened up its third annual "Create-A-Pie" March Madness, inviting fans to create their own pie for prizes. Submissions earned three points for recipe submissions, and one point for every "like," "share" or "comment" on the brand's Facebook page.
In conjunction with the NCAA March Madness, the 16 pies with the most points will make-up the Savory Sixteen, as well as determine their seed. The winning pie will be featured in all Flippin' Pizza stores, nationwide, during the month of April.
Snappy Tomato Pizza is holding a tournament-themed promotion, "Snappy's Fiery Four," that offers guests a free 5 oz. bottle of Frank's RedHot Sauce if they order the 20 Hot Wings or 1 lb. of Boneless Wings; a new Buffalo chicken hoagie; a large Buffalo chicken pizza; or a large spicy chicken ranch pizza.
Tony C's Coal Fired Pizza is likening itself to the tournament's underdogs with its new Pizza Madness promotion on Facebook. Every user who likes the brand on Facebook will receive a 12-inch, two topping coal-fired pizza of their choice, valued at $12, when they redeem it at Tony C's in Bee Cave, Texas, outside of Austin.
The purpose of the promotion is to get people to compare Tony C's pizza to national chains.
"We want to educate our guests about the difference between coal-fired pizza and the pizza offered by national chains and other Italian restaurants in the neighborhood," said Tony Ciola, owner of Tony C's Coal Fired Pizza. "Just like the Cinderella teams who have made history during March Madness, we are confident that our little gourmet pizza restaurant in Austin will win guests over to love coal-fired pizza versus what's offered by others."
Other brands – such as Hungry Howie's, Hunt Brothers and Donatos – have facilitated March Madness –themed conversations on their Facebook pages to generate consumer engagement.
Donatos even went so far as to offer "bracketology" tips for its fans, including:
- Don't pick a No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 seed;
- Pick at least one No. 12 seed over a No. 5 seed;
- Don't base your picks on mascots (tried that...didn't work)
• Don't go overboard on upsets;
- Don't write off schools that you haven't heard of
- Pizza is the time-tested best food to eat when picking
St. Patrick's Day
Some pizza operators went even further with their creative efforts this month, offering St. Patrick's Day specials such as green beer and clover-shaped pies.
A shop in Birmingham, Ala., called Slice Pizza & Brew, has introduced a new specialty pizza called Pot Luck of the Irish, topped with corned beef, cabbage, potatoes and poached eggs.
Connie's Pizza has a special St. Patrick's Day menu, complete with St. Patty's Wings tossed in a spicy green sauce, and green beer.
Some Mellow Mushroom locations are featuring $3 green beer pints for the Irish-themed holiday.
Oakdale, Minn.-based Randy's Premier Pizza offers a Clover Leaf pizza for St. Patrick's Day. The pizzas are made thin crust, pan, Chicago-style deep dish or Chicago stuffed. They're available year round.
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Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with FastCasual.com, QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, Consumerist.com and Franchise Asia magazine.