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A Leading Play: Sports remain a natural partner to boost business

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Getting in the game can help score a healthier bottomline.
By Daniel P. Smith August 2011 Marketing & Promotions

As the Dallas Mavericks thrust themselves into the 2011 NBA finals in quest of the franchise’s first National Basketball Association title, local residents and fans rallied behind the team with enthusiasm and spirit.

Fans wearing Mavs shirts blanketed the city. Sports radio filled with Mavs talk—tough to do in a football-crazed town dominated by the beloved Cowboys—and news stories shared fans’ daily excitement.

The euphoria inspired Dritan Saliovski, owner of the well-established Luigi’s Pizza in Frisco, Texas, to wonder how he might capitalize on the jubilation. He placed green-and-blue balloons in front of Luigi’s, while the staff donned Mavs’ shirts. But for Saliovski, who boasts a history of creative marketing at Luigi’s, the little changes failed to make the large-scale impact he desired.

“The ones who stay quiet are the ones who don’t survive,” Saliovski says of his marketing philosophy.

As the Mavericks prepared to host game three of the NBA Finals on Sunday, June 5, Saliovski unveiled his latest creation: a green-and-blue pizza, a Mavs-inspired tweak to his award-winning pie.

Customers responded enthusiastically, as did the local media, which ran to Luigi’s to share the eatery’s green-and-blue pizzas with locals. For the remainder of the NBA finals, sales and orders of the Mavs pizzas, a dish accomplished with little more than food dye, inventiveness, and quality control, escalated.

“We’d get calls from people hosting a viewing party and they’d place a bulk order,” Saliovski says, noting that the restaurant also introduced blue-dyed cannoli. “We were able to change up the mood and better connect to the fan experience.”

For many operators across the dining landscape—independents and chains, pizzerias and fine dining—aligning the restaurant with sports can boost both traffic count and the bottom line.

“If you can tap into sports, even a tiny bit,” Saliovski says, “it can produce success for your business.”

A multibillion-dollar industry, sports remain an active, engaging constant in America’s social climate. Unlike other hospitality ventures that lean heavily on trends — the nightclub business, for instance—there is nothing trendy about sports. Games are always on, fans are always involved, and popularity thrives from coast to coast. Connecting to sports and fans, many operators across the restaurant spectrum agree, can deliver a powerful punch to business.

To wit, observe these operations’ use of sports to bolster business.

Case Study No. 1: Gusano’s Pizza

On Saturday, Sept. 25, 2010, the day of the much-hyped collegiate gridiron battle between Arkansas and Southeastern Conference foe Alabama, diners packed Gusano’s Pizza’s downtown Little Rock location 90 minutes before kickoff.

Short of sitting at the university’s Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville nearly 190 miles away, Gusano’s is arguably as close as a Razorback fan can be to the action. In addition to showcasing the game on more than 20 flat-screen televisions and two projector screens, Gusano’s game day vibe includes former members of the university marching band leading fans in the school fight song and cheers throughout the game.

“We’re stacking people in early and keeping them late,” Gusano’s owner Tim Chappell says.

Razorback game days produce the Little Rock eatery’s highest-revenue days and have become a massive moneymaking play for the operation in both the short and long term. More often than not, Chappell finds, a now-regular customer’s first visit to Gusano’s came on a Razorback game day.

“We’re trying to build an overall memorable experience, and it’s built on itself year after year,” Chappell says. “We’re making a good first impression on game day and that’s bringing people back time and again.”

Case Study No. 2: Foley’s NY Pub and Restaurant


The Irish-American Hall of Fame 2011 Induction Ceremony at Foley’s NY Pub and Restaurant delivered star power, including Regis Philbin. Here, Regis joins (left to right) Over the Moon PR head John Mooney, University of Notre Dame alumni director Chuck Lennon, and Foley’s NY Pub owner Shaun Clancy.

Foley’s NY Pub, filled with more than $1 million in sports memorabilia, exists as a shrine to the sporting world; and, yet more, owner Shaun Clancy says, a connection to customers’ favorite teams and players of the past and present. Clancy proudly labels Foley’s “An Irish bar with baseball attitude.”

Long playing host to sports-related fundraisers and sports-themed book signings, the restaurant intensified its sports relationship in 2008 when Foley’s became home to the Irish-American Baseball Hall of Fame. The grassroots project, garnering mention in media outlets far and wide, has only heightened Foley’s stance as a premier sports-friendly destination spot in New York City.

“Any time people are talking about you in a positive way, it’s going to create a curiosity factor,” Clancy says. “We’ve become a destination spot in the city for sports lovers, and that advances the business.”

Yet, that isn’t the end of Clancy’s sports-infused plans.

Clancy’s 8-year-old establishment is the Big Apple home for fans of both baseball’s St. Louis Cardinals and hockey’s Pittsburgh Penguins, groups that organize through websites such as meetup.com.

During the 2009 Stanley Cup finals, in which the Pittsburgh Penguins battled the Detroit Red Wings for the National Hockey League title, enthusiasm for the Penguins ran so deep that the 130-seat establishment was filled to capacity with dining and drinking patrons.

Special menus for Cardinals and Penguins game days further connect fans to the home team’s city. During Cardinals games, Foley’s serves toasted raviolis; during Penguins contests, pirogies are the special offering. As a result, Foley’s becomes more than just a place to catch the game; it’s also a spot distinctively geared toward a specific fan base.

“When you connect with fans in an authentic way,” Clancy says, “you win.”

Case Study No. 3: The Greene Turtle Sports Bar & Grille


The Greene Turtle Sports Bar and Grille sponsors a number of elite club level teams for both boys and girls aged 8 to 19.

At The Greene Turtle Sports Bar & Grille, a 32-unit chain in the Mid-Atlantic region, youth sports sponsorship has been a key component of the company’s branding, community outreach, and revenue-building efforts.

While the restaurant supports and sponsors local recreational teams and other programs, it also fields its own elite youth club teams in lacrosse, field hockey, and soccer.

“The teams’ representation under the Greene Turtle name has a positive impact and helps create our brand, particularly in our marketing efforts outside of the Mid-Atlantic area and into potential future markets,” Greene Turtle COO Bob Barry says.

Players, coaches, and family often come to the restaurant after games for food and drink. In addition, each restaurant sells Greene Turtle team apparel, an additional revenue stream for the restaurant that allows players and family to showcase their affiliation and advance the Greene Turtle name.

“There’s definitely a dollar-and-cents benefit to this involvement,” Barry says.

Case Study No. 4: Morton’s The Steakhouse


Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau (left) joins ESPN 1000 co-hosts Tom Waddle and Marc Silverman during a recent “Lunch with a Legend” at Morton's in Chicago.

Fine dining has rarely been the domain of sports. Yet famed steakhouse Morton’s isn’t afraid to break the status quo and find a place for sports in its high-end eateries.

At its Chicago outlets, for instance, Morton’s teams with local sports radio station ESPN 1000 to host “Lunch with a Legend.” A live Q-and-A with a celebrated sports personality, such as Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau or Chicago Bears legend Gale Sayers, up to 100 fans pay about $50 for a ticket to the remote broadcast and lunch.

As most Morton’s locations are not open for lunch, the regular event provides revenue during a lost daypart. Yet more, it showcases Morton’s to an audience likely to return for dinner or to book a private event. So beneficial is the offering that Morton’s mimics the “Lunch with a Legend” format at many of its other urban locations.

“It’s a completely cost-effective program for us,” Morton’s senior vice president of marketing and communications Roger Drake says. “The byproduct is that we get tons of great radio promotion and introduce a lot of great business people to our restaurant.”

Yet Morton’s sports-connected efforts run deeper.

Noting that 80 percent of its guests at 77 locations consider themselves golf enthusiasts, Morton’s partnered with the PGA Tour to become the organization’s official steakhouse. The relationship has opened new doors to Morton’s and solidified its standing as a preferred brand.

At its King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, location, PGA Tour golfer Jim Furyk joined with others at a celebrity server event on June 28, 2011. Proceeds of the event benefited the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. Aligning with professional athletes to host sports-themed charitable events is nothing new at Morton’s, which has held previous fundraisers featuring the likes of Philadelphia Phillies all-star Ryan Howard and Arizona Cardinals star Larry Fitzgerald.

“Most of these functions turn into annual events with many of the players’ teammates attending and every station in town sending a camera to grab footage,” Drake says. “We have to be creative with what we do, and we’ve found tapping into sports in clever ways can produce some significant benefits.”

Case Study No. 5: Connie’s Pizza

Two years ago, Connie’s Pizza, one of Chicago’s most famed pizza operations, resurrected its free shuttle bus service to sporting events at U.S. Cellular Field (Chicago White Sox), the United Center (Chicago Bulls and Chicago Blackhawks), and Soldier Field (Chicago Bears).

Connie’s purchased a 15-passenger van to haul fans from the restaurant to the game and back. Within two months, demand was so great Connie’s had to purchase a second van.

“The shuttle is one of our primary programs now,” Connie’s Pizza president Mike Stolfe says. “We push it hard and people respond.”

For a White Sox baseball game, Stolfe says, Connie’s will regularly have up to 100 customers dine at the company’s flagship restaurant just two miles from the ballpark and take the shuttle to the game. The offering is particularly popular with families, who seek an affordable and safe way to get to and from the ballpark as well as a respite from the stadium’s exorbitant parking costs.

The program translates into increased business for Connie’s, which is able to offer the shuttle service thanks to a 2-acre parcel of land holding 100 parking spots.

If 50 people spend, conservatively, $20 a person at the restaurant and take the shuttle, “you’re talking about an extra $1,000 in business on game days,” Stolfe says. “Better yet, if the team wins, people will come back to the restaurant for more food and drink; that’s when our sales get a real jolt.”

Stolfe’s attempts to align the restaurant with Chicago’s fan base extend beyond the restaurant’s walls.

For years, Connie’s Pizza was the pizza of choice at U.S. Cellular Field. The company remains the pizza provider at the United Center for both Bulls basketball and Hawks hockey games. These relationships have sparked countless trials of the product and exposed Connie’s to millions of potential customers.

“You can’t even quantify the benefit of that,” Stolfe says.

During Chicago Bears football games, Connie’s enjoys a 15 percent spike in delivery—yet another way Connie’s taps into the Windy City’s crazed fan population.

“Pizza and sports go hand in hand, so you’re trying to capitalize on this wherever you can,” Stolfe says. “Ultimately, pizza and sports are both about entertainment; it’s why people go to games and restaurants, so you’re looking for ways to create that synergy wherever possible.”

Case Study No. 6: Canz-a-City Roadhouse

Canz-a-City Roadhouse claims four New York area locations, including one near Citi Field (home of baseball’s New York Mets) and a second near the Nassau Coliseum (home to the NHL’s New York Islanders). The proximity to both stadiums, general manager Jeanne Repetti says, helps Canz attract pre- and post-game fans as well as players.

Yet more, Repetti says, Canz was built with sports top of mind. Up to 60 flat-screen televisions blanket the restaurant, which buys a variety of sports television packages as well as prime boxing and Ultimate Fighting Championship bouts.

During the 2010 World Cup, Canz’ Astoria location, tucked amid a diverse urban population, was flooded with soccer fans day and night. Lines formed in the morning hours to catch early matches, customers enjoying Canz’ food and beverages in the process. On UFC fight nights, Canz has to stop customers from entering. The restaurant takes deposits on tables and customers stay eating and drinking for 3-4 hours.

“When we show the top sporting event in our area, our profits triple,” Repetti says. “Without sports, there is no bar.”