March Madness, the annual hoopla surrounding the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, may be a well-publicized drain on workplace productivity, but don’t tell that to the millions of restaurant industry employees ready to work overtime as games tip off Thursday.
Quick-service and casual-dining chains across the country are courting basketball fans aggressively with March Madness deals, social-media promotions and game tie-ins.
The tournament, which culminates with the Final Four in Indianapolis April 3-5, is one of the most popular sporting events in the United States. One employment consulting firm, Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., estimates that following the tournament costs the American workforce about $1.8 million in lost productivity, based on an average of 20 minutes of wasted time lost by more than 58 million workers who watch the games at their desks or leave work to hit the sports bar.
That loss certainly is the restaurant industry’s gain, as seen in casual-dining promotions like the one at Hooters. The chain of more than 460 restaurants will help customers celebrate “Hooters Hooky Day” by handing out doctor’s notes to customers to excuse their absence from work, and the first 100,000 patrons who download a printable coupon from www.hootershookyday.com  will receive a free appetizer. Hooters also has partnered with the Foxsports.com Bracket Challenge, offering as the grand prize $1 million, a trip to the Hooters Casino and free wings for a year.
In addition, college basketball personality Dick Vitale will be featured in Hooters commercials throughout March Madness.
Wings specialist Buffalo Wild Wings also partnered with a basketball expert, Seth Davis of CBS Sports, to promote its 650 locations as the place to watch tournament games. Davis will blog about the tournament for Buffalo Wild Wings at sethdavis.buffalowildwings.com and tweet under the Twitter handle SethDavisBWW, and will host an event in Indianapolis during the Final Four. Buffalo Wild Wings also is sponsoring CBS Sports’ Facebook bracket promotion.
Ruby Tuesday, the casual-dining chain of more than 800 restaurants, is hosting its own bracket challenge on Facebook, giving fans the chance to win $1 million for picking every tournament game correctly. In addition to the 2010 Million Dollar Bracket Challenge Sweepstakes, Ruby Tuesday is offering $2 off appetizers and $5 cocktails at the bar, where it will broadcast all the tournament games.
The country’s largest casual-dining chain, 2,000-plus-unit Applebee’s, also is getting in on the million-dollar bracket game. Any participant in the March Hoops Basketball Challenge who picks all 63 games correctly will win $1 million from Applebee’s, while up to three $10,000 prizes could be awarded to fans picking 61 or 62 games correctly and up to five $1,000 prizes could be given to those picking 60 games correctly. Applebee’s will promote its Ultimate Trios appetizers aggressively throughout March Madness.
Fans need not pick every single game correctly to enjoy the promotion at Famous Dave’s Bar-B-Que — they just need to pick the biggest upset. The 176-unit barbecue specialist’s “BBQ Bracket Busters” contest will offer a grand prize of $2,500 to whoever identifies the lowest-seeded team to advance to the second round. Entries must be submitted online at www.bbqbracketbusters.com .
T.G.I. Friday’s also will try to pack basketball fans into its bar areas for tournament broadcasts by offering half-price boneless Buffalo wings during all games. The chain of more than 600 casual-dining restaurants in the United States offers six flavors of boneless wings.
The pizza industry as always will be involved heavily with the NCAA tournament this year, including an official sponsorship from Papa John’s. The nation’s third-largest pizza chain will sponsor a “Coach’s Code Challenge” to raise money for The V Foundation for Cancer Research and The Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Fund, both of which are named after college basketball coaches. The promotion will involve coaches and athletic departments of participating college teams, who will share special codes with fans that can be redeemed with an online order from Papa John’s. For every code entered, $1 will be donated to the cancer charities, and Papa John’s is enticing participation by offering an XL two-topping pizza for $12.
Segment leader Pizza Hut is getting in on the action by offering 10,000 free slices of pizza to the student body of any school seeded No. 16 in the tournament able to upset a No. 1 seed, which has never happened in the history of March Madness. Pizza Hut’s deal for all basketball fans is its offer of any size pizza for only $10.
Similarly, Pizza Inn, based in The Colony, Texas, near the Denton campus of the University of North Texas, will offer any adult a free medium cheese or pepperoni pizza at its Denton location if the No. 15 seed Mean Green upset the No. 2 seed Kansas State.
Quick-service chains also are jumping into the madness, mostly through social-media promotions.
Wendy’s will promote its boneless wings through Facebook and Twitter during the tournament. The 6,600-unit chain will give 100 $50 gift cards to participants in a Facebook promo, awarding users for organizing basketball-watching parties on Facebook. Wendy’s also will award three $50 gift cards a day to Twitter followers who give the best response to the following prompt: “If taste buds could talk, they would say Boneless Wings (insert quirky answer here).”
Wendy’s is not advertising the contests at all, relying on word-of-mouth to take the social-media promotions viral.
And 39-unit Burgerville is co-opting tournament’s well-known format to promote its most popular products in the Menu Madness Bracket on Facebook. Now through April 9, Burgerville fans can vote on the chain’s Facebook page for their favorite items in a tournament style, as burgers and limited-time offers square off in the Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, Final Four and Finals, until the winning food item is announced April 9.