2010 December: Game On

2010 December: Game OnTim Chappell could only smile at the hype surrounding the Arkansas-Alabama football game on September 25, knowing well what the fervor would mean for Gusano’s Pizzeria, Chappell’s downtown Little Rock hot spot that serves Chicago-style pies alongside Razorback fandom.

Ninety minutes before the game’s 2:30 p.m. kickoff, Razorback fans had fi lled Gusano’s, gobbling up appetizers, pizza and drinks. Twenty fl at-screen televisions and two projector screens showcased a game undecided until its final minutes.

“Other than being at the game, this is as close as you can be to the action,” Chappell says of Gusano’s, which has become one of Little Rock’s go-to destinations for Razorback football.

For Chappell and his Gusano’s partners, playing to a crowd of Razorback-loving fans is a wise business practice, an annual ritual that packs the restaurant and delivers the establishment’s highest revenue days.

“These are our money days,” Chappell says of Arkansas football game days. “There’s no doubt we’re going to be full.”

In spots throughout the country, pizzeria owners have embraced televising athletic events as a moneymaking play. From NCAA basketball’s March Madness to the World Series, World Cup, and UFC, many operators have captured the sports-enthused crowd with targeted marketing, a high-end audio-visual experience, and a festive atmosphere mimicking the in-stadium experience.

As the Chicago Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup run unfolded last spring, Piece Brewery and Pizzeria capitalized on the euphoria. The restaurant crafted in-house marketing materials for tables, bathrooms, and point of purchase. It also displayed outdoor banners and utilized social media outlets to establish itself as a game-day destination. Patrons responded.

“Being a destination point for these big events is a conscious decision on our part and a viable business for us,” Piece owner Bill Jacobs says. “We were filled during every Hawks game and reaped the benefits of that exciting run.”

Last year, Piecora’s Pizza owner Dan Piecora took the suggestion of a regular patron to televise UFC events in his intimate, 60-seat banquet room. On the first fight night, 50 people attended; at the second Piecora’s fi ght night, fans filled the room, all of them paying an $8 cover to watch the UFC event on a 10-foot HD screen.

“It costs me $925 to show the fight in HD, but it’s worth every penny,” Piecora says. “These folks are eating and drinking, and many of them are new customers that have never been here before.” Piecora’s has now established itself as one of Seattle’s premier spots for an orderly, respectful and fan friendly viewing of UFC. Better yet, the highgrossing events have alleviated a revenue gap created by the recession.

But Piecora — and certainly Jacobs and Chappell — know they have to deliver a crowd-pleasing experience to gain fan interest.

It begins with a game that can be seen as well as heard. The audio-visual experience includes big-screen televisions or projection screens as well as clear, audible sound so fans can keep abreast of game information.

To foster a lively atmosphere that parallels the game-day experience, Gusano’s features former members of the Arkansas band playing the university fi ght song and leading cheers. Their presence, secured by a small fee and complimentary food and drink, contributes to Gusano’s robust reputation as a game-day destination.

“The band differentiates us from everyone else out there,” Chappell says.

At Piece, Jacobs believes his full-service bar, stocked with craft brews, resonates with sports fans who view beer and sports as a natural combination. “For my dollar, having a full bar is central to capitalizing on the sports audience,” he says.

But unlike bars, a pizzeria’s main source of sports viewing competition, generations can enjoy the game together at a pizzeria. Wise operators often play on that all-ages advantage.

A packed restaurant on game-day, however, can be a double-edged sword, particularly since fans will linger and control their dining room real estate. Waiting lists will swell as customers languish at tables, a challenge only combated with the right staffing and mindset.

On Razorback football Saturdays, Chappell loads the schedule with servers, bussers and cooks, all of whom are focused on customer service. Piecora hires a parking attendant during UFC events and directs staff to park on the street to free up his small lot. “The best we can do is to be focused on what we can do and what we need to do to make all customers happy,” Jacobs says of busy game days.

A packed game-day dining room (and no-smoking ban) compelled Ray Perkins, owner of Chubby Ray’s in Louisville, Kentucky, to build a 3,000-square-foot outdoor pavilion outfitted with four fl at-screen televisions. Though costly, Perkins says, the extra space has allowed him to accommodate fans and repel overcrowding issues.

In many cases, operators spend money to make money. Whether payper- view events, NFL Sunday Ticket, or a comprehensive cable package, restaurants often invest in premium TV offerings to appease fans. In other cases, the games trump other business. Piecora, for instance, must schedule his banquet room around monthly UFC events, thereby losing out on private parties. Though frustrating, the benefits are well worth the drawbacks.

“In the end, getting these fans brings far more positive than negative,” Piecora says. “It increases my cash fl ow and exposure while keeping my labor busy.” ?

Chicago-based writer Daniel P. Smith has covered business issues and best practices for a variety of trade publications, newspapers, and magazines.