Growth | August 2011 | By Luke DeCock

The Hunger Games

With a little groundwork, quick serves can boost business by feeding minor-league and collegiate sports teams.

When sportswriters arrive at Duke University’s Brooks Practice Facility during the fall for the school’s weekly media luncheons with football coach David Cutcliffe, they sit down to a selection of Jimmy John’s sandwiches. The food is delivered every week without fail as part of an arrangement between the local Jimmy John’s franchisee and IMG College, the agency that sells Duke’s media rights.

In exchange for providing food for the football media luncheons, as well as the staff meals at other Duke athletic events, Jimmy John’s receives advertising on Duke radio broadcasts—including the local coverage of the elite men’s basketball team—and strengthens its relationships on campus.

“Duke is an excellent partner at all levels, so we do our best to match that and execute as needed,” says Dan Mall, the operating partner for Fox Development Corporation, which has 20 Jimmy John’s stores in North and South Carolina. “For us, it’s not so much about generating business as simply being a good partner in both the campus and community. Quite frankly, it’s that dedication that we hope drives business.”

Jimmy John’s isn’t the only local quick-service restaurant that has a productive relationship with Duke. Domino’s and Chick-fil-A are both available at concession stands inside Cameron Indoor Stadium, the school’s famous basketball arena. “For example, Domino’s is the official pizza of Duke athletics,” Art Chase, the school’s sports information director, says. “We serve that in all of our home venues.” When visiting teams need food on the bus for the ride home, the school gives them recommendations from a list of preferred vendors that advertise with the school.

Clearly, Duke’s athletics department has an insatiable appetite for food, and offering catering for Duke events and functions is a lucrative source of business for restaurants around the campus. “Generally, what we try to do is have them talk to IMG and then we can go from there,” says Mike Sobb, Duke’s assistant athletic director for external affairs. “Some of our partners worked with us on concessions before they started working with IMG.”

Domino’s takes it one step further, with cooperative marketing among Duke, the University of North Carolina, and N.C. State University, all within 15 minutes of each other, that reaches the entire Raleigh-Durham market regardless of university affiliation.

What’s true of Duke is true of any school, large or small, that has an athletics program. And it’s also true of any town that has a minor-league baseball, basketball, or soccer team. Athletic competition creates hungry mouths that need to be fed. And feeding them can be a business-builder for any quick-service restaurant.

The sports teams that travel the most—the major-league professional teams—are largely self-contained when it comes to what they eat. Their charter flights are often catered by near-airport locations of national full-service restaurant chains—Cheesecake Factory and P.F. Chang’s are the most popular among pro teams. They stay at hotels with full-service catering departments accustomed to handling the specific dietary and nutritional requirements of professional athletes. And most stadiums and arenas are capable of handling any other catering needs these teams might have.

Yet there are thousands of college teams from schools large and small, playing any variety of sports, that need food on their bus after games, in the press box, or for team functions. Minor-league teams that travel by bus are similarly in need of food to eat on their way. Targeting these types of customers can provide a lucrative boost to an already-established catering or delivery business. Almost every market will offer opportunities to initiate, build, and develop relationships with local college or sports teams that can last decades.

Some of those relationships are more formal than others. In Colorado Springs, Colorado, Jessica Bennett, the internal marketing manager at Colorado College—a 2,000-student school that competes in Division III in most sports and Division I in hockey and women’s soccer—prepares a guide for visiting teams listing recommended hotel and restaurant partners.

“In that guide, there are people in town who have identified themselves as people who support Colorado College, or I’ve reached out to them because they would be a good fit,” Bennett says. The recommendations range from casual Italian to pizza and sandwich shops, and the school’s teams use them as well—when they get sandwiches to take to the airport on their way out of town, for example.

While many schools and teams steer business toward advertisers, there are ways to generate business without that relationship, as well. Bagel & Deli Shop is an Oxford, Ohio, institution. Since it opened in 1975, a generation of Miami University students and graduates have flocked to the sandwich shop for its trademark steamed bagel sandwiches. For many, a to-go order on the way out of town is all part of the experience. That includes sports teams that come to Oxford to play Miami, which competes in the Mid-American Conference and Central Collegiate Hockey Association.

“That’s pretty much what everyone in the world does when they come to town,” Bagel & Deli owner Ned Stephenson says. “We do volleyball. We do baseball. We do hockey. We do football. I know that [the business] is there. It’s just how bad I want to hustle after it.”

Hustling after it isn’t as easy as it might sound. For years, Bagel & Deli was the caterer of record for the Miami football team, supplying bus meals for the team as it rode to away games and setting up postgame snacks for visiting teams in their locker room. But Bagel & Deli doesn’t advertise with the university—with its reputation, its marketing consists of frequent visits from Food Network celebrities—and has since been frozen out, Stephenson says.

“Now all that stuff goes to the big franchises,” Stephenson says. “The local guys, the little guys, are kind of left out.”

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