Suppose the foodservice industry created its own fantasy league.

And just suppose the key players in that league were the nation’s 10 most popular sports: football, baseball, basketball, hockey, soccer, golf, tennis, motorsports, pro wrestling, and the martial arts. Take one guess which sport the industry would draft first.

If you didn’t guess football, you probably need to go back and study the playbook. Both the National Football League (NFL) and National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) football seasons are just getting under way, and many foodservice brands couldn’t be more excited. Football, at both the pro and collegiate levels, can be the life-blood of the restaurant industry during the fall and winter months, driving more promotional business over a longer period of time than anything else.

“The proven model of football watching means food consumption,” says Derek Farley, a veteran restaurant industry publicist and consultant. “Football watching is an excuse to eat, and eat a lot—and nothing goes better with football than pizza and wings.”

Perhaps no one knows that better than executives from Papa John’s, Buffalo Wild Wings, and Wing Zone, who all shared insight with QSR on the seasonal phenomenon of pro football. During the last Super Bowl alone, Americans inhaled upward of 1.25 billion chicken wings, according to estimates from the National Chicken Council.

“We live, breathe, eat, and drink football,” says Bob Ruhland, vice president of North American Marketing at Buffalo Wild Wings. “There is nothing bigger for us than the football season.”

While Ruhland declines to state how much the chain’s revenue jumps during the football season, he says the chain’s “No. 1 initiative is to win football.” No other promotion sustains momentum like those around football, he adds. And with the regular NFL season stretching 16 games over 17 weeks, all promotions have months to evolve and expand, he says.

“Football watching is an excuse to eat, and eat a lot—and nothing goes better with football than pizza and wings.”

For the 2015–16 pro football season, Buffalo Wild Wings has devised five new national TV spots, including one with NFL legend Emmitt Smith and another with former NFL coach Bill Cowher. It’s also once again created 55,000 fantasy football party kits (in conjunction with Pepsi and the NFL) for customers, kits that include mock draft boards, player stickers, and food coupons. Anyone who pre-schedules fantasy football parties at the restaurant gets the kits for free, as do those who order $100 worth of takeout.

Buffalo Wild Wings restaurants also will have early access to the “Madden 16” football video game from EA Sports, Ruhland says. Fans will be able to come to the stores and play the game ahead of the curve, and some of the games will be given away.

This fall at its corporate stores, Buffalo Wild Wings is even rolling out the so-called Guest Experience Captain—decked in a Guest Experience Captain t-shirt—whose sole purpose is to make sure all guests are having fun. He can do anything from offering special samples of limited-time offers to switching the TV broadcasts to virtually any games customers want to view.

Of course, few live and breathe football any longer, louder, and harder than Papa John’s. For the fourth consecutive season, Papa John’s is the Official Pizza of the NFL. It also is the Official Pizza of February’s Super Bowl 50.

This season, an NFL defensive standout will be joining Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning as a spokesman for Papa John’s. J.J. Watt, the Houston Texans’ superstar defensive end and the league’s 2015 Defensive Player of the Year, was added to the chain’s celebrity line-up. “This gives our brand the best on both sides of the ball,” says Bob Kraut, senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Papa John’s.

Manning in particular gives Papa John’s serious NFL credibility, Farley says. “When I pick up the phone to order pizza for a football-watching occasion, I am not thinking of Pizza Hut—I’m thinking of Papa John’s,” he says.

The NFL brand, Kraut says, “is one of the strongest media properties when you look at it from a pure marketing standpoint.”

Meanwhile, at Wing Zone, the football chant is just as loud. That’s because sales start to jump in September and continue above par through January, says Dan Corrigan, director of marketing for the 78-store, Atlanta-based chain. If the “norm” is for sales to be at 100 percent, he says, they jump as high as 113 percent during the football season before dropping to as low as 89 percent during the summer months.

The chain’s most popular annual promotion is its “Mighty Magnet Football Mailers.” These are magnetic football schedules—sometimes pro football and sometime college—that it mails to local customers to put on their refrigerators. These come with special coupons, including $3 off online orders.

The key, Corrigan says, is to make certain the schedule is for the most relevant local football team, whether it’s from the NFL or the NCAA.

Football remains the great escape, Farley says. “No one watches a nine-inning baseball game,” he says. “But they will watch a four-quarter football game—wings in one hand and pizza in the other.”

Perhaps nothing is more telling about the cosmic link between football, pizza, and wings than the phenomenon of trash day during the football season, he adds, noting that trash pick-up day in his neighborhood falls on Monday.

“You won’t see a pizza or wings box until September,” he says. “But from September through February, you’ll see them at every house. There’s no better marketing than having 300 of your neighbors see a [Papa John’s] pizza box sitting out as trash on a Monday morning.”

Consumer Trends, Customer Experience, Marketing & Promotions, Pizza, Web Exclusives, Buffalo Wild Wings, Papa Johns, Wing Zone