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Buffalo Wild Wings Leverages March Madness to Get Back to Sports Bar Roots

Inspire Brands’ leadership hopes to pull the chicken wing chain away from the fast-casual space by rolling out a series of new activations

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Buffalo Wild Wings is going back to basics this March.

Once a can’t-miss location to catch sporting events, Chief Marketing Officer Seth Freeman believes the company had strayed from its position as a hub to meet friends for big games. Now, fresh off a sale to Inspire Brands, Buffalo Wild Wings is using March Madness to roll out a slew of activations in a campaign to return to its roots.

“March is the first step on a journey toward reclaiming our heritage as a great sports bar,” Freeman said. “The number one thing we are addressing is that we’ve strayed from our essence as a sports bar and have gotten too close to being a fast-casual dining chain.

“That’s not who we are, and that’s not why our guests love coming to our restaurants. We are making strategic decisions to return to our essence.”

READ MORE: Inside Buffalo Wild Wings’ Super Bowl Plans

Inspire Brands acquired Buffalo Wild Wings in February 2018, making up a portfolio including Arby’s, Sonic and Rusty Taco. Buffalo Wild Wings has partnered with the NCAA as the “Official Hangout for NCAA March Madness” for the past seven years, and Freeman said it has remained among the most important platforms for the chicken wing chain.

“Our partnership with the NCAA allows us to tap into the cultural relevance of March Madness in so many ways, whether it’s in-restaurant, in our TV ads, or on social media – the opportunities are endless,” Freeman said.

But the last seven years have brought myriad changes to how, and where, fans watch sports. Thanks to the advent of smartphones, they might not even watch on a TV at all, let alone in a communal setting like a sports bar. Buffalo Wild Wings has had to adjust its marketing accordingly.

This month, the brand has deployed an aggressive ad campaign with three spots taking a “stand against fans watching games under sub-par conditions, like on their phone or in their cubicle or basement,” encouraging a stop at Buffalo Wild Wings. A new menu also hits the tables as well.

On social channels, Freeman promises the brand will be part of active conversations of the games. Buffalo Wild Wings is also partnering with standouts from past NCAA Tournaments including Christian Laettner, Juwan Howard, Charlie Bell and Tyler Hansbrough to appear to targeted fan bases on Instagram.

“If you’re a Duke fan, you’ll probably see Christian Laettner show up in a story telling you that you better get out of the house to watch the Blue Devils game in all its glory at a Buffalo Wild Wings sports bar,” Freeman said.

Perhaps the most brazen activation for March Madness is the “Jewel Stool,” a riff on the 30 percent uptick in vasectomies during the first weekend of the tournament. The stool has “jewel-cooling coils,” a chilled drink holder and a beer light, for when the recovering patient is ready for another cold one.

“We can connect the dots: They specifically schedule their vasectomies so their doctor-ordered R&R coincides with the most exciting sports weekend of the year,” Freeman said. “The Jewel Stools give vasectomy patients a place to recover without sacrificing the viewing experience with their friends.”

Another big piece of the re-positioning of the Buffalo Wild Wings brand is its partnership with DraftKings and tapping into the future potential of sports betting. Last fall, the company partnered with the gaming company to offer a custom fantasy football game exclusively for restaurant guests. Now the two brands partnered for an “unbustable bracket” competition with 500 prizes up for grabs, including free wings for a year and Final Four tickets.

READ MORE: March Madness Wagers Expected To Cross $8.5 Billion According to AGA

March is always circled on Buffalo Wild Wings calendars, and, even without this year’s massive campaign, their 1,200 U.S. locations would likely stay busy. But the company’s leaders also realize there’s no better time to reintroduce those customers to its core essence as a sports bar rather than let the brand continue to drift into a lane it doesn’t want to be in.

“We want to be the place to be so you don’t miss a second of the action,” Freeman said.

Pat Evans is a writer based in Las Vegas, focusing on sports business, food, and beverage. He graduated from Michigan State University in 2012. He's written two books: Grand Rapids Beer and Nevada Beer. Evans can be reached at pat@frntofficesport.com.

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How The 2019 Masters Revived ‘The Tiger Effect’

Three years ago, Tiger Woods’ brand was at a low point. But his surprise win at Augusta primes golf’s most famous star for a business comeback story.

Jeff Eisenband

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Photo Credit: Michael Madrid-USA TODAY Sports

In the summer 2016, Tiger Woods’ decline was not only a talking point among fans, but within golf business as well. Nike Golf decided it had enough. The brand halted production of golf clubs, balls and bags, products it started during Woods’ reign.

“All of a sudden there were 25 free agents in the marketplace,” remembers David Abeles, CEO, TaylorMade. “One of those happened to be Tiger.”

According to Abeles, TaylorMade inked deals with 22 of those 25 free agents. In January 2017, TaylorMade announced an equipment deal with Woods, becoming his provider for drivers, fairway woods, irons and wedges.

Two years later, that investment looks like a genius move. Woods won last week’s Masters with 13 of his 14 clubs crafted by TaylorMade (Woods uses a Scotty Cameron putter). “The Tiger Effect” has been revived, as Woods is not only a top golfer on paper but also the sport’s crown jewel of marketability.

TaylorMade is rolling with that. Within 24 hours of Woods claiming his fifth green jacket, the brand decorated its Carlsbad HQ in a photo of Woods on No. 18 at Augusta.

“We wanted to celebrate the victory on behalf of his greatness and certainly our affiliation with him.” Abeles says. “Behind that, it was all the products that he played with, particularly his drivers and his fairway woods, M5s, those products aren’t just for Tiger Woods. Those products were designed candidly with Tiger, but really for every golfer at every skill level around the world.”

In another stroke of good timing, TaylorMade unveiled a new line of P-7TW irons last week, to go on sale May 1. Abeles admits the forged-blade irons, which were designed by Woods, are more suited for the “better player,” but says it is “one of the most beautiful golf clubs you’ll ever look at.”

While TaylorMade is selling equipment, the PGA Tour has Woods as its own marketing chip. Woods’ Masters win was his 15th major title and his 81st PGA Tour victory. That leaves him one behind Sam Snead’s record 82 PGA Tour titles.

Within minutes of Woods’ win, the PGA Tour starting rolling out “Chasing 82” content, which it began creating since his 80th victory at last year’s Tour Championship. On PGATour.com, a “Chasing 82” page includes summaries of Woods’ first 80 wins (No. 81 still needs its entry), which Laura Neal, the PGA Tour’s senior vice president, communications, calls “basically a treasure trove for Tiger Woods fans.” The Tour also bought an ad space for Woods in USA Today for the following day.

The Tiger machine will market much of itself. Sunday’s live Masters coverage averaged 10.8 million viewers, the most for a morning golf broadcast in 32 years. Over 1 billion minutes of Masters coverage was streamed over the four days, according to CBS Sports.

That provides a runway for the PGA Tour to market its other stars, or as Neal notes, the generation Woods created.

“If you have a passion point or interest and a player shares that back, how do we match you up with that?” Neal says. “If you’re into BMX racing, Rickie Fowler is, too. From a charity perspective, if you’re interested in Special Olympics, it’s knowing Jordan Spieth has a sister who has special needs and he’s super involved with Special Olympics. What is that runway to becoming a PGA Tour fan? And it’s not just 30 or 40-year-old guys in khakis and white golf shirts. There’s so much for color and dimension out there from top to bottom. You can find a reason to have a favorite player. It’s not just Tiger.”

TaylorMade and PGA Tour were accompanied by other Woods partners with assets ready for his victory. Monster Energy, Bridgestone and Upper Deck were among those boasting about their relationships with Woods. Of course, his old pal Nike, which still provides his apparel and footwear, also remained at the forefront.

“Tiger is an incredible athlete and we are proud to have such a longstanding partnership with him. His ability to overcome obstacles in the pursuit of his crazy dream is a lesson that transcends sports and inspires us all,” Nike told FOS in a statement.

Nike was one of the few sponsors that stood by Woods in the wake of his infidelity scandal revealed in 2009. Accenture, AT&T, Gatorade, General Motors and Gillette were all among those that terminated or suspended endorsement deals with Woods around that time.

For a time, Woods was untouchable. Years of injuries and poor play only made that slide more precipitous. Now, advertisers are crafting a redemption story.

“We believe in him and one of the most beautiful things about TaylorMade is we believe in people and we recognize that life deals all of us different scenarios, but we never give up on people,” Abeles says, going back to the company’s 2017 decision to partner with Woods. “Having an opportunity to meet Tiger and become personally close with Tiger, I think what he’s done as a person and what he’s done is the golfer is incredibly admirable. And so, when we had an opportunity to get to know him and think about what’s important to him and what was important to us, it was very clear to us that it’d be a wonderful fit for both of us.”

Woods will never be able to sweep his infidelities under the rug. His value is unlikely to return to where it once was, either, back when he was shaving with Roger Federer, producing his own line of Gatorade and inspiring the world to wear red Nike shirts and black hats on Sundays.

Yet as the Tour and his current sponsors have demonstrated, he has returned to the mountain of the sports marketability. America loves a comeback story. Just ask Alex Rodriguez and Mike Tyson.

Woods is 43 years old and science says this second wave of “The Tiger Effect” won’t last as long as the first. But for the time being, the roar is back. And in golf, that is going to drive a lot of business.

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LPGA’s ‘Drive On’ Campaign Highlights Diversity, Inclusion, Empowerment

The LPGA, its players and its commissioner are committed to leaving the Tour better than they found it, both domestically and globally.

Jeff Eisenband

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Photo Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

In November 2017, Jon Iwata, former chief brand officer at IBM Corporation, was among those elected to the LPGA Board of Directors. At one of his first board meetings, he asked LPGA Commissioner Michael Whan a simple question: What is the tour selling?

“That’s a softball down the middle,” Whan remembers thinking. He broke down the LPGA’s commitment to being customer-focused, its integrations between players and sponsors and its mission for all involved to leave the women’s game better off than they found it. Whan then remembers looking into Iwata’s face and realizing there was a disconnect within the LPGA.

“How do we make sure that we communicate outwardly what we’ve long since both communicated and lived, inwardly?” he says he asked himself.

READ MORE: Corona Premier Sets Sights on Golf With U.S. Open Sponsorship

The result is the LPGA’s “Drive On” campaign, which debuted in March. Featuring both LPGA golfers and outside women of multiple ages, the commercial addresses such topic as bullying, body image and inclusion. Originally intended to be a TV commercial, the first clip, “This is For Every Girl,” went viral on social media before even making its TV debut.

“We listen to our athletes as opposed to our athletes to listening to us,” Whan says. “Our athletes will tell you that you may see me at the top of my game playing all around the world, but the effort to get here, no matter which one you’re talking to, you’ve had your share of setbacks and naysayers and challenges and walls and ceilings that you had to break along the way. From the top athlete on Tour to the one just breaking in, it resonates with them. They realize what they’re doing is about more than golf.”

To that end, in order for the Tour to grow – and to connect with sponsors – players must go the extra mile in their off-the-course responsibilities. Rather than just slap sponsor names on tournaments, Whan and his team take the time to educate the players on their partners.

“Nobody is sticking a note in LeBron James’ locker tonight talking about the new bank that just joined,” Whan says, talking to FOS before the ANA (All Nippon Airways) Inspiration earlier in April. “But for our 140 players on tour this week, we’ll have a note in their locker talking about ANA and pictures of the most important people that’ll be here this week and where to send your handwritten thank-you card.”

That’s right. For each tournament, the LPGA asks its players to write at least one handwritten thank-you card to a sponsor  — and some volunteer to write more than one. This added touch is only seen by those on the business side.

“A lot of CEOs have said to me, ‘I have an entire drawer dedicated to your Tour because I don’t know what to do with those cards,’” Whan laughs. “I think having a drawer at every CEO’s office is a pretty valuable piece of real estate.”

Those CEOs extend well beyond U.S. borders. ANA, for instance, is a Japanese brand. While the PGA Tour goes international for one Asia swing plus the Open Championship, the LPGA has two Asia-Australia swings and a longer European swing. Moreover, the LPGA is also being broadcaste in roughly 170 countries.

“It creates revenue that didn’t exist 30 years ago for the LPGA,” Whan says. “It creates global superstars. Jessica and Nelly Korda stepping on a tee in Malaysia is no different than stepping on a tee in Toledo, in terms of size of gallery, people that know them, have done the research on them and where the shirts that say, ‘Go Korda!’ I see them all over the world.”

And golfers are starting to see that in their bottom lines. When Whan got to the LPGA in 2010, the Tour had two millionaires. He takes pride in that number growing to around 20 in 2018. He credits the increased global appeal with helping provide the necessary company revenue.

“If you can get to this level, I want to make sure if you’re at this level and can stay at this level, that this is a great financial opportunity for you,” he says.

One area Whan will have to address for revenue is fantasy and gambling. Whan says he would be wrong to ignore the rising tide of legalized sports betting becoming more prominent in the United States.

“I don’t want to be the guy that the parade went by, and I forgot to get in,” he says.

READ MORE: Ernie Johnson Talks March Madness, Sports Media and More

Still, Whan is protective of his players and caddies. He says his No. 1 goal in this situation is to maintain the integrity of those two parties. Fantasy and betting is already existent in sportsbooks and apps in the U.S. without any LPGA partnerships. Last month, the PGA Tour announced it will permit players to attain sponsorships “by casinos and other legal gambling companies” so long as those brands’ primary focus is not sports gambling.

PGA Tour events will also have the option to bring on such entities as title sponsors.

“I’ve seen this happen in football and others with things like fantasy football,” Whan says. “I do realize that there’s a significant opportunity to bring a fan base to the game that may not be at the game otherwise. My wife can tell you the backup tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs and probably didn’t even know the Kansas City team was named the Chiefs before fantasy football. It makes you kind of engage in a sport at a higher level.”

All of which circles back to “Drive On.” Whan, the LPGA staff and its players operate under the internal tagline, “Act Like a Founder.” “Drive On” is the external equivalent and the pitch to sponsors about an organization hoping to leave its sport in a better place than they found it. Whan only hopes they get the message. 

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Budweiser Says Goodbye to Wade With New Sports Strategy

A video tribute to Dwyane Wade is the latest example of how Budweiser expects to tell deeper stories in sports with active athletes.

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Photo Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Dwyane Wade only knew he had to trade five extra jerseys for Budweiser.

Wade traded jerseys with other NBA players throughout this season, his last, so as Budweiser planned its farewell salute, he entrusted the brewery to surprise him with the resulting tribute video. All they told him was he’d be trading five more jerseys.

Budweiser then presented Wade with the opportunity to trade jerseys with five of the fans he impacted most throughout his career, including his mom, and the results were shown in a tribute video released Tuesday. Rather than his athletic accomplishments, Budweiser desired to show his off-the-court contributions to the world.

READ MORE: Crawford Bock Brings Beer and Baseball Together for Astros

The Wade video isn’t the only farewell tribute video produced by Budweiser, the brewer released similar videos for Derek Jeter and Dale Earnhardt Jr., but it is part of a broader sports strategy for the company, Budweiser Vice President of Marketing Monica Rustgi said.

“The last two years, we’ve found a sweet spot in sports, celebrating iconic cultural moments,” Rustgi said. “We always look for these once-in-a-lifetime moments, and it was undeniable with [Wade’s] track record beyond the court was a story we had to tell.”

Budweiser shot two versions of the video, a long-form 4-minute version and a 90-second spot, the four-minute video debuted Tuesday morning on social channels and played prior to Wade’s last home game in Miami. The 90-second spot broadcast during the game on FOX Sports Sun. Wednesday the campaign will continue during his final road game.

Budweiser wasn’t the only company to release a tribute video to Wade, as Twitter released a video with a variety of exclusive interviews with people close to him, such as wife Gabrielle Union and former teammates Chris Bosh, Shaq, and Caron Butler.

Budweiser’s campaign centered on Wade is part of a deepening storytelling effort by using active players. The brewer reached deals with both the MLB and NBA players unions last year for the ability to use active players. Previously, the company could only use former players.

“For us, it’s a huge milestone as it pertains to how we advertise and market,” Rustgi said. “Budweiser has a long legacy of sports marketing, one of the first to understand the opportunity to bring our message to sports. But we realized we had to evolve, pivot from being the billboard in the stadium to being a meaningful part of the sports story.”

The acquisition of player rights can be a big step for the beer brand, said David Meltzer, founder of Sports 1 Marketing and S1Media, mentioning the viral success of the Wade video on Tuesday.

“People buy on emotion for logical reasons,” Meltzer said. “AB InBev’s acquisition of the rights to use MLB and NBA players in uniform is certainly a big change for the brewer and, as the recent Dwayne Wade ad shows, this is a great way to tie in relevant athletes and their emotional stories to the Budweiser brands.”

Rustgi said the Budweiser teams realized the brand could go deeper by embracing the idea sports are part of their fans’ lifestyles.

“Players get us that much closer to their sport and their stories drive the connection,” she said.

READ MORE: Mizzen+Main Looks to Continue Sports Push With Murray, Mickelson

The deals struck with the unions were meant to help highlight active legends on and off the court or field, at local and national levels, Rustgi said. 

While there are no such deals with the NHL, NFL or other leagues currently, Rustgi said Budweiser will continue to capitalize on strong cultural moments in sports, like a commercial memorializing last year’s Stanley Cup Final run by the Vegas Golden Knights.

“The most important piece for us is there is a moment in sport where someone has impacted the sport and community,” she said. “We won’t stop if there is a moment to highlight, whether or not it’s a focused sport.”

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