2017 NCAA championship game viewing party at Top of the Hill, courtesy of Top of the Hill

Beer Sales Increase for March Madness

For many restaurants and sports bars, the fervor around the tournament, which runs from March 11 to April 2, can jolt beer sales. In fact, an analysis of millions of transactions across the U.S. by restaurant management platform Upserve has found that March has historically had the highest beer sales of the entire year.

Scott Maitland’s restaurant and brewery Top of the Hill sits just 10 yards from the University of North Carolina’s campus in Chapel Hill, so during March Madness, Maitland stipulated that those hoops fans lucky – and determined – enough to secure a coveted spot to watch the game at his bar must spend at least $20.

And, usually, that means a lot of beer. On average, Top of the Hill does anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000 in beer sales a day. But when big games tied to March Madness come along, sales skyrocket. During last year’s UNC-Duke regular season finale, Maitland saw about $17,000 in beer sales. And for the Tar Heels’ Final Four game against Oregon, the restaurant netted about $16,400 in sales.

“We can see anywhere from a 25 to 35 percent increase in beer consumption,” Maitland says.

March Madness beer infographic

March Madness Bar Promotions (Even if your team isn’t in the tournament)

Unlike Top of the Hill, the restaurants and bars located farther away from major college basketball programs take advantage of the tournament by pairing cheap grub with even cheaper draft and bottled beers. Here are a few examples:

  • 1 cent Beer Pitchers: In Scottsdale, Arizona, you can get one pitcher of beer for a penny at Dierks Bentley’s Whiskey Row if you buy three sliders ($4 each).

 

  • Team-specific beers: In Chapel Hill, Maitland only offers the beers he brews at his 20,000-square-foot restaurant – about 1,800 barrels a year – including two that pay homage to UNC basketball, the Assist IPA and the Rams Head IPA.

 

  • $3 Domestics & 60 cent Wings: At The Beginning II, a sports bar in Syracuse, New York, known for its wings, patrons can get a bottle of Miller Lite or Coors Light for $3 during tournament games. The Beginning II also has 60-cent wings during games, Krajacic said, which helps sell more beer. “They can have that second or third beer because they’re eating a dozen wings,” he says, proving that it’s game time for restaurants’ kitchen and bar staff as well.

 

  • Unique Commercials: Last year, Buffalo Wild Wings, which bills itself as “the official hangout” for March Madness games, rolled out an entire ad campaign for the tournament, including a commercial that aired whenever a game went into overtime. At the Buffalo Wild Wings in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, general manager Michael Gardner has worked through the last five tournaments. Gardner expects the restaurant, which has 50 beers on tap, to see an overall jump in business during the month.
2017 NCAA championship game viewing party at Top of the Hill, courtesy of Top of the Hill
2017 NCAA championship game viewing party at Top of the Hill, courtesy of Top of the Hill

Craft Beer Sales Jump in March

“All in all, we sell about as much craft beer as we do domestic,” Gardner says. Though pricier, craft beer does well during March Madness

Craft beer sales tend to increase overall during the summer months, but March also shines, likely because of the excitement over the tournament and St. Patrick’s Day, according to Bart Watson, an economist for the Brewers Association.

“With the basketball games, we increase somewhat on craft sales like IPAs, but it’s the domestic beers – Miller Lite, Bud Light – that really sell. When you throw in St. Patrick’s Day, it creates a whole new level of sales.” – The Beginning II owner Mike Krajacic

Last year, overall craft sales, including on-premise and off-premise, jumped from $14.2 million in February to $17.1 million in March, Watson says.

“March Madness is built into American culture, and it’s an out-of-house event: You want to be at a place that has four TVs,” Watson said. “The Super Bowl is a big beer-driver, but a lot of it is in-house. March Madness strikes me as a little different; it’s more of a communal event.”

When trying to sell more domestic beer, restaurants and bars often turn to special deals tied to March Madness.

March Madness, from a College Bar Owner’s Perspective

It’s the third day of the ACC men’s basketball tournament, and customers loosen the time constraints of today’s lunch “hour” or conveniently slip out of the office early.

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“Today I was packed for lunch,” says Alex Amra, restaurant co-owner, “and they still have a big party going on.”

Amra and his two brothers, Brian and Rommie, own three Tobacco Road Sports Cafe locations, including in Durham and Chapel Hill. The cafes draw their name from the nickname for the powerhouse basketball region in the North Carolina Piedmont, historically led by the “big four” teams of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University, Duke University and Wake Forest University.

Few regions can rival the Triangle, which is home to UNC in Chapel Hill, NC State in Raleigh and Duke in Durham, only about 30 miles separate the three schools. These campuses hold many Championship trophies and rabid fan bases. And for the sports bars, it can be one of the biggest drawers of steady crowds they’ll get all year.

“It’s definitely a Triangle thing,” Amra says. “If you’ve got a TV in your place, people are going to stay longer at lunch to watch basketball.”

March Madness delivers a unique opportunity for sports bars. Rather than driving in crowds for a single prime-time game, it brings in a steady spike to business during weekdays. On a typical Thursday at lunch, Amra would staff five front-of-house people, three servers, and one bartender. But on this Thursday during the ACC tournament, he staffed five bartenders and 12 servers. When it comes to March Madness, Amra says, the Triangle delivers fans for teams all over the country.

“The way I look at it is, this is about our community. That’s what makes it fun. We want the team to do well because we’re all fans, too.”

“The Triangle is such a diverse place; out of the 64 teams, you’re surprised if less than half of them are represented in your restaurant,” Amra says.

For Triangle restaurants with strong allegiances to one particular Tobacco Road team, the turnout depends more on which teams are playing. Top of the Hill is a restaurant located on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, bordering UNC’s campus or “ground zero of the Tar Heel universe” as proprietor Scott Maitland describes it. For last year’s national championship game between UNC and Villanova, 350 people camped out to ensure their space inside the 900-seat restaurant.

“We had to work with the town and with the guests themselves because there was an expectation that we would manage this line,” Maitland says.

While NCAA games draw guests and sales, it hasn’t been without its challenges and changes. The ACC has expanded as a league and shifted the timing of its tournament, running Tuesday to Saturday instead of Thursday to Sunday.

“I feel like more has resulted in less,” Maitland says. “People would not go to work on Thursday afternoon to watch the tournament. But now you can’t say, ‘We’re going to take a day and a half.”

Technology has also taken away from sports bars’ reign as the best place to watch the game. Fans have better quality TVs and sports packages that allow them to watch at home. “We enjoy business specifically for Carolina games, but I’m not so sure the other games bring in as much business as they did before,” Maitland says.

But Maitland has enjoyed a new benefit from a side business — TOPO Distillery that produces whiskey, vodka and gin. Sales have benefitted from people throwing watch parties at home.

Tournament games also create unpredictability depending upon what teams advance. When archrivals UNC and Duke meet in the semifinal game of the ACC tournament on Friday at 7 p.m., people line up and pack out Top of the Hill at 7 p.m. But those tables won’t turn until after 9 p.m. If UNC plays an NCAA tournament game early on a weekday, customers will fill Top of the Hill at an off time.

“You’re going to go crazy if you think about all that,” Maitland says. “The way I look at it is, this is about our community. That’s what makes it fun. We want the team to do well because we’re all fans, too.”

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Matt Tota is a freelance journalist from Boston, Mass., who writes about beer. He loves New England IPAs, maple stouts and tropical sours.