Buffalo Wild Wings Browns Dawg pound restaurant.
Buffalo Wild Wings

Buffalo Wild Wings' "Dawg Pound" helps guests recreate the stadium experience.

With Sports Back, Can Empty Stadiums Turn Into Crowded Restaurants?

Customers aren't ruling the idea out.

Sports have returned to quiet stadiums across America. While great news for TV networks, where it leaves restaurants is a more complex debate. Does this locked-out group of fans present opportunity? Or does COVID-19 concern outweigh everything else? The answer likely lies somewhere in the blurry middle.

Buffalo Wild Wings, for one, got creative as it recreated game day inside restaurants. It launched a “season ticket package” for Cleveland Browns fans to watch games from a custom-designed “Dawg Pound” inside the sports bar. The package includes four seats and rolled to 10 Buffalo Wild Wings throughout the area. Ten packages were available for $750 via StubHub and included weekly food and drink deals, including a welcome package with branded face masks.

And for those outside Cleveland, Buffalo Wild Wings unveiled a $99 digital “Blazin’ Season Ticket” offering, redeemable for 10 boneless or traditional wings each week of the NFL season at any store. The deal could be used for dine-in, takeout, and delivery, through the brand’s website or app. It amounts to roughly 58 cents per wing.

Buffalo Wild Wings took a like-minded approach to baseball season when it brought beer vendors inside restaurants.

Buffalo Wings & Rings, an 80-unit chain with 60 or so domestic locations, isn’t quite so deliberate. CEO Nader Masadeh says the brand wants to court personal connections, sports or not. “I believe sports are not going to have a big impact on us because what I’m defining this is as is, we’re not about sports,” he says. “We’re about human connection. And humans, you probably notice in your office, not everybody wants to stay home. They just want to go out and talk to people and see people.”

“What they’re trying to say is, ‘hey, we thrive on human connection. We need other humans to survive,” he adds. “… We’re going to provide you a way to connect with other people and it’s really just in the absence of sports.”


Sports can still be part of it, but maybe not so heavily reliant on mainstream events, Masadeh says. Perhaps a replay of a nostalgic game; international soccer or UFC, and so on.

There’s proof customers want a connection outlet. According to The NPD Group, digital orders accounted for more than 20 percent of all restaurant occasions in April, but declined to 17 percent in August. Additionally, NPD said, “adult-only parties” steadily improved share over the last several months. In August, they represented 63 percent of all restaurant occasions and parties with kids (families in most cases) represented 37 percent. In April, adult-only parties were 59 percent of visit share and parties with kids 41 percent.

Buffalo Wild Wings

Beer vendors inside restaurants? Buffalo Wild Wings has broken out all the stops.

“As the summer progressed and mandated restrictions were lifted, an increasing number of consumers became more comfortable dining out based on the safety protocols restaurants put in place,” David Portalatin, NPD food industry adviser, said in a statement. “After months of staying at home and cooking their own meals or ordering in, they were ready for the restaurant experience again.”

There’s another reality at work. For restaurants, it’s offering take-home food for guests to connect with familiar and comfortable circles during these TV events.

In a fresh world of small gatherings, how do you serve that group of five or 10, rather than 15 or 20? Buffalo Wings & Rings adjusted its catering to provide smaller, individualized meals that don’t require a lot of hand dipping or touching to “psychologically help us get through this phase,” Masadeh says. Jersey Mike’s recently did something similar, introducing “Subs By The Box,” to serve 12 people with individually wrapped and labeled products. There’s also an individual Lunch Boxes option for grab-and-go users.

Datassential polled 500 U.S. consumers to take a look at how restaurants and bars can benefit from the return of sports, whether for carry-out occasions or bringing back fans to watch on-premises.

“In a time when fans are ready to celebrate more than ever, restaurants and bars have an opportunity to be part of game day meal rituals with sports-themed meals and promotions,” the company said.

Firstly, let’s take a look at where the audience is. Here’s a breakdown of the sports watched or attended (at least occasionally) pre-COVID-19.

  • NFL/professional football: 52 percent
  • MLB: 38 percent
  • NBA: 33 percent
  • College sports: 28 percent
  • Soccer: 24 percent
  • Car racing: 23 percent
  • Tennis: 21 percent
  • NHL: 20 percent
  • Golf: 18 percent
  • Gymnastics: 16 percent
  • Pro wrestling/MMA/boxing: 14 percent
  • Volleyball: 14 percent
  • Swimming and diving: 13 percent
  • Horse racing/equestrian: 13 percent
  • Track and field: 8 percent
  • Lacrosse: 4 percent

While it seems a Hail Mary to put equestrian on and expect to fill the lobby, it might be worth looking into off-the-radar options outside of football. Through rewards or email polls, finding a niche event to showcase during off-peak days could lure in exclusive, willing crowds that can be controlled and socially distanced. Say a key soccer match that reaches out to a local Facebook group that supports the team, with activations and specials to follow. Or some kind of “fight night” or similar notion that sells tickets for reserved tables in advance and comes with food preordered and paid for. It keeps the contact down and provides a safe space for a night out with friends or family. Something different than what the couch can offer. Isolation fatigue is going to progress as time passes and people start to feel more comfortable with their own safety measures.

Are people still watching?

  • Sports aren’t the same, but I’ll watch them: 54 percent
  • I don’t care, I’m just excited to have sports back: 30 percent
  • I’ll stop watching sports until things are back to normal: 16 percent

So, for the vast majority, the answer is yes. But even for those who aren’t, sports bars and restaurants can take this same controlled approach to things like trivia nights. Look at it from a VIP angle—email invitations, or exclusive loyalty offerings. Tell guests it will cap at 15 teams (for example) and everyone signed up orders off a special “trivia menu,” before they arrive. The ability to reorder via mobile devices from the table could provide a nice boon as well.

The small-gathering movement

For a lot of folks, the age of social distancing has advanced to the “age of comfortable gatherings.” Quarantine life is getting tried. Comfort with safety measures, personal and commercial, are now routine. And thus, more people are finding paths to reconnect, only with circles they trust, as opposed to large-scale events full of strangers.

“Where would you be comfortable watching sports during the COVID pandemic?”

  • At home: 80 percent
  • Family/friend’s house: Small gatherings (under 10): 37 percent (for millennials, this almost 50 percent at 47 percent)
  • Family/friend’s house: Large gathering (10-plus): 17 percent
  • In a bar/sports bar: 14 percent
  • Attending an event in person: 14 percent
  • In a casino: 10 percent
  • At a club/country club: 10 percent
  • None of these places: 4 percent (higher among Boomers at 10 percent)

The takeaway: Almost half of millennials say they’re comfortable watching sports in small gatherings. Can restaurants make their venues feel as safe as the living room? Maybe not, but they can try to balance it out with deals and unique food. However, on the other side, finding a way to satisfy those small gatherings, as Jersey Mike’s did, is a growing target. The catering perception has the potential to shift amid COVID. It doesn’t have to be reserved for office parties or events anymore. It can simply offer a more streamlined, frictionless way to feed a household full of friends trying to take the stress out of preparation. Yet another chance for value to join the conversation, too. Not to mention, the ability to order ahead and pay with mobile devices, potentially get it delivered, and skip a trip to the always crowded grocery store.

But in terms of inspiring on-premises traffic, Datassential said simple safety precautions could ease people back to restaurants and bars for games. The company’s data showed most guests haven’t completely ruled the idea out at least.

Outdoor seating and restricting opportunities for shared food and drinks can alleviate concerns, as will the “new normal” standards—protective gear, sanitation, and socially distant dining rooms.

“What would a bar/restaurant need to do to make you feel comfortable watching a sporting event on premise during the pandemic?”

  • Social distancing of tables and common areas: 44 percent
  • Perform extra cleaning/sanitation: 40 percent
  • Restrict the number of customers: 38 percent
  • Restaurant employees wear protective masks and gloves: 36 percent
  • Require customers to wear masks when not eating or drinking: 36 percent
  • Offer outside seating with outdoor TVs: 33 percent
  • Use disposable cups/plates/utensils for beverages and food served: 26 percent
  • Restrict usage of self-serve equipment like a popcorn machine: 24 percent
  • Restrict shared drink equipment (beer pitchers, water carafes): 22 percent
  • Restrict shared appetizers and snacks: 21 percent
  • Nothing, I am comfortable now/have already gone into bars: 6 percent (higher in the Midwest at 13 percent)
  • Nothing, under no circumstances would I go into these places right now: 24 percent (it’s 40 percent for Boomers)

Game-day meals are events for consumers—it’s not just a few hours in front of the TV. This isn’t anything new, and it hasn’t changed during COVID. You might even argue it’s even more prevalent for those hosting small gatherings considering they’ve sheltered for months.

More than half of sports fans are preplanning, pre-shopping, and making special meals, Datassential said. Close to two-thirds are cooking homemade food, preparing special snacks, or even replicating what they might get at a stadium.

The good news for restaurants: Most fans see it as a special game-day treat.

“Thinking about food and alcoholic beverages you consume at home while watching sports, please rate the following.” (Answers are “true.”)

  • I use whatever food I have in the house for meals/snacks: 73 percent
  • I like to cook homemade food: 68 percent
  • I like to eat food/snacks similar to what I would get at a stadium: 64 percent (this hops to 79 percent for Gen Z)
  • I like to prepare special game-time snacks: 63 percent (73 percent for millennials)
  • I like to order restaurant food as a special treat: 61 percent (higher for millennials at 74 percent)

Something to consider is how restaurants can replace the at-home occasion instead of angling it as a luxury for guests. That’s often the feeling behind take-out food. “I deserve a break from cooking.” “Lets splurge on our favorite restaurant.”

Given the blurring lines at hand between grocery prices, frequency of trips (not wanting to go once a week or more) and restaurants’ growing convenience channels, operators can fight for share in ways they couldn’t pre-virus. Bulk meals at affordable prices have keyed many survival strategies throughout COVID. That can slot into game-day events, too. There is room today to tout convenience, safety, and price to make restaurant food (delivered or picked up) a more commonplace option.

  • I preplan and make special trips to the store for food or alcohol: 57 percent
  • I prefer to drink alcoholic beverages: 54 percent (millennials came in at 67 percent)
  • I usually make a special trip to purchase alcohol: 44 percent (again, higher with millennials at 53 percent).

Depending on the market and regulations, adding alcohol into the bundle picture could give restaurants a game-day lift as well.

A good deal of respondents expressed interest in sports-themed meals and promotions from restaurants and bars, Datassential said. Meal kits/“take and bakes” and themed family meals were most popular among Gen Z and millennials.

“How interested are you in the following special “game-day” meals or promotions for carryout or delivery?”

Free food or drinks if the home team scores a certain number of points

  • Definitely try: 46 percent
  • Might try: 38 percent
  • Would not try: 17 percent

Sports-themed family meals: large-sized entrée + choice of sides

  • Definitely try: 40 percent
  • Might try: 43 percent
  • Would not try: 17 percent

Sports packages: choose from multiple hot snacks + alcoholic beverages

  • Definitely try: 38 percent
  • Might try: 37 percent
  • Would not try: 25 percent

Meal kits or "take and bakes" to prepare restaurant meals at home

  • Definitely try: 36 percent
  • Might try: 44 percent
  • Would not try: 20 percent

“To-go” cocktail kits

  • Definitely try: 33 percent
  • Might try: 32 percent
  • Would not try: 34 percent