The full-service chain forged a partnership with America's favorite sports league, creating a distinct marketing advantage.

The Super Bowl, watched by more than 100 million people each year, is a marketing frenzy for a variety of consumer-facing business segments, and restaurants are at the top of that list. While numerous food and beverage concepts promote deals in conjunction with the huge Sunday, they are not allowed to use the term “Super Bowl” in marketing messages since it is trademarked by the NFL. Most choose to use “the Big Game” in their news releases. 

Next year, Applebee’s will have the unique honor of spelling out “Super Bowl” in all of its activations as the NFL and casual-dining giant signed a multi-year partnership designating the brand as the Official Grill + Bar of the NFL. It will provide plenty of opportunity throughout the year to engage consumers with compelling promotions and offers. 

“We can have a Super Bowl sweepstakes and call it the Super Bowl sweepstakes,” says Applebee’s CMO Joel Yashinsky. “We are a full-on partner with the NFL. There are brands that can work around it and do some things like that. I think when you can say ‘Super Bowl’ and the NFL and show their shield as part of your advertisements, and with a brand that’s as big as the NFL, that really is great value. And so we’ll be leveraging and partnering with the NFL on their assets and it’ll be clear we’re partnering with the biggest sport in the United States and by far. That’s something we’re really excited to be doing with the NFL.”

It’s a team-up of two major players in their respective fields. With more than 1,500 restaurants nationwide, Applebee’s is the third-largest sit-down chain in America behind Waffle House and IHOP. Meanwhile, the NFL earned about $18 billion in 2022, including $2.7 billion in sponsorships. No other professional sports league in the U.S. was within $5 billion of this mark. Football has been the top sport in Gallup polling since 1972. Recent data showed 41 percent of adults rated football as their favorite sport; the next highest were baseball and basketball at 10 percent and 9 percent, respectively. 

The partnership was a natural evolution for Applebee’s, which has sponsored NBC’s “Football Night in America” for the past five years. It also made sense from a consumer perspective since guests over-index as NFL fans. The conversation between the two sides dates back to last year.

“I think the timing of it is what’s really great for us because we have really developed a strong relationship with the NFL and we’re fans of all sports and live sporting events and particularly working with the networks and the cable channels and so forth,” Yashinsky says. “Sports and live sports in general is always an important element for I think anybody’s media plan. The NFL has certainly been where we saw the fit and really the triangulation between our brand, our guests, and the NFL itself.”

Other notable sponsors of the NFL include Subway and Little Caesars. 

In honor of the new venture, Appleebee’s will offer 20 free boneless wings with a $40 online purchase from Thursday, April 26, through Sunday, April 27, which coincides with the NFL Draft. Last year, about 54 million watched the annual event. 

The most notable benefit of the partnership, according to Yashinsky, is that the NFL commands media attention 365 days per year. That means potential promotions around the NFL’s regular season from September to January; playoffs in January and February; free agency, the draft, and schedule release in the spring, and the start of preseason in late summer. This presents Applebee’s with a “consistent and constant opportunity to connect with our guests and bring fun and engaging opportunities for them,” the CMO says. He adds there will be a “really wide spectrum of touch points and content creation” throughout the year. 

The news comes a few weeks after Applebee’s publicly released a national double-blind survey that named it “America’s Favorite Boneless Wings” compared to Wingstop and Buffalo Wild Wings. 

Applebee’s same-store sales declined 0.5 percent in Q4 but rose 0.6 percent in full-year 2023. Average weekly sales per store were $54,000, or about $2.8 million in annualized AUV. Of that, about 22 percent was off-premises, split evenly between to-go and delivery.

Yashinsky described the NFL and Applebee’s as a perfect pairing because of their shared role of providing an escape from life’s everyday challenges. He likened the passion and engagement found in sports to the experience patrons have at Applebee’s, where families, friends, and coworkers gather to unwind and disconnect. 

“We really position ourselves to be a break in your day, to level up your day with a visit to one of our restaurants,” Yashinsky says. “And so sports do the exact same thing. We also tend to have great food items that are a great combination for sports viewing. And so whether it’s our America’s favorite boneless wings that we launched in March or our other great appetizers or great burgers, we just have great food that ties in directly with sports and so we think it’s just a natural fit for us both from engagement in the restaurant standpoint, but also from a media standpoint where the reach of sports is so big.”

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