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Volume 20 No. 42

In Depth

A sampling of the fare at Bite NW Arkansas, a two-day food event around the LPGA tournament.
Photo by: OCTAGON
When Minneapolis restaurateur Wayne Kostroski helped create the Taste of the NFL as the chair of the restaurant committee of the 1992 Super Bowl, the impetus was simple: “Make sure it was a memorable trip to Minnesota no matter what the weather ended up being, because it can be cold up here in January and February.”

At a time when most fans’ only connection between food and sports was hot dogs and popcorn served at games, the Taste of the NFL was one of the first events to showcase that strong bond between the passion points of food and sports.

Twenty-five years later, the event now routinely sells thousands of tickets in Super Bowl host cities, features some of the most famous chefs in the country, and has helped raise more than $25 million for food banks and other organizations.

With the rise of celebrity chefs, the spread of culinary television shows, the interest in nutrition and locally sourced food, as well as the increased appetite to share what you’re eating on social media, that bond has grown only deeper, leading many properties, events, leagues and teams to host and create their own culinary events.

“I always sensed that we would see more association between food and sporting events over time, but over the last 10 years, obviously with the success of the Food Network, celebrity chefs and the growing interest for people to learn about cooking, food and chefs, I didn’t imagine where we’d be today,” Kostroski said. “But now you’re seeing insertions of culinary at all levels of sports, whether it’s regional cuisine from local chefs at the stadium, tailgating at a new level or with culinary events — it’s not your grandfather’s food experience around sports anymore.”

Kostroski has been part of that growth, helping to launch similar “Taste of” events around the Kentucky Derby, the Masters and College Football Playoff, as well as inspiring dozens of pro teams to do their own local events with the same concept — “some of my friends joke that I should go by the name ‘Mr. Taste,’” he said with a laugh.

The evolution, Kostroski said, has come out of necessity. “You have to have a few new things to offer as part of the overall event experience,” he said. “But it’s also part of the draw to reach that wider audience, and those people that go beyond just the crazy fanatical fans. Food brings people together and opens a conversation.”

Delivering on an experience

As more teams and properties look to engage larger audiences with varied interests, food has become one of the most seamless and easy ways to do it.

“The underlying impetus to a lot of this is that consumers can’t easily be segmented into the sports lover or the luxury goods buyer or the music lover anymore. Those silos don’t exist and people now have a higher level of engagement with a variety of interests,” said Kris Moon, vice president at the James Beard Foundation. “I can be a sports enthusiast, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want a really good meal, and I’m not leaving all of my other interests at the door when I walk in a stadium or to a sports-related event.”

Moon said this is being aided even further by the fact that brands and marketers are becoming even savvier in the ways they reach out to consumers.

“Now you’re seeing insertions of culinary at all levels of sports, whether it’s regional cuisine from local chefs at the stadium, tailgating at a new level or with culinary events — it’s not your grandfather’s food experience around sports anymore.”

Founder, Taste of the NFL

“You’re seeing the rise of more integrated, subtle activations that deliver on an experience that the customer wants anyway, and it’s creating great affinity to the brand and a great experience,” Moon said. “That’s why something like the Taste of the NFL has been so successful — they want to do other things while they’re at the Super Bowl, and what’s a better idea than to indulge their foodie side and hang out with chefs, who are the new rock stars.”

Working with food also allows for the ability to tailor events to the mass audience at a walk-around event attracting thousands, or the smaller gatherings that are for exclusive guests, and have both be successful thanks to the talents of a chef.

“Each property can engage in food differently, from something for the masses like the Taste to the NFL to very small parties at say the Kentucky Derby,” said Andrew Chason, who heads CAA Culinary, the agency’s new culinary marketing and hospitality arm that develops partnerships and business opportunities for its culinary personalities. “What makes these chef-featured events work so well is the same thing that makes their restaurants great as well — the details and making that experience special.”

Chason, who worked in sports marketing at IMG prior to moving into talent representation in the culinary world, thinks there is still plenty of growth ahead for how sports can leverage food to their advantage.

“In many of the same ways that a city and fans get behind a team from their city, they also get behind food that is specific to that city — they have that shared component,” he said. “There is something about the combination of food and sports and food and music that I think people are now recognizing how much of a draw it is. The big difference is that, candidly, that combination of food and sports has only just started to get that love on a national scale. While food can stand on its own, it also is the best complementary piece to often anything.”

Sponsor connections

Food also has the flexibility to aid efforts to both build and bolster brands.

“There is an opportunity to build an amazing platform around food and sports for 12 months around the year, exposing the team or athletes to a totally different audience with events that are very sponsorable,” said Lonny Sweet, president and CEO of culinary marketing agency The Connect Group and a former athlete and sports marketer.

When the Super Bowl came to MetLife Stadium in 2014, Sweet and his team helped to create the 50 Yard Lounge in Manhattan, transforming existing restaurant space in the city into a VIP hospitality lounge that featured more than 80 local chefs and restaurants, with activations that included food stations where chefs were paired with athletes to create dishes and talk about football.

Chef Bobby Flay has been a driving force around the Breeders’ Cup A Taste of the World event.
Photo by: AP IMAGES
One of the spaces was branded as “Jets House,” where fans, corporate partners and VIPs of the organization were able to meet current and former players, listen to live music and take part in a pregame Super Bowl event. The lounge drew more than 4,000 guests during Super Bowl week, and featured several brands alongside the Jets, including Celebrity Cruises, Rums of Puerto Rico, Jim Beam, Nespresso and Fiji Water.

“The ability to cross-pollinate audiences when teams or leagues get into food is huge, and also allows them to break away from the pack of other teams,” said Sweet, who has also worked with MLB and New Era. At the New York City Wine and Food Festival in 2013, the Jets held a “Chefs & Jets” event that brought together former players like Joe Namath and celebrity chefs to hold a special tailgate meal for the event’s ticket holders.

“Millions of Jets fans don’t know about this festival, and not every attendee of the festival knows about the Jets, or has a deep connection with them,” Sweet said. “It’s also an opportunity for the food festival to be on the sports page, and the Jets to be on Eater or a food magazine.”

Engaging fans, community

As Octagon looked to further build out the mid-June LPGA event in Rogers, Ark. — the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship presented by P&G — it felt food was the right mechanism.

“Not everyone is a fan of golf, but everyone needs to eat, it’s as simple as that,” said Harry Hardy, Octagon vice president and tournament director. “It became a question of how do you capture the broader community and turn it from a golf tournament into a weeklong celebration for the region.”

Three years ago, Octagon launched Bite NW Arkansas, a two-night food event around the tournament that features local restaurants and brand activations.

Hardy said the impact was instantly noticeable, with increases in attendance and buzz around the tournament. The event, which moved to nearby Bentonville this year due to its growth, attracted more than 8,000 attendees across the two days.

“In many ways, Bite has become its own entity, which is a good dilemma to have,” Hardy said. “Now we’re looking to incorporate more of the experience people are having at Bite at the golf course akin to what some other teams are doing at their own arenas.”

Ed Horne, executive vice president of global partnerships at WME-IMG and a former NHL executive, said the focus on providing these culinary experiences is the next step in reacting to the needs and wants of fans and consumers.

“I think back to about a decade or two ago, and the discussion was ‘How can you bring music in to the experience around sports?’ And you saw things like bands playing during the intermissions as the Zamboni cleared the ice,” he said. “In the same way, this explosion in culinary is the next evolution of the fan experience, and food is really a frictionless way to add to that experience.”

Horne also noted for the millennial audience that many properties are chasing, these celebrity chefs often have as high of a profile and following as the past generation sports stars, musicians or actors who are often highlighted for appearances.

“We talk about how many of the most successful people in the sports space are now multi-hyphenated; Cam Newton is not only an incredible athlete, but also a designer and a content creator. Consumers are no different, and while you may identify first as a sports fan, you also identify as a fan of great food and as someone before you eat a great meal, posts a picture on Instagram. This evolution targets that consumer,” Horne said.

“The ability to cross-pollinate audiences when teams or leagues get into food is huge, and also allows them to break away from the pack of other teams.”

President and CEO, The Connect Group

Sweet said that in a world where sports properties are increasingly chasing the kinds of fans that are adept at social media, there are not many better options to reach them through than food.

“All you need to do is look at the social followings of these chefs to see their impact — everyone is looking for their next meal or next place to try on Instagram or another social media network,” he said. “While I don’t like using the word foodie, many have called this the foodie generation — I like to say it’s about being more food connected.”

However, Kostroski warns that the feeling that every event needs to do something around food because it’s now a trend won’t lead to success.

“It isn’t automatic, and getting a chef and putting a band on doesn’t create an event,” he said. “With anything, the better the quality and the genuineness the event has, the more likely it will be successful.”

Sweet said some of that can come through allowing chefs to do something they do extremely well — storytelling.

“It’s almost a fact that you can take two of the exact same burgers, and have one just served as is, and the other one has a chef tell a story behind it about how it was their grandmother’s recipe and how they selected the meat and where it comes from. The one with the story will taste better,” he said. “At events like this, the sports property doesn’t always have the ability to tell a story — the chefs can add that extra layer to do so.”

Sweet noted a recent activation around the MLB All-Star Game in Miami, where an event featured a Cuban-inspired cocktail menu, telling some of the story of that culture in the area and its connection with baseball.

Chason said that similar to the way stadium food has evolved in the last decade, he expects to see an additional evolution for food events.

“The reality is everyone is trying to differentiate their event, whether it’s a league, a sponsor or a player throwing their own private party, and food and beverage helps you do that,” he said. “The beauty of food, whether that is just the traditional sense of dining and eating at an event, even to the theatrics and visuals around it, is that it has the potential to be as dynamic as a great sporting event.”

Quarterback Trevor Siemian helps with food prep at last year’s event in Denver.
When Allie Pisching joined the Denver Broncos in April as executive director of community development, one of the few things that surprised her was the number of questions she received on when tickets to the team’s Taste of the Broncos event would be available.

The event, which is similar to the model established by Taste of the NFL and used by a number of NFL teams, is just one of an increasing number of food-related activities the team holds throughout the year in Denver.

“When you talk about holding events, you want to be able to reach out to as many different people as possible, and food is so universal,” Pisching said. “The Taste of the Broncos is not only reaching our fans, our season and suite ticket holders and our corporate sponsors, but also community-minded people who want to support community fundraising events and people who are fans of local restaurants or chefs.”

Now in its third year, the Taste of the Broncos, scheduled to be held on Sept. 18, brings together current and former players along with more than 30 Colorado restaurants to provide food samples on the Noble Energy Sports Legends Mall, which is located directly south of the team’s stadium. The Broncos sell both general admission and VIP tickets, which provide access to a special pre-event in the team’s locker room, as well as early access to the tailgate. Proceeds from the event benefit the Food Bank of the Rockies, as well as team charities.

The Broncos work with Denver chef Troy Guard and his TAG Restaurant Group to select the restaurants and chefs that participate, as well as help organize the event. The team also consults with Sports Authority Field at Mile High facility manager Stadium Management Co.

“There’s nothing wrong with traditional fundraising events like golf events and the like, but there is just something fun and social about an event like this that takes great food and also gives attendees an opportunity to give back,” Pisching said. “And as much as I like going to a traditional gala or luncheon, this is something my friends and I would buy tickets to.”

The team expects this year’s edition of the Taste of the Broncos to draw close to 1,500 attendees. It does not disclose its budget for the event.

In addition, the Broncos recently hosted the Bacon and Beer Classic at the stadium, and had several players appear on an episode of “Top Chef.” The team also hosts a celebrity chef outside of the stadium for each home game during the season.

These food events have provided the team with a unique new area of activation for partners.

At last year’s Taste of the Broncos event, the team’s partnership marketing group worked with Guard to reach out to chefs to see if they would consider incorporating Tabasco, one of the team’s partners, into the dishes they were going to create for the event, or create food items that would pair well with Tabasco sauce, which could be put out on counters for attendees to use. The event was also sponsored by King Soopers, a local grocer whose products were also featured.

On game days to host a celebrity chef, the team uses an oversized gas-powered grill that is branded for oil and gas producer Noble Energy, which also holds the naming rights to the fan interactive area near the stadium. Before each game, a local chef and Broncos alumni appear for a cooking demonstration, where afterward fans can sample the food.

“From our perspective, nothing goes better with football than food, so to be able to have Noble Energy power the grill, tie in the team and the local food scene, give a local restaurant and a chef a little bit of exposure, and provide something interesting and informative for fans, it really hits on everything we try to do,” said Sandy Young, Broncos director of partnership marketing. “When you talk about activations on a game day, you know you’re going to hit one demographic — game attendees. When you have these different opportunities that provide different audiences with other modes of entry, it broadens that reach.”

Chef Ming Tsai has participated in food events around the Masters and Super Bowl.
Award-winning chef Ming Tsai has received accolades for his restaurants and cooking shows like “Simply Ming,” making him one of the biggest names at any food festival where he appears. He is also an avid lover of sports, playing on the squash team while he studied at Yale, as well as developing a love for the New England Patriots and Boston Red Sox while living in the Northeast. Tsai has often combined those two loves, cooking at events like the Super Bowl and the Masters frequently. Tsai spoke with SportsBusiness Journal staff writer Ian Thomas about why he thinks more sports events are reaching out to chefs like him, how their expertise can make a difference in an attendees’ experience, and what sports properties can do better when they try to move into the culinary world.

Why do you think more and more sporting events are branching out into the culinary space?

TSAI: There’s no secret that the buzzword for this whole movement is demographics. The demo of people that love wine, love food, love to travel, also love golf, also love going to the Masters or the Super Bowl or the Kentucky Derby, and it’s no secret that regardless of the event, sporting or non-sporting, requires food and beverage. Period. Traditionally back in the day you’d go back to the big ballrooms in the hotel and they would make the food, and there would be no real focus on it. That has completely changed in the last 20 years.

No chef is going to be the highlight of the sporting event they’re cooking at, but they can be part of elevating the experience. For example, a chef is not the highlight of the Masters. But the highlight of the Masters, if you can have access to it, is their private club Berckmans Place. There are six restaurants that only run for that week, and if you get a Berckmans pass, which costs thousands of dollars and is very limited, the experience is incredible.

Even at the non-high end, do you think there is an expectation from attendees for more when it comes to food and beverage at events now?

TSAI: Food and beverage is more than just a perk, it’s no longer just a sideline item. It’s now a focus of events, which from a chef’s point of view, it’s fantastic. It’s nice to be included and, while we’re not as important as Jordan Spieth taking part, I think it’s a value add for fans.

I think there is an expectation for what people get when they go to something that features a high-end chef. It used to be dinner by the chef and they would come in and talk about the food. … Then it became dinner demos, and you would demo each dish, which is still really cool. Now the expectation is more. They want a mixologist doing a funky drink, and demoing that as well. Then there’s a musician, and the dishes are designed around the music.

What happens when you can’t add another element to it? How do you keep these events from becoming stale?

TSAI: It’s still about personalization, and people feeling like they got touched by that person. There’s a huge difference when you can keep it to that 40 to 60 people and you really get to know the chef and the full experience, versus when there are a couple thousand people and it’s like you’re at any food and wine event.

One thing about chefs is that we’re very approachable and happy to talk with people about food or whatever they’d like. It’s not like trying to meet Michael Jordan at an event he’s featured at; we’re pretty much just standing there at the table.

What’s the draw for you to take part in sports-related cooking events?

TSAI: I’m a huge golf nut, so to be able to go to the Masters and Augusta and cook there is incredible. Every time I walk the course it’s a dream come true. I’ve walked that course probably 20 times now, and to go to the Super Bowl, especially if the Pats are in it? That’s always fun.

Chefs are competitive by nature, and a lot of us played sports. The only opportunity for us is when we go on “Next Iron Chef,” or “Iron Chef” or “Top Chef” and those kinds of shows. It really combines competitiveness with the act of sport, but with knives, cutting boards and sauté pans. The adrenaline rush that chefs have during service, getting in the weeds and getting out of it, that’s just like any tournament. You’re under the gun, sweating, and after service you feel like you just ran a half-marathon. There’s a lot of respect between athletes and chefs.

What can the sports world understand better about chefs and how to make these events run better?

TSAI: Steph Curry could come to the Garden and play, it’s not that much different … it’s still a basketball court. When we go to Pebble Beach or somewhere else, it’s completely different. … Some chefs demand to travel with their kitchens and people start to ask, “Why does this cost $250,000?” That’s what it takes to do all of this. … The sports world needs to realize we’re like pro athletes. We have to prepare, we have to have the right equipment, have to have the right people in place, and we have to have the right ingredients. I don’t care how good you are as a chef, if it’s not sashimi quality salmon, we can’t just put soy sauce on it and hope people don’t get food poisoning. … The sports world just needs to realize this should be a serious line item to the event. People really look forward to the food, and it’s what people talk about.

What have you enjoyed about working alongside teams and athletes?

TSAI: As much as a lot of chefs love to play golf or tennis, there are just as many athletes that love to cook and eat. It’s really fun to get people out of their element. One of my favorite episodes of “Simply Ming” was with Big Papi [David Ortiz], on the Green Monster wall, cooking up some chicken using his salsa with Fenway behind us. I mean are you kidding me? I was pinching myself. And because of food, I consider Papi a friend now. And I don’t think just being a fan of the Red Sox would ever help you become a friend of him, but it’s because of the love of food. I remember after we met, I told him I could cook this for him at home, and he said, “Can you come tonight?” I said how many people, and done. That was 2003, when we met, and we’ve been friends since. Food and beverage open more doors for all of us than any other ticket.