How to feed an appetite for more
|A sampling of the fare at Bite NW Arkansas, a two-day food event around the LPGA tournament.
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.
President and CEO, The Connect Group
“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.”