Pizza Hut extends NCAA partnership on heels of its new NFL deal

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Pizza Hut Pie Top Shoes
Pizza Hut Pie Top Shoes Credit: Pizza Hut

Pizza Hut really, really wants you to order its pizza while you watch sports.

The No. 2 pizza chain is announcing a two-year extension of its relationship with the NCAA, after grabbing the NFL pizza partnership as soon as that league and Papa John's severed ties.

"Pizza and sports really go hand in hand," says Pizza Hut U.S. CMO Zipporah Allen. "Sports is a big part of our strategy."

For one, people who watch games often eat while they do so, and pizza is a TV-watching favorite. Plus, the NCAA deal, in particular, appeals to a younger audience "that's in a heavy pizza-eating time in their lives," says Allen.

And, ultimately, if Pizza Hut can woo them when they're young, perhaps it can hold onto them as longer-term customers. The Yum Brands chain's new marketing leaders, including Allen, aim to boost its status after Pizza Hut lost its ranking as the top pizza chain to Domino's, based on 2017 sales.

Pizza Hut has been the official pizza of the NCAA since 2016. That pact, which was set to run through 2019, has now been extended through the 2020-2021 academic year. Pizza Hut became the NFL's official pizza sponsor in February, less than a day after Papa John's and the league went their separate ways. Pizza Hut's NFL deal lasts four years, through the 2021-2022 season. Meanwhile, Pizza Hut last month picked GSD&M as its new creative agency, after working with Droga5 for two years.

Two great tastes that taste great together

Pizza Hut, of course, isn't the only chain that wants to pair its food with sports. Back in 2011, Domino's became the official pizza of the NCAA, which marked its first national sports marketing sponsorship since 2007. But these days, Pizza Hut and Papa John's dominate when it comes to official sports sponsorships. Papa John's is in its third season as the official pizza of Major League Baseball. Papa John's also has relationships with 22 MLB teams and 17 NFL ones. And Yum's Taco Bell has sponsored the NBA since 2009.

Sponsorship spending in college sports was expected to rise 4.5 percent to $1.2 billion in the 2017-18 season, according to IEG. Quick-serve restaurants are 3.8 times more likely to sponsor college sports than the average category, IEG has said.

In general, spending on sponsorships is on the rise, but being able to measure the impact of such deals on business remains tough, according to a study released Tuesday by the Association of National Advertisers and the Marketing Accountability Standards Board. Total sponsorship spending in North America was expected to rise 4.5 percent to $24.2 billion in 2018, according to IEG. According to ANA and MASB, 40 percent of respondents in its study say they include expectations about sponsorship measurement into contracts with properties, while only 37 percent say they have a standardized process to measure the return on sponsorship.

For Pizza Hut's Allen, the wide variety of sports under the NCAA umbrella, not just basketball and football, is part of the appeal. Pizza Hut can activate around all 90 NCAA championships each year. Beach volleyball tournaments might be fruitful for one set of franchisees, while the NCAA hockey Frozen Four tournament holds appeal in certain areas. "The opportunity to activate on a local level is really important to us," Allen says.

Still, expect plenty of the activation to be tied to basketball. March Madness has been the main element of the brand's NCAA work over the past two years, including two rounds of Pie Tops shoes that allow ordering from the shoes themselves. There was 150 percent year-over-year growth in engagement on social media with the 2018 version of the shoes over 2017, Allen says.

Pizza Hut is still working through its plans for football, says Allen, who sees opportunities to use the NCAA and NFL marks together in some executions, along with days dedicated to collegiate and pro ball. Pizza Hut can attempt to own the weekend, including eyes on its brand during professional games -- which typically are played Thursday night, all day Sunday and Monday night, and during college games, often played on Saturdays.

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