CINCINNATI — Fantasy football means real business for restaurants, and some big chains have launched promotional drives to score with dedicated players of the growing pastime.
Free appetizers, draft kits, meal discounts, gift cards and contests featuring sports celebrities are among lures for "draft parties" in which fantasy players select rosters of NFL players whose talents on the field equal imaginary glory for their fantasy coaches.
Buffalo Wild Wings throws in $100 in gift cards and Hooters offers "season ticket" coupons totaling $500 with their draft setups.
Even as many Americans cut back on restaurant spending during the recession, fantasy football has been increasing as a source of regular customers — at least during the five-month season, which begins Thursday night.
The big chains don't release how much revenue those customers bring in, but they are playing hard to win over the roughly 20 million people in imaginary leagues that test fans' abilities to pick out players who will be the most productive. The Fantasy Sports Trade Association says the number of fantasy players has been growing at double-digit rates each year.
"There's a huge number of people who get into fantasy football, and there's a lot of restaurants trying to get them," said Bob Goldin, at Chicago-based food consultancy Technomic.
At a Buffalo Wild Wings near the University of Cincinnati, manager Michelle Gould said she and other local managers stay busy with draft party reservations, sometimes sending their overflows to each other.
"This is my biggest year yet. It just keeps getting bigger," she said; a corporate official said the company expects fantasy football clientele to double or even triple this year.
At a table decorated with plastic football caps, drink cozies and other regalia, Bryan Sherman hunched over a laptop computer, directing the draft of the 10-player "Real Deal" league using the restaurant's Wi-Fi. He collected $60 fees that will go the winner at season's end.
NFL players known for helping fantasy "owners" pile up points with their yardage and touchdowns, such as running backs Chris Johnson of Tennessee and Adrian Peterson of Minnesota, went quickly. Drafting slowed down in later rounds as players consulted ratings lists or flipped quickly through football magazines.
Meanwhile, the server kept the soft drinks, chicken wings, nachos, and $4.50 tall beers coming. Such draft gatherings typically take two to four hours, and can easily roll up tabs of $100 to $200.
Goldin, the analyst, said the football crowd usually buys simple, high-profit items for the restaurants, but the outings aren't a household budget-buster.
"It's a relatively modest expenditure, and it's a fun social event. I think consumers are justifying that pretty readily," he said.
The draft parties are only the start for the food-and-fun chains that usually hit peak business at Super Bowl.
"The great thing about the fantasy business is they don't just come in once," said Mike McNeil, marketing vice president for Hooters. "Once you get them, they come back week after week."
Also, the players are interested in more than just their hometown NFL teams because the players they drafted are scattered among many teams.
"If I'm just a Cincinnati Bengal fan or Minnesota Viking fan, I'm just engaged when they are playing," said Andrew Varga, chief marketing officer for Louisville-based Papa John's. "They (fantasy players) have a natural attraction across the whole game day; and Monday nights and Thursday nights. And they stay engaged throughout the season."
The pizza chain is going for a slice of the fantasy business this year with an NFL sponsorship and a contest that gets the winning league free pizza delivery and a visit from Cris Carter, ESPN analyst and former NFL star.
And for restaurants, the leagues add the kind of boisterous atmosphere they like for big football days.
"They're very competitive. You hear them talking smack and see them giving high-fives," said Gould.