4 tactics to help operators drive their NCAA tourney strategy

By Julie Gregg

March Madness is always a boon to many bars and restaurants, as collegiate basketball fans flock to restaurants and bars that show the games to watch the action and competitive revelry unfold. As in years before, many restaurant and bar operators will look to drive as much revenue as possible during the month-long, 67-game tourney tipping off on March 19.

To accomplish this, bars and restaurants showing the games might think about how to attract March Madness guests who want to view the games in a public setting—and preferably in larger groups, which often drives more sales. For instance, Toast’s Q4 2023 Restaurant Trends Report found that $162 was the average ticket size for parties of eight or more, a slight increase year over year.1 With that in mind, here are four tactics for garnering bigger and more engaged March Madness crowds.


Tap local alumni groups
If your establishment doesn’t already represent a designated college team, there is an opportunity to provide alumni groups with a place to root for their school together. Forming a relationship with alumni chapters can make your establishment their “watch party bar,” which can help spread brand awareness through promotions of get-togethers in email newsletters and social media pages throughout NCAA basketball season and March Madness—not to mention college football in the fall. This sense of community and business networking opportunities can help inspire these gatherings, in addition to watching the games themselves.


For bars and restaurants, one consideration is that major markets often have multiple college basketball teams in the city limits. For instance, Philadelphia has Villanova, Temple, Penn, and Saint Joseph’s. Cincinnati bars have options across the city and state: Cincinnati U., Xavier, Ohio State, and Kent State. And large metro areas, such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston, will have alumni from local schools and dozens of colleges around the country.


With an alumni group or two on board, bars and restaurants should lean into school spirit and deck out the space with the school’s colors, logos, and other imagery on game days. Further, custom co-branded printed materials and signage can advertise the establishment’s connection to the alumni group during March Madness and throughout the year.

Extend Happy Hour for patrons with team spirit

There are nearly 70 universities in the tourney. So, there will be countless folks across the country who want to represent their school’s colors.

Tap into school pride and team spirit and encourage fans and alumni to wear their team’s gear throughout the tournament. Reward these hat, jacket, or jersey-donning enthusiasts with food and drink specials, and consider extending Happy Hour—exclusively for them—for a few hours or even making it an all-day weekend event during March Madness.

Consider having plenty of hard seltzer and whiskey for extended Happy Hour. According to Toast platform data from 2023, restaurant guests ordered 49% more whiskey during March Madness game days in 2023 compared to the average day outside the tournament. Hard seltzer saw a 45% increase on game days, followed by rum (+41%), vodka (+40%), tequila (+40%), beer (+34%), cider (+30%), gin (+25%), and wine (+22%).2


This is especially important on Sundays. Overall, according to Toast platform data from 2023, restaurant guests drank 23% more alcohol on Sunday game days during March Madness last year than the average Sunday in 2023 outside the tournament.


Create March Madness promotions and menu items

In addition to Happy Hours, themed promotions can make restaurant occasions feel more spirited, and likely why Buffalo Wild Wings, TGI Fridays, and Qdoba were among the fast-casual chains last year offering special March Madness entrees and deals. Buffalo Wild Wings is a marketing pack leader this time of year; in 2023, as reported by Restaurant Business, it introduced new sauces and offered its Blazin’ Rewards members the chance to get six free boneless wings if a March Madness game went into overtime.

Operators of all sizes should consider creating a March Madness-themed menu. Bars and restaurants can offer such fun and tasty items like the following:

  • Sweet 16-for-$16 wings,” entailing hot honey, pineapple-teriyaki, sweet chili sauces
  • “Final Four fries,” including regular fries, cheese fries, chili-cheese fries
  • Team-themed cocktail specials like half-off Boilermakers for Purdue fans or buy-one-get-one-free Big City Cats for Houston Cougar fans
  • Overtime Jello shots and nonalcoholic drinks—a free round for every game that goes into OT!

Lean into catering 

People will have watch parties at home and need food and drinks to satisfy attendees, so operators can offer mini-catering packages that feed roughly 5 to 20 attendees. Operators can think bigger about catering, too, offering large organizations hosting parties the ability to feed dozens of March Madness watchers.

Catering is becoming increasingly important to restaurants: According to a 2023 Toast survey of 847 restaurant decision-makers, 48% said it is a top priority for them in the coming months.3 Further, Toast’s Q4 2023 Restaurant Trends Report found that same-store catering transactions increased 71% in Q4 2023 compared to Q4 2022, and of that 71% increase, 30% came through online ordering, which launched in Q3 2023.1

Many restaurants have traditionally handled their catering and event orders through manual processes, including handwritten forms, or by relying on revenue reporting across multiple systems. With modern tech, restaurants can streamline operations, accessing updates and comprehensive reporting for event orders and all other service lines.


Build awareness on social media

March Madness games routinely go into overtime due to iconic buzzer-beaters that are perfect for social media engagement. In today’s social media age, bars and restaurants should utilize their Facebook, Instagram, X, and TikTok to promote March Madness and create awareness around menu specials and the establishments’ spirited atmosphere.


During the action, bars and restaurants can post videos and pictures of patrons watching and enjoying the hardcourt hoopla on the big screens, with guest permission, of course. Their social followers will see the fun in their feeds and then be inclined to join the action in person—March Madness is infectious!

All told, March Madness offers operators an unusually long window of a full month to engage with riveted sports fans. The four tactics above may help drive revenues in 2024 and help set the stage for success via other sports-cultural flashpoints, such as the Paris Olympics this summer, the next football season, and other moments that drive hungry fans by the thousands into bars and restaurants.

Julie Gregg is Director, Market Insights and Competitive Intelligence at Toast.