March (pizza) Madness

What is it about sporting events and pizza? Ride along with delivery person Tina Lance.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

A white pickup truck hurtles with urgency down Wilshire Boulevard. Gripping the wheel is Tina Lance, a brown-haired, 20-something with a winning smile and a mission that, in the course of the afternoon, will cause her to quote Jean-Paul Sartre, Emily Dickinson, and the immortal baseball poem "Casey at the Bat."

She turns around at the next intersection and stops in front of an apartment building. She grabs her precious cargo and hurries into the building. Part intuition, part adrenaline, she swiftly finds her target, and within moments, has completed her mission – delivered a Sicilian pepperoni pizza to customer Matt Flores.

It is 20 minutes before the start of the game – the semifinals of the NCAA Division I basketball tournament, and Ms. Lance has just participated in one of the more lucrative exchanges in the national nexus between food and sports. We're talking "March Madness" and pizza. Millions of pizzas, actually. Acres of anchovies. Silos of sausage.

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Pick your metaphor: If the topping goes on pizza, Americans consume it. Especially during the three-week March Madness run, a time when millions of Americans, mostly men but increasingly women, sit on their couches and watch endless basketball games, hardly moving except to answer the door when a Tina Lance knocks.

All of which raises fundamental questions. What is it about pizza and athletic events? For that matter, what is it about college basketball? And are tomatoes really a fruit or a vegetable?

More on that later. First some numbers. During the few short weeks of the college basketball tournament, food industry sources say Americans consume:

•52 million slices of pizza, with pepperoni being among the most popular (13 million slices).

•More than 100 acres of pizza a day, which, for you ecofriendly types, is about the same amount of rain forest that disappears in Brazil every hour.

•Enough pizza during the 19-day tournament to cover nearly 1 million basketball courts, laid rounded edge to rounded edge. Don't try to dribble on the black olives, though. They create funny bounces.

Pizza is "flexible and portable," says Lynne Olver, editor of foodtimeline.com. "It fits into the American culinary mantra better than just about any food."

• • •

Yet pizza is hardly an American food. According to Ms. Olver and others, forerunners of the food date back at least to third-century Macedonia and probably to the Stone Age campfires of Neolithic tribes. Takeout would have to await the invention of the wheel, and the pizza we know today required the introduction of the tomato.

Olver credits Spanish and Portuguese explorers who journeyed to Mesoamerica in the 17th century for combining New World ingredients – notably, the tomato – with Old World traditions to create something that would be recognizable as a pizza today. (The tomato, incidentally, is a fruit, but it was classified as a vegetable by no less of an eminence than the US Supreme Court in 1893 in order to protect domestic growers.)

Pizza caught on in the United States after World War II, when soldiers returned from Europe with an appetite for it. Today more than 60,000 establishments make the doughy discs.

"Durable," is how Peter Dunay, financial analyst for Meridian Equity Partners describes it. So what if that term could be used to describe off-road vehicles. "You can heat a slice up five hours later," he says. "You don't want to do that with a hot dog or a hamburger."

"It's the ultimate couch potato food," adds Olver.

Which brings us to the NCAA basketball tournament. This, too, has swelled in popularity in recent decades. For the final game alone tonight – between Kansas and Memphis – some 40 million people are expected to tune in. Three million others have watched the tournament online – double the number from last year. Perhaps most telling, the cost of a TV ad for the final game is now the highest of any event other than the Super Bowl.

Oh, how times have changed. When the games were first staged in 1939, the event lost money. Today, both "Final Four" and "March Madness" are trademarked terms. TV ad revenues for the tournament will top $550 million.

Not surprisingly, the sponsors buying these commercials are some of the biggest names in American capitalism, such as Coca-Cola and Chrysler. But don't forget the pizzamakers. Papa John's is the official "delivery" pizza of the NCAA games, which may make its pies sound like a UPS product but also, presumably, makes the company a lot of money. In the last three days of the tournament, Papa John's was expected to sell 50,000 additional pizzas.

This year the firm created a website especially for March Madness (papaspanfan.com), where people can order pizza online – 20% of their business now comes through the Internet. Fans can also submit photos they shot of the games, which may be posted on the site. Photos are chosen by a "celebrity" panel that includes the company's mascot, Mr. Slice.

Wanting to get in the spirit of the tournament, I requested an interview with Mr. Slice. In the e-mail declining my request, I was told he is a character that doesn't speak. The company was, however, able to capture some "quotes" from him, including the text number for ordering pizza.

• • •

Big chains aren't the only ones who sell an abundance of slices during the tournament. So do a lot of mom and pop shops, such as Lamonica's New York Pizza, the one that employs Tina Lance. It is located in Westwood, the Los Angeles enclave that includes the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), whose team was playing in the semifinals Saturday.

Owner John Lamonica was expecting to sell 20 to 25 percent more pizza on this day. That would add up to 300 to 400 pounds of cheese going out the door in one business shift.

Lance is working at Lamonica's to help put herself through college. She's an English major at California State University Northridge. Even though the delivery culture can be difficult, she enjoys working at the pizzeria. It's a family shop, literally and figuratively. It is managed by twin brothers Juan and Vidal Marquez. Three of their sons work there. Lance is one of the only nonrelatives, though they make her feel like part of the brotherhood.

Besides, she occasionally gets to use what she's learning in lit class on the job. After one particularly bad night recently, she left her boss a note – "Hell is other people" – a quote from Sartre.

The next day, Mr. Lamonica called her over. "I didn't know Sartre was in food service," he said. She likes to recite Dickinson, too.

Though Lance isn't a big basketball fan, she knows today will be a frenetic day at work – which means more tips.

By the end of her shift, though, the local team, UCLA, has been beaten badly. She recites a few lines from one of her mother's favorite poems, "Casey at the Bat," about there being no joy in Mudville.

Elsewhere in Westwood, a gloom has set in as well. Yet the pizza orders continue to come in. Juan Marquez, manager of Lamonica's, drives one out to a nearby student dorm. He walks past a warren of rooms, every third one looking like the site of a college hoops party. When he reaches the right door, a young man takes the pizza dejectedly. "Why order a pizza?" I ask.

"I gotta do something to feel better," he says.

In that moment, I realize, there's one more way pizza serves the sports enthusiast, if not all humankind. It's a form of comfort food – therapy in a disc. Win or lose, there's always pizza.

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