March (pizza) Madness
What is it about sporting events and pizza? Ride along with delivery person Tina Lance.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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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.