LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Forget about which Super Bowl XL team to root for. The biggest game-day decision for many armchair quarterbacks is deep dish or thin crust.
On a day when pigskin partying hits its peak, Super Bowl Sunday has become a bonanza for the $37 billion pizza industry. Competition is intense, the pace frantic, both among the large chains and the neighborhood pizza joints that still make up a large part of the market.
"When the rush comes, you get a rush," said Bill Ferguson, a Papa John's franchisee executive in Florida who rolls up his sleeves on game day to cook pies. "Your adrenaline gets pumped up."
Munching pizza is as much a Super Bowl staple as the glitzy halftime show and pregame hype, ranking it as the busiest — or among the busiest — days of the year for pizza makers.
The National Restaurant Association estimates that about one out of seven Americans order takeout or delivery food from a restaurant for Super Bowl gatherings at home. Fifty-eight percent order pizza, 50 percent request chicken wings and 20 percent choose subs or sandwiches, it said. Another one in 20 Americans watch the game at restaurants or bars.
"Super Bowl is a huge day for our business," said Papa John's president and chief executive officer Nigel Travis.
Some pizza makers time menu introductions around the Super Bowl.
"Pizza Hut always goes big for the big game with a new product launch," said Tom James, chief marketing officer for the nation's largest pizza chain.
This year, Pizza Hut rolled out Cheesy Bites Pizza, featuring cheese-filled bites that form the perimeter of a large pizza. The chain is pitching the new product with pre-kickoff Super Bowl ads featuring singer Jessica Simpson.
Papa John's has been promoting its online ordering, which enabled football fans to post pizza orders days or even weeks before the big game.
"That lets them get one part of their party planning out of the way," Papa John's spokesman Chris Sternberg said.
Louisville-based Papa John's International expects to sell more than 600,000 pizzas on game day at its 2,600 U.S. restaurants, Sternberg said. It's the chain's biggest day of the year, with sales up about 50 percent from a typical Sunday, he said.
Pizza deliverers log more miles — and more tips — on Super Bowl Sunday.
"The traffic is very light," said Dana Harville, spokeswoman for Domino's Pizza. "And people are feeling generous with tips," especially if their team is winning.
Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Domino's predicts sales of 1.5 million to 1.6 million pizzas at its 5,000 U.S. stores on game day, up 36 percent over a normal Sunday, she said.
For Domino's, it's one of the year's top sales days, along with Halloween, New Year's Eve, New Year's Day and Thanksgiving Eve, she said.
Pizza Hut, part of Louisville-based Yum Brands Inc., expects to sell millions of pizzas on game day — its busiest day of the year — at its nearly 6,600 U.S. restaurants.
For pizza makers, preparations start days before kickoff. Pizza restaurants beef up their game-day work force, and Domino's even enlists some former employees to help crank out pies.
"Everyone on the payroll is there on Super Bowl Sunday working," Harville said.
Domino's isn't offering a Super Bowl deal but has been pitching its offer of three medium pizzas with one topping each for $5 apiece.
"When you're expecting a crowd to come watch the game with you, that's a great way to give everybody a pizza of their choice," Harville said.
Pepperoni is typically the favorite topping, followed by sausage.
A lot depends on teamwork and execution to keep pace with demand, said Ferguson, who owns two Papa John's stores and is an area supervisor for a 49-store franchise in Florida.
"It can be crazy but a lot of fun," Ferguson said. "If the restaurant has not planned well or has some staffing woes, it can be treacherous. When it's executed well, it's one of the most fun nights we can have."
Pizza makers root for a close game because orders seem to mount, Harville said.
People's appetites especially drop off in the losing city of a lopsided score, she said.
Papa John's is trying to add to the suspense with its "Go Deep Challenge." If either team breaks the record for the longest touchdown pass in Super Bowl history, Papa John's will give a free large pan pepperoni pizza to anyone registering in advance on the company's Web site.
As of Tuesday, the online registrations for the contest totaled 189,023, he said.
And just like on the playing field after the game, there's plenty of celebrating in a pizza restaurant once all the orders have been filled.
"Everyone is hollering and high-fiving," Ferguson said.