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Marketing Brand Strategy NCAA

Outback Steakhouse’s sane strategy for March Madness: NIL partnerships and NFTs

By Max Simpson | Freelancer

February 16, 2022 | 7 min read

Outback Steakhouse has a lot on its plate these days. The Aussie-inspired restaurant is serving up a forward-thinking marketing campaign ahead of March Madness season. The newest program activates a host of college basketball athletes across a multi-platform campaign. Adding to its Outback TeamMATES program, the brand leveraged recent NIL policy to partner with a host of prominent basketball stars from across the country.


Outback goes local with its college marketing play

The sports world is shifting gears with March Madness nearly upon us. To build on the excitement, Outback Steakhouse has debuted a multi-faceted program to strategically align itself with nationally-acclaimed athletic powerhouses and emerging programs.

At the core are 12 college athletes who signed agreements that wouldn’t have been allowed before the new Name, Image, Likeness (NIL) policy, which allows college players to sign endorsement deals.

The Outback TeamMATES college basketball class of 2022 includes the following athletes:

  • Duke University – Trevor Keels and Lexi Gordon

  • University of North Carolina – Caleb Love and Deja Kelly

  • University of Michigan – Hunter Dickinson and Naz Hillmon

  • University of Maryland – Julian Reese and Angel Reese

  • Villanova University – Collin Gillespie and Maddy Siegrist

  • Arizona State University – Marcus Bagley and Jade Loville

Each student-athlete will have their favorite Outback Steakhouse bundle meals available exclusively on Outback’s online ordering platforms. Chief marketing officer Danielle Vona notes the TeamMATES program also touches on different market opportunities for the brand.

“The athletes that we’ve tapped for this program give us great oversight throughout the country,” says Vona. “These athletes have strong national reach while being incredibly active in their own communities. They’re also helping us reach new audiences. For example, Arizona State is one of our franchise markets. It’s the first time we’ve rolled out this program within that framework.”

The brand’s NIL program is a favorite for both fans and athletes alike. This year’s class saw over 200 athletes from across the country and from different sports pitch to be an Outback TeamMATE. Many of the applicants drew a special connection with the brand as they grew up enjoying their favorite grub or worked at Outback during high school. With such a wide range of backgrounds including lacrosse and swimming, among others, applicants were separated into different tiers that helped to determine if they were a good fit for the program. Though the twelve college basketball student-athletes were highlighted in this campaign, many other student-athletes were accepted into the open call application, receiving Outback Steakhouse gift cards and official TeamMATES merchandise.

Leveraging local sports appeal

Working in hand with Excel Sports Management, the pool of candidates were weighted on two overarching categories: their geographic location and their persona.

“One of the main factors we looked at was the schools that these athletes were representing,” says Vona. “We asked ourselves, ‘Does it align with the market? Are we looking to grow within these regions?’ The second area we evaluated was the individual athletes. We analyzed their social audience, the sentiment they generated online and how people in the community feel about them as a student-athlete.”

The program is an omnichannel strategy where all elements continue to play off one another. Elements are as present on-location in restaurants as they are online. TeamMATES add an experiential element to this campaign as they document themselves going into Outback locations and highlighting the partnership on their social channels. In turn, the brand engages with the student-athletes, creating a dialogue for opportunistic fans. The brand also aligns on the philanthropy initiative as a portion of proceeds from each order of the TeamMATES’ bundle meals will be donated to the American Cancer Society through Outback’s partnership with Coaches vs. Cancer. The charity partnership hits on a core value for the brand while benefiting a charity that resonates well with a college basketball audience.

With the basketball class announced, Outback will continue to build on the TeamMATES program throughout the year. The deadline for spring sport applicants is March 4 2022. The brand is expecting to accept an initial wave of nearly 100 student-athletes.

An additional layer of the NIL program is the launch of the ‘Outback Hoop Dreams SweepSTAKES.’ Launched on February 7, the campaign will be an extension of the brand’s digital channel and TeamMATES program. The national promotion will award one fan a grand prize of $10,000 toward a fan cave home renovation in theme with this year’s March Madness. A runner-up will be awarded a trip to New Orleans including flights, accommodation and tickets to the National Championship game. The winner and runner-up will be announced in mid-March.

“We are at the tip of the iceberg for this type of program and these activations,” says Vona. “We can continue to work into different seasons of the college calendar. It’s going to continue to evolve and keep everything fresh.”

College basketball is the latest edition of Outback’s involvement within the sports marketing realm. In October 2021, Outback launched the first edition of their TeamMATES program featuring seven prominent college football players taking part. Like in this most recent edition, charity was a key component as meals were donated to military families in need through Operation Homefront.

Within their forays into NIL utilization and tapping into college sports, the brand is consistently evaluating how they are measuring and tracking success. While all of the featured athletes have some level of national presence, the brand prides itself on being exceptionally active on the local level. Key metrics are analyzed including engagement levels, earned media and the hyper-local impact on regional business. Yet the needle consistently moves by speaking from the heart.

“If we connect with others on their passion, the business will come,” says Vona.

Upping its digital mojo with NFTs

The brand will continue to progress its marketing strategy forward. A new wave of TeamMATES will bring another layer to connect with a variety of college athletics fans. The brand is exploring tying in NFTs within their current marketing portfolio. The ever-popular Outback Bowl garners big-name appeal, and consistent advertising on ESPN will keep the brand firmly in the public eye. The brand even figured out a way to honor the late John Madden, a proud representative of Outback within its memorable commercials, after his passing.

Outback will continue to be in those spaces when it makes sense. The brand is bullish on the intimacy that the digital spaces can provide. “What’s beautiful to me is that this program and what we do within sports marketing connects so tightly to our audience,” says Vona. “We remain relevant within the communities that we’re in and it’s fascinating to see all of the different parts and programs working together. It generates a lot of positive mojo for what we do.”

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