The recipe for filling Philly's Wells Fargo Center at 6 in the morning included beer and lots of chicken wings. (Courtesy Wells Fargo Center)
The infamous Wing Bowl is history after a 26-year run in Philadelphia, including the past 18 years at Wells Fargo Center, home of the Flyers and Sixers.
Angelo Cataldi, a local radio host and co-creator of the early morning chicken wing eating contest that became a Philly tradition, made the announcement Tuesday on his program on WIP-FM.
Cataldi and radio partner Al Morganti came up with the concept of Wing Bowl in 1993 to give Philadelphia Eagles fans something to look forward to on the Friday before Super Bowl weekend after the team fell short of winning an NFL title (though the Eagles did make it to the big game after the 2004 season, losing to the Patriots).
The Eagles won their first Super Bowl this year, however, and as a result, Cataldi told listeners, he felt the timing was right to end the event.
“It was a big event for the city and everybody looked at it as the kickoff to Super Bowl weekend,” said John Page, president of content for arenas and stadiums for Spectra, which is Comcast Spectacor’s facility management group and runs Wells Fargo Center. “The guys felt they couldn’t top it now that the Eagles are Super Bowl champs.”
“We never like to lose an event,” Page said. “We’ll go back to the drawing board. Entercom [which owns WIP-FM] is our radio partner, and we may create another event.”
But pulling something off on Feb. 1, when the Wing Bowl would have taken place next year, would be tricky. “We have a Sixers game scheduled that night and already have a changeover set for the next day’s Flyers game,” Page said.
Wing Bowl did not displace any events over the years. Crews sometimes worked overnight on Thursday to convert from hockey mode to the eating contest, before transitioning late Friday morning for a basketball game that night. It was no different than any other changeover. “It’s what we do,” Page said.
Looking back, for chicken wing lovers, football fans and those who appreciate a wacky publicity stunt, Wing Bowl provided high drama and plenty of laughs. In a broader sense, it helped open the door to new ideas for creating content that could help venues fill the dates not taken by sports events, concerts and family shows.
For Aramark, the arena’s concessionaire, it generated strong alcohol sales. Historically, the vendor sold about $250,000 worth of beer, wine and liquor, on par with an afternoon Flyers game, sources said.
Wing Bowl evolved from a small gathering in a downtown Philly hotel lobby to an arena full of 20,000 spectators cheering on their favorite contestants. The old Spectrum played host before the event moved to Wells Fargo Center in 2000. About 12 years ago, Wing Bowl grew to the point where it became a $10 ticketed event, with a portion of proceeds going to charities such as the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police Survivors Fund.
It became a big draw at the South Philly Sports Complex, attracting celebrities such as Dennis Rodman, Ric Flair and Jon Bon Jovi, plus politicians such as former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and the late Sen. Arlen Specter. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie made an appearance at the 2015 Wing Bowl, and was booed lustily after he was seen the year before sitting in Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’ suite at Lincoln Financial Field, cheering the Cowboys on against the Eagles.
The event also drew groups of exotic dancers to escort contestants to the arena floor as part of the competition. Add in some heavy breakfast-time drinking, and some were led to feel that Wing Bowl had run its course, according to some reports.
The event ran from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m., and per city restrictions, Aramark could not sell alcohol until 7 a.m. Wing Bowl aficionados were unfazed.
Over the years, local bars held pregame Wing Bowl parties, and after those establishments closed for the night at 2 a.m., the party would move to Wells Fargo Center, where fans waited for the parking lots to open at 4 a.m. The arena doors opened at 4:30.
But the city paid attention to the show. Apart from the political conventions held at Wells Fargo Center over the past 18 years, Wing Bowl was the only other event since the facility opened in 1996 where all four local major television affiliates broadcast live from the arena, said Ike Richman, a former spokesman for Comcast Spectacor.
“Only in Philly could you get 20,000 people to watch men and women eat wings at that time of the morning,” Richman said. “It was always kind of a knock on the Eagles (for not winning the Super Bowl), but it put that radio station on the map.”