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Detroit — During its March Madness promotion Monday, Little Caesars estimates more than 1 million free lunch combos were served nationwide. 

The promotion "If Crazy Happens" was announced on March 16, when No. 16 seed University of Maryland-Baltimore County upset No. 1 Seed University of Virginia in the first round. 

The Detroit pizza chain said it was too early for a full count, but nearly all of its 4,300 U.S. stores participated. 

"It's too early for an exact count, but I can say that we served at least a million free Lunch Combos yesterday," said Jill Proctor, Little Caesars corporate communications manager.

Franchises across Metro Detroit reported long lines of pizza lovers showing up for four free pizza slices and 20-ounce soda (“a $5 value”) promised if a Number 16 team beat a Number One in the basketball tourney. 

Not surprisingly, the free pizza pitch worked well throughout the nation, said Proctor.

Little Caesars was founded in 1959. Now, it is the largest carry-out pizza chain in the U.S. and third largest pizza chain in the world. 

Proctor said she did not have information on how much the company spent on the marketing giveaway.

Little Caesars isn’t losing its shirt over the giveaway, Proctor said. “This was a planned expense. We are considering it a gesture of goodwill that we prepared for,” she said.

Company officials wouldn’t say how much all those free Hot-N-Ready Combo will cost. But the advertising payoff for the brand is big, said Michael Bernacchi, a professor of marketing at University of Detroit Mercy.

“This is a one-time deal, but, the payoff in all the press coverage, the amount of social media reaction, that’s enormous benefit for the brand and it’s something that they believe will keep generating positive feeling toward the brand for a long time,” Bernacchi said.

There was a steady line of 40 or more people at a Little Caesars store on E. Warren, just east of the Wayne State University campus, between 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Those with the biggest smiles had orange boxes of pizza.

“This is great, I love Little Caesars (pizza) and the price is definitely right,” said Eric Ferguson, 28, of Detroit, who plans to watch the championship final between Michigan and Villanova on TV Monday — rooting for Michigan of course.

When asked who he was a fan of, Ferguson’s buddy, Jerry Donald, 32, held up his pizza box and with a giddy laugh, said: “I’m a fan of free.”

The stream of customers to the pizzeria – wedged between two restaurants and a nail salon – was orderly and people seemed generally in good spirits. Occupants of a nearby restaurant – either customers or workers – also slipped into line for the giveaway. Most said their time in line was under 15 minutes. Some didn’t know there was a ball game tonight but when told Michigan was playing, they overwhelmingly picked the Wolverines to win by between five and 15 points.

Al “Ace” Buress, leaned his bicycle and a large bag of returnable bottles and cans alongside a “No Parking” signpost and got in line. Buress, sporting a gold “M” ball cap and jersey, confessed he went to Michigan State but “anytime Michigan is in it, I’m with them.”

Jacob Sowles of Rochester Hills admitted he was “not a fan of sports.” But likes pizza.

“I didn’t even know this was going on today,” said Sowles, a pizza box in one hand, a lime soda in the other. “I forgot my lunch and came by here to buy lunch. A good day to forget your lunch at home, I guess.”

When asked how many people received free pizza Monday from the store, a harried worker snapped: “We don’t give out that kind of information.”

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