The meat market just missed another holiday: March Madness.

The NCAA basketball tournament is the second of two big annual events for chicken wings. (The first is the Super Bowl.) Wing prices and production run in predictable cycles each year, ramping up for the NFL playoffs and championship game in early February, then again for college basketball’s frenzied tournament a month and a half later.

American consumers have relatively predictable patterns when it comes to meat consumption. They buy more in the spring and summer, experts note, so they can grill or entertain, or while they’re on vacation. Certain types of meats peak at different time of year: Think turkey on Thanksgiving or ham for Christmas.

But with society in lock down because of the novel coronavirus and the NCAA tournament canceled, that’s left a whole bunch of wings lying around, and now they’ve flooded the market. Ergo, we have a giant national surplus of chicken wings.

“That is fact,” said Will Sawyer, lead animal protein economist at CoBank. “That is real.”

Wings, the most expensive part of the bird, haven’t been this cheap since September 2011, according to U.S. Agriculture Department data. They sold for close to $2 per pound the weekend of the Super Bowl. Now, they sell for half of that.

Poultry producers sold 1.24 million pounds of wings the week the tournament was supposed to start. Last week, they sold 433,000 pounds.

Flapping chicken wing prices -- Chicken wing prices normally get an annual boost in March and April because of the NCAA basketball tournament. But with the event canceled this year because of coronavirus, wings are suddenly really cheap.
2020 weekly chicken wing sales -- Chicken wing sales ramp up in cycles to prepare for major sporting events. But where the NCAA tournament should have provided demand for wings to keep sales high, when the tournament was canceled, demand almost instantly tanked.

“Those are millions of pounds of wings that people don’t eat,” said Erik Oosterwijk, president of Fells Point Wholesale Meats in Baltimore. “And if [coronavirus] happened in January and February, it would have been the Super Bowl that got hit. There’s no doubt there’s a lot of food out there today.”

“The major wing chains that should be hot this time of year are closed,” Sawyer added. “The food service side of things, they probably still have wings they bought weeks ago getting ready for March Madness and for people to come watch the games, but they’re not selling them.”

So how’d all this happen?

Selling chicken isn’t like selling any other commodity: The supply chain that connects farmers to meatpackers to restaurants or consumers is governed by biology, in addition to consumer demand. A hen lays an egg and the countdown begins. There’s only so much time before a chick emerges, then grows into a bird ready for harvest.

The whole process takes close to 10 weeks, Oosterwijk said. Processors can’t let chickens grow much bigger, because then they’re too large to harvest efficiently. Meanwhile, hens keep laying eggs.

Public health orders to slow the spread of covid-19 crashed down so quickly that consumers flocked to stores and filled their carts with protein. Chicken saw a 35-percent bump in demand, Sawyer said. But with most restaurants shuttered save for carryout orders, people are mainly eating out of their refrigerators instead of dining out. And most consumers don’t cook wings; they cook healthier and meatier cuts like breasts, tenderloins and legs.

All that means a few things:

  • The restaurants that would serve wings aren’t doing as brisk of a business.
  • They’re not placing orders for wings from vendors, even though vendors’ supplies keep growing.
  • The small share of wings sold at grocery stores are sitting on the shelves, or are being purchased as a meat of last resort.

“All the stocking up the consumers did in March, that’s over,” Sawyer said, “and prices for the industry are at or even a little below break-even.”

And remember, this is all because a basketball tournament got called off.

“The basketball, it’s for real,” Oosterwijk said. “The basketball didn’t happen. People are not going to restaurants and there’s a lot of excess.”

The chicken industry has a couple options to control supply, Sawyer said, but none that can snap into place fast enough to keep pace with volatile demand. Producers can cull the number of eggs they allow to hatch, in essence destroying inventory before it reaches the market, or they can feed the chickens less food so they grow at a slower pace.

They can also close processing and packing plants, which serves the dual purpose of keeping workers safe at home and reducing supply.

Tom Super, a spokesman for the National Chicken Council, wrote in an email that suppliers were also trying to divert food, including wings, from restaurants to grocers. Other wings will be frozen.

Oosterwijk said he expects those items to be back on the market in around six months, during the middle of football season.