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With return of sports still a ways off, sports bars act to pivot as reopening begins

As reopening begins, sports bars must still deal with another obstacle when it comes to drawing in customers — the lack of sports.
As reopening begins, sports bars must still deal with another obstacle when it comes to drawing in customers — the lack of sports. (By Matthew Cole - The Capital, Capital Gazette)

Greene Turtle CEO Geo Concepcion said the business first felt a hit when they lost March Madness.

The three-week slate of college basketball playoffs generates 15 to 20 percent more revenue than normal for sports bars. Losing that draw to bring in patrons would have hurt, regardless of whether the bars themselves were ordered to shut down.

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And as restaurants and bars reopen for outdoor dining following Gov. Larry Hogan’s lifted restrictions last Friday evening, those sports bars don’t have as much room to revel in that regained freedom. For them, the biggest draw to their business is still very much missing.

Looney’s Pub in Howard County normally seats about 400. General manager Sherry DeRose knows she wouldn’t fill them without sports to show, regardless of how much capacity she’s allowed to fill right now and in future phases of reopening.

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“We’re about 90 percent down [when there’s no sports]," DeRose said. "We’re a huge sports bar.”

Technically, it would be a misnomer to say all sports are a long way away from returning. Though the negotiations between MLB and its player association are very much public, baseball is currently no closer to a return than it was two months ago. The NBA and NHL aim to return in late July at the earliest. The re-arrival of women’s basketball’s season, which typically runs from May to October, is still a big question mark.

But lesser discussed sports have made their return. NASCAR and the Germany’s top soccer league, the Bundesliga, returned to television in mid-May. Horse racing resumed at Laurel Park over the weekend. Worldwide Wrestling Entertainment continued production despite the coronavirus pandemic.

They’ll all serve a purpose for sports bar owners. At least the question of what to put on TV will have an answer.

“There’s sports now coming along. It might not be everybody’s choice, but it’s something to watch,” said Steve Leonard, a partner for West End Sports Bar and Grill in Annapolis.

Major sports, like basketball, hockey and football are still bar owners’ biggest attractions. With the reality that those sports may not return for some time still looming, sports bar owners and managers know they must get creative.

They’ve taken steps that other restaurants have done during pandemic closures. For Looney’s Pub, that means drink and food specials, Corona buckets with the Orioles logo. DeRose said distributors and representatives have been quick and cooperative in providing Looney’s with new Orioles umbrellas, and Anheuser-Busch will come soon to supply its accouterments for football season.

“That’s what people love and look for. Today we had $10 crabcakes on a Friday, and it killed it. Best special we had,” DeRose said.

For West End, which has operated since 2006, carryout has just done enough to keep its lights on. Leonard said management cut a portion of its staff but made an effort to keep on more of his workers than needed for normal tasks. He’s deployed them to other areas, such as making some improvements to the interior so that when West End is allowed to open to indoor seating again, it’ll look a little fresher and new.

“We find that even when sports are not a prevalent part of the season, we still have a pretty loyal group of folks that like to come in and be part of that West End culture," Leonard said. “Without actual sports games on, individuals will come in and share that experience of being at a place that has some sentimental attachment to them.”

At the same time, it’s an undeniable factor that there are simply more people who go to sports bars when there’s a game to watch — more than just the regulars.

To keep that kind of volume, sports bar owners are considering options that go beyond sports.

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Ravens fans Rein Short and Colby Buss celebrate a Ravens touchdown during the second quarter of the AFC Championship game against the New England Patriots. The fans are gathered at The Greene Turtle in Edgewater.
Ravens fans Rein Short and Colby Buss celebrate a Ravens touchdown during the second quarter of the AFC Championship game against the New England Patriots. The fans are gathered at The Greene Turtle in Edgewater. (By Paul W. Gillespie - The Capital, Capital Gazette)

Concepcion, whose restaurants are scattered across the Baltimore region, is leaving that choice partially up to his customers. He’s considering options such as guests voting on which classic games to watch, as well as “stream-fests,” where patrons can also vote on which series or shows they’d like to watch at the bar all day. Concepcion said he’ll rely on broadcasting music videos to help keep customers’ energy up as well.

West End hopes to restart its weekly trivia nights, which includes its quarterly themed nights. In the past, it’s hosted Star Wars night, complete with lightsaber-adorned cocktails and character-shaped foods.

In February, the bar hosted an Annapolis-based Irish band Dublin 5 to a packed house.

“We had a lot of fun. We saw that providing music was successful, and we want to continue doing that. ... We think providing music on the weekends will be a good step for us, and we’ve heard positive comments from our patrons and musicians in the area interested in playing there,” Leonard said.

But coming up with the logistics of alternative entertainment is easier designed than done.

Gov. Hogan’s announcement that establishments could reopen for outdoor dining came on May 27, just 48 hours before Leonard and other bar owners could reopen again. That kind of short notice makes getting creative on the fly difficult, Leonard said. There’s barely enough time to simply comply with the state’s requirements, such as printing out disposable menus, let alone to do anything to drum up sports-less business.

“I would have liked more than two days notice. When we can do inside seating, we’re curious. We hear but we haven’t seen any regulations. Many, many weeks ago the governor said ‘significant safety restrictions’ for restaurants opening. Well, what exactly does that mean?” Leonard said.

Generally, the worst hardships for sports bars may still be yet to come. Summer is usually one of the quieter times for sports anyway, with MLB, WNBA, MLS and NWSL seasons, generally in play.

“Most of the dining rooms can only operate at a fraction of capacity," Concepcion said. “What that means is that it’s going to balance out a little bit because the capacity’s going to be constrained.”

Compare summer’s typical sports offerings to the fall and winter, which boasts not only those sports’ playoffs, but also college football, pro men’s basketball, pro men’s and women’s hockey, college basketball. This year, as of now, that will also include the Triple Crown.

And the NFL.

“We know people are definitely scurrying to get back in here and see hopefully when the NFL will kick off,” DeRose said.

The NFL seasons brings sports bars the most revenue. A delayed or canceled NFL season would prove impactful. At West End, its dozen or so televisions are devoted to every single pro football game available.

That could be a problem for down the road, Concepcion said.

“If we are in a place where we get later in the year, September, October time-frame, and the dining rooms are open but sports are not going, that’s when we’ll need to be really creative with what we do there,” he said.

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