‘Tis the season…
for weekend barroom warriors!
by Michael Sherer
THE STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS AND NBA FINALS have just ended, it seems, and Major League Baseball is about to mark mid-season with its All-Star Game. But for some sports fans, these events are harbingers, not of summer, but of the coming football season.
Baseball may or may not be America’s pastime, but when it comes to weekend barroom warriors, football is the main sports attraction. There’s no better way to rock the house on Saturday or Sunday than to make your operation a gathering place for fans to cheer on their teams. To make the most of the season, it pays to develop a game plan that will give fans reasons to select your establishment from among the dozens that offer football-related events.
The initial draw, of course, is the game itself. Whether the competitors are collegiate or professional, customers come to see their favorite teams battle it out. You don’t have to show every game, but you must show the ones most important to your customers. Few operations can go to the same lengths as Poor Billy’s in Woodbridge, NJ, where 23 different sporting events can be seen at one time on 120 different television screens. Often, a choice of a few games is sufficient, but that depends on your operation’s size, format and competition.
With today’s satellite technology, bars and restaurants can receive almost every game no matter where it’s played. Depending on what you want to show, the price can vary for rebroadcast rights. No package is right for everyone. In areas where the college game rules, professional packages may be too cost-prohibitive; in highly competitive restaurant cities where the college game is an after thought, sports bars may not be able to go without a pro package.
“We’re more of a college football town than pro. I don’t know if anyone in the city of Omaha turns a profit on professional packages, but we buy it because everybody else does,” said Russ Kelly, owner of Muldoon’s in Omaha.
Before deciding what to buy and what to promote, operators need to take a look at what the competition is doing and consider catering to an alternate audience, either by offering different games or rewarding customers for coming to your operation.
Making certain to match games and customers is the first step. Satellite guides such as Satellite Orbit and Satellite TV Week or sports information services such as “Sports Today” or “Sports Knowledge” provide listings of all available games. Once you decide which to put on, let your customers know. By each Wednesday, Coach’s in Charlotte, NC, posts a schedule in the bar and on its website of games planned for Sunday. Muldoon’s lists its 15 featured games on table tents set out by Tuesday.
Just as in dining and drinking habits, it’s important to know customer preferences in teams. Ask patrons as they enter about their favorite team and show them to the area of the bar where that game is being shown.
“I know almost everyone,” said Ski Altman, program director at Poor Billy’s. “I can seat them where they can see their game.”
FANNING THE FLAMES
Hosting fan or alumni clubs can be a great way to appeal to large groups of people who want a place to get together to watch games.
“There are a lot of expatriates here,” said Edmond Heelan, general manager of Charlotte’s Coach’s. “We pick teams whose games aren’t likely to be shown here on network and put together fan clubs for them. We’ll carry games for four or five teams like the Jets, Patriots or Packers throughout the season and set aside certain areas in the bar for fans. We hang up banners and put out team helmets as chip bowls.”
The same can be done for fans of college teams. At Friday’s Front Row Sports, Arlington, TX, you can find up to a dozen alumni groups hunkered down on Saturdays watching their alma maters at play. The restaurant provides these groups V.I.P. treatment, including special game-watching areas and such prizes as free appetizer cards, gift certificates or T-shirts.
“The clubs are easy to set up,” said general manager Jimmy Crowder. “I call colleges I’m interested in hosting and ask for the alumni association, who will put me in touch with the local chapter. We invite them in during the summer to show them what we can offer them during the football season.”
Local sports figures also can be a great draw. Some operations become known as THE place pro players hang out. Others work hard to connect with past and present players.
“We have a good relationship with teams and players,” said Bill Herman, director of sports marketing at Shula’s Steak 2, Miami Lakes, Fla. “We have a hotel and golf club here, too, so we can trade things like meals and even golf weekends for things from players like jerseys, helmets and so forth. We develop a quarterly promotion plan that includes negotiations with players for appearances.”
When the Packers do well, so do Don Shula (lower right) and Shula’s Steak 2 (center) with snowbirds visiting South Florida.
A number of operators around the country also sponsor radio or television shows hosted by local sportscasters, coaches and players. Don Shula did his own television show from the restaurant while still coaching the Miami Dolphins, and other coaches have had similar deals. At New York’s Park Avenue Cafe, the Monday evening post-mortem on WFAN draws players, coaches and fans. Champps Americana is negotiating with the Indianapolis Colts to do live broadcasts during games from the local Champps unit.
Even places that don’t operate as traditional sports bars take advantage of football’s broad appeal. Greg Moran, owner of the Blarney Stone in Scottsdale, AZ, is more likely to sponsor local rugby and soccer clubs, he knows football is a big draw. He’s negotiating with NBC Radio to do live broadcasts to Ireland before each Notre Dame game this fall.
BUILDING TEAM SPIRITS
Contests, raffles, games and other promotions also help generate excitement and can attract additional customers. At Muldoon’s, customers can pick winners from among the week’s college and pro match-ups listed on table tents. They get a point for each correct selection and each week’s high scorers win T-shirts, sweatshirts or other merchandise furnished by brewers or wholesalers. The customer with the most points accumulated during the season wins a trip to Las Vegas.
Champps units have for years offered “A Pool Without Water” to help build Monday night traffic. A gigantic grid lists the two teams playing on “Monday Night Football,” with 100 squares representing possible scores. Customers choose squares, and cash and merchandise are given away at the end of each quarter. “That type of promotion helps keep customers there, even if the game is a blowout at half-time,” said Kathryn Sotelo, director of marketing.
During the NFL Playoffs, Champps’ customers can enter a sweepstakes to win the “best seat in the house” during the Super Bowl–two recliners in front of a big-screen TV during the game, dedicated waitstaff and additional merchandise prizes. As the ultimate couch potato prize, winners get to keep the recliners.
Poor Billy’s raffles off two Miller Lite “Armchair Quarterback” awards each week–seats in a special part of the restaurant where customers can watch Monday Night Football. Each week a different manufacturer chips in merchandise and special prizes, like tickets to the following week’s Giants or Jets games.
The operation also offers customers a “season ticket,” a $5 VIP card that entitles them to half-price admission to special events and other privileges. That helps build traffic during weeknights when the restaurant has either live music or a deejay. Employees distribute “Come Join Me” cards that offer reduced admissions and free drinks. The employee who has the most cards redeemed at the end of each month gets a $50 bonus.
A number of operations also use interactive contests to draw fans. Coach’s and Front Row Sports both offer “QB-1,” an interactive computer game that lets customers play individually or as teams against other bars. Coach’s offers individual play, which gives customers bragging rights. Front Row keeps track of customers’ points and awards prizes.
Poor Billy’s and Muldoon’s have groups that come in to play in “fantasy leagues,” where customers draft teams of NFL players at the beginning of the season and track real-life statistics to see how their teams do.
Once customers are in the house, it can be a challenge to get them to spend more than they would for lunch or dinner, even though they are likely to fill the seats for a much longer time. Dale Wilson, managing partner of Trophy’s in San Diego, is philosophical about it.
“We don’t have to do any Herculean promotion work to sell product,” he said. “We’re a food-driven operation anyway. Campers for a three-hour event can be kind of a problem, but we do enough turns at other times that we aren’t losing money on them. We have to remind our people that one day won’t make or break them, and that if they kill their customers with kindness, they’ll come back another time.”
Others, though, have found that special deals can stimulate sales. Muldoon’s once gave away free drinks every time Nebraska scored, but as the team got better, that became too costly. Now servers carry “Big Red Shooters” in shooter belts sold during games at a discount. Poor Billy’s offers $1 shots after touchdowns during featured games.
Blarney Stone plans on opening for breakfast on Sundays, so customers can watch games from the East and will offer discounted Bloody Marys. Champps units usually feature local beers during games, and often partners with suppliers to put on a buffet during games.
Coach’s promotes other areas of the operation during football games, such as their video arcade, virtual reality golf and bass fishing simulators, pool tables and Ping-Pong tables. Parents drop their kids off at the arcade while they watch football, according to Heelan, and get back together at half-time.
Shula’s Steak 2 uses contests and raffles to promote food at other times of the week. In “Pick the Pros,” the customer who guesses the most winners from the NFL games gets dinner, free. On Saturday nights, the first 50 people who order dessert with an entree receive an autographed picture of a Dolphin player. The promotion helps raise check averages, according to Herman.
Promotions should be planned carefully and make sense for your operation’s image and profit potential.
“We develop a quarterly promotion plan and update it monthly,” said Herman. “We use what we call the ‘winning edge’ formula. We have a mission for each event, which is to create raving fans, then develop a strategy, action plan, specific tactics and measurement criteria. When a promotion is over, we compare revenue numbers to the prior year and evaluate how we can do things better.”
To make football work as a draw for your customers, the whole operation needs to be involved.
“Everybody sells Bacardi and Bud,” said Kelly. “You have to have something different the guy down the street doesn’t have. Promotions are a part of that. You can’t just subscribe to a college or pro football package and expect people to storm the doors. The staff has to be part of the package. They have to know what games are on and what we have to offer customers.”
Just as in the NFL, the competition in sports-oriented bars is fierce. Operations that plan ahead, anticipate trends, prepare for trouble and out-think their competitors will succeed. It may not get you a Super Bowl ring, but you’ll feel like a winner.