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Game over? Sports bars face long-term slump without live contests

‘Normal’ for sports bars will return a lot later than for other types of establishments

Like many sports bars around the country, RJ's in suburban Detroit sits empty and faces long-term uncertainty with sports sidelined by the coronavirus pandemic. Contributed photo
Like many sports bars around the country, RJ's in suburban Detroit sits empty and faces long-term uncertainty with sports sidelined by the coronavirus pandemic. Contributed photo (RJ's Sports Bar and Grill)

It’s a double-edged sword right now for owners of sports bars around the country, but it’s hard to tell which side of the sword is more piercing and damaging.

The short-term prognosis is bleak, with most states mandating that restaurants shut down their dining rooms and be limited to carryout services due to the coronavirus pandemic.

But the long term-prognosis might be worse because of one question: What will sports bars and restaurants do without games or events for the foreseeable future?


March sadness for accounting books

Just like other sports bar employees across the country, Russell Luxton was counting down the days until March.

The games from the thrilling basketball conference tournaments and NCAA Tournament -- which are normally on just about every day during the month -- send people flocking to sports bars to partake in the excitement.

But in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments were both canceled, leaving fans somber and sports bar employees despondent over the amount of money that was about to be lost.

Luxton, the general manager of RJ’s Pub in Rochester Hills, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, said the hours in March between all sports leagues shutting down and the official mandate from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to cease dining room operations a short time later, were eerie for customers.

“It was weird because there was nothing to watch,” Luxton said. “There was a bunch of flashbacks of games.”

Luxton said the month of March usually brings an average increase in business of 5% to his sports bar, especially with Michigan and Michigan State having good runs in recent NCAA tournaments.

In the specific case of RJ’s and its Michigan location, the NCAA Tournament has provided excitement and opportunity that hasn’t been available at other times on the calendar, given the current poor state of the Detroit professional teams.

“We had a good five days of business (last year) because of the Spartans,” Luxton said.

What will the future hold?

Even when sports bars are allowed to resume dine-in services, there won’t be games returning alongside the opening of those establishments.

At the earliest, it could be July or August before a sports league resumes operations, whether it’s the NBA or NHL starting their playoffs, or Major League Baseball starting its season.

However, it’s becoming increasingly doubtful that those leagues will resume and play their seasons this year.

Summer events such as the Olympics in Japan, Wimbledon and the British Open have been canceled.

People usually don’t flock to sports bars to watch those events, but there is already a major concern about the major cash cow for such establishments: football. There are rumblings about whether college football and NFL games will be played this fall, and that might serve as the biggest financial hit of all.

Showing classic games on networks might be the best option to at least have something on TVs.

“The joke around town is to put some classic sports movies on,” Luxton said. “There’s nothing else we can really put on TV.”

Just as bad -- and maybe somewhat forgotten, with so much attention being placed on professional leagues and college sports -- youth sports are also on hold in what is usually an incredibly busy spring or summer season.

When those youth teams have games or practices in the evening, sports bars are usually popular destinations to go out to eat afterward.

“If there are no events going on, you’re basically going out just to get some food or drinks to just get out of the house,” Luxton said.

As is the case with so many businesses, restaurant owners around the country are simply hoping to open up again and have life return to normal as much as possible.

RJ’s, which celebrated its 30th anniversary late last year, will likely be OK because of its loyal customer base and carryout service that is still bringing in some revenue.

Luxton said ideas such as dart and Golden Tee tournaments have been floated about once RJ’s is ready to open again.


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