A very different Super Bowl this year for sports bars

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Just days before Super Bowl LV, sports bar owners should be gearing up for what is typically their busiest day of the year. Not this year. With the coronavirus pandemic still disrupting sporting events, owners like Travis Davidson say they’re not expecting a full house for the big game on Sunday.

“We will be open, but we don’t expect the crowds we’ve had in the past,” said Davidson, who owns Treys Bar & Grill in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “We know that people are going to stay home this year.”

Sports bar owners say the public health crisis has scared away virtually all their customers over the past 10 months. The combination of cancelled or postponed games and mandates forcing restaurants to temporarily close has torpedoed their profits, bar owners told CBS MoneyWatch.Dr. Anthony Fauci on Wednesday said Americans should watch the Super Bowl from home, delivering yet another blow to sports bars. 

Still, owners expressed optimism about 2021 and have chosen to open for the big game, not out of any expectation of making mad money, but to keep alive the tradition of watching sports with friends old and new.

Although Treys Bar & Grill will be open for Super Bowl Sunday, owner Travis Davidson, pictured alongside head bartender Keyla Rivas, doesn’t expect a huge crowd this year. courtesy of Travis Davidson

At Treys, tables will be six feet apart, with hand sanitizer atop each one. Masks will be required. Even with those health and safety protocols in place, owner Davidson, 31, said he knows he won’t make anywhere close to as much money as he would during a typical Super Bowl. 

“We hope to make half,” Davidson said. “If we could make half of it, that would be a win.” 

Small bars getting “crushed”

Amid service restrictions and the reluctance of customers to congregate indoors, chain restaurants such as Buffalo Wild Wings have partnered with Uber Eats to start delivering orders and keep its restaurants afloat. But smaller bars have had a harder time pivoting, one restaurant expert said. 

“Those independent operators, the mom-and-pops, are the ones getting absolutely crushed right now,” said David Henkes, senior principal at food service industry consulting firm Technomic.

There were roughly 95,000 sports bars and grills in the U.S. at the end of 2019, but that figure dropped to 66,000 by the end of 2020, according to a Technomic estimate. Local favorites, such as Jake’s Restaurant & Bar in Flemington, New Jersey, McGreevy’s in Boston and Foley’s in New York City — known for its collection of Irish American baseball memorabilia that included 3,500 autographed balls, jerseys and even a stadium seat that hung from the ceiling — have all permanently closed their doors due to the pandemic.

Overall, more than 110,000 restaurants closed for good as of December 2020, according to the National Restaurant Association. The restaurant industry saw its workforce fall by 2.5 million and sales drop by $240 billion last year, the association said. 

“If I break even, I’m happy”

Kevin Burkel, who owns Burkel’s One Block Over in Green Bay, Wisconsin, estimated he’s losing about $800,000 this year from the combination of COVID-19 and the hometown Green Bay Packers not making it to the Super Bowl. That won’t stop Burkel from opening on Sunday with his usual staff — and usual half-priced drinks. 

“Prior to coronavirus, my business was flourishing greater than it ever has in 39 years,” said Burkel, 56. “Now I’m just looking at this as a regular Sunday day of business.”

Bar owners like Burkel are unlikely see their revenue return to pre-pandemic levels for several years, Henkes predicted. Sales could rise during the second half of 2021, but that depends on how quickly the U.S. can reach herd immunity through COVID-9 vaccines and how soon the economy recovers, he said. 

Jeffrey Jones, who owns Lucky’s Hole in the Wall in Lansing, Michigan, said he isn’t concerned about surviving in the short term. His bar, affectionately known as the “‘Cheers’ of Lansing,” attracts mostly a retiree crowd, Jones said, along with a smattering of college students.

145432485-713673472658529-7104868489978324771-n.jpg Lansing, Michigan, resident Jeffrey Jones, 64, owner of Lucky’s Hole in the Wall in Lansing, Michigan, will open his bar for this year’s Super Bowl but cap capacity at 25.  Courtesy of Jeffrey Jones

Jones said he will cap Lucky’s capacity at 25 customers on Sunday and place three large tables, with four patrons each, in the dining area that are wide enough to space out for social distancing. Jones, 64, said he plans to open his bar solely because his regulars are antsy to leave their homes and have faith they won’t catch COVID-19 at Lucky’s.

“Once the utilities and products I bought are paid up, there’s no money in it for me,” Jones said about this year’s Super Bowl. “It’ll be more social. If I break even, I’m happy.”

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