They Got Game


By Michael Malone (Restaurant Business, 9/1/2004)

Today's newest traffic builder is ...hurling?

AUSTIN WHITE, owner of McCormack's, a pub and restaurant in New York, has seen his place empty and he's seen it crowded. Today, it's utterly packed. Some 150 customers are tucking into a $10 meal and a $5 pint or two and this is after they've paid $20 a head at the front door. Fifty more people are waiting in line outside, while another 50 have given up altogether and are heading back to bed.

Because it's not yet 9 a.m.

What's White's secret? He's one of a growing lot of operators in big cities across the country who saw opportunity lurking in two seemingly unrelated facts: Lots of customers are sports fans, and there are six time zones between the eastern U.S. and mainland Europe. Because this Saturday morning, McCormack's is showing Ireland take on England in a rugby match, and the word has spread among the locals.

"Showing the games has really meant a lot to our business," says White, who opens at 8 in the morning, instead of 11, when the matches are on. "It means a full house at times when you're normally not busy."

He's not alone in that discovery. Others are using the same strategy and with a lot more than rugby. Soccer and even Irish hurling, they've found, all can be a boon to biz. Not only can showing overseas games energize a traditionally slow daypart (when kickoff is 2 p.m. in London, it's 9 a.m. in New York), but it can tap a whole new market as well.

In Chicago, operators of the pub/restaurant chain Fado estimate a 10% increase in sales, thanks to showing the games. They're so intent on being the bar of choice for the ex-pat sports crowd that they even broadcast the games with 6 a.m. (local time) starts.

What's more, they don't make a dime off them at least not directly. "We don't charge cover or serve food or alcohol for those," says GM Kieran Aherne. "But it's goodwill they'll come back here the next time."

While few cities can match the European transplants in New York and Chicago, operators in other locales mention the popularity of the games with the Hispanic community and, increasingly, everyone else too as soccer picks up in popularity Stateside.

"Five years ago. it was probably 95% ex-pats and 5% Americans," says Aherne. "But the ex-pats have exposed their American friends to it, and now it's closer to 70-30."

But televising games is not as simple as clicking on the remote and reeling in the cash. There's the dish setup, which may run #500, and a #250 monthly subscription fee with the feed-provider. And the provider typically keeps 100% of the door proceeds, or at least works out a significant flat fee with the restaurant. Then there's the issue of cleaning the restaurant in between closing time and an early kickoff, and staffing the odd hours as well. White says the extra shifts tax his staff particularly hard during the summer and the winter holidays. Aherne gives all prospective hires the heads-up that they could be waiting tables before sunrise, which tends to screen out reluctant workers. Still other operators worry about their guests who are not there for the match being disturbed by those who are.

Still, many say giving customers their soccer fix has given the bottom line a good kick. James Stephens, owner of the Dark Horse in Philadelphia, mentions having 300 "footie" supporters in on an otherwise sleepy Wednesday afternoon recently. "It's a nice sideline," he says, "that definitely helps income."

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