At the end of January, I visited a town in Surrey and spent a day watching Premier League football in pubs. Well, two games in three pubs to be precise. The 12:30pm game between West Ham and Arsenal on Sky Sports, and Chelsea vs Newcastle at 5:30pm on BT Sport. It was, shall we say, an experience.
When arriving at pub number one, the first thing I noticed was the World Cup bunting still hung around the bar. Either the operator was eagerly excited about the imminent Women’s World Cup (7 June) or had simply thought that waiting four years for the next men’s tournament to roll around was far less effort than climbing a stepladder and taking it down. Either way, it made me chuckle. As did the hand-written sign stuck on the wall next to our table that read: ‘SKY + BT SPOPTS SHOWN HERE’. But, you know what? The pub was busy with pool players, drinkers and a group of keen cyclists before midday, all glued to young Declan Rice having the game of his life. So you can’t knock ‘em too hard.
Pub number two, however, was tougher to accept. The owners and their friends were the only ones in this place, all playing darts in front of the only screen showing the game’s build-up; two other screens around the pub remained switched off. “Excuse me,” I said, interrupting their arrows in the hope of illuminating one of the dormant TVs. “Wot? Wot d’ya want, mate?” one of my new friends replied. “Just wondered if we could switch on another TV so we can watch the Chelsea match…” I mustered. He grunted and put on the Millwall game. There were a few more exchanges and sighs before he fiddled with the digibox that was hung by a wire from the ceiling and then, heroically, poured us two pints. After causing this pub team so much inconvenience, I was scared to leave before the half-time whistle.
Which brings us to pub number three, where we caught the second half. This lot had gaffer-taped an A4 piece of paper to the bottom-right of their screen, which yelled in giant letters: ‘Bacon or Sausage SANDWICH £3’. It was no-frills marketing, I’ll give ‘em that. But apart from witnessing some carefree drug use in the toilets, the next 45 minutes went by without incident.
This is where I should point out that this day of pub football was in fact carried out in a professional capacity… honestly. With this article on Televised Sport in Pubs on the horizon, I wanted to get away from London outlets and observe how the pubs of a county town were delivering this part of pub operations. A town where I counted several boarded up venues that had given up the ghost. What I found were places that, despite paying broadcasters for their sporting subscriptions, were putting little to no effort into maximising this revenue stream; places that seemed content with laziness, complacency and a touch of hostility to boot.
I know my job role may have instilled unrealistically high expectations in on-trade operations, but, come on, these are the basics, right? I returned home that evening understanding why millions of sports fans would rather stay at home for the game, rather than venturing out to chance the atmosphere of their local. While 2019 contains an enormous amount of live sport for you to showcase to your customers, the fact remains that the biggest fixture of your season is Your Pub vs Their Sofa.
Riding the World Cup wave
Whether you’re a football fan or not, there’s no denying the positive vibes that last year’s World Cup brought to the nation. Coupled with the unprecedented heat wave and England’s journey to a semi-final, for a brief period the anxieties and division experienced around the UK in recent years seemed forgotten. And pubs certainly stepped up – according to MatchPint, every England game saw an average of 1.5m people heading out into the on-trade to watch the match. Big numbers, yes? Well, sort of. When you take into account that a whopping 18.9m stayed at home to watch Southgate’s team, you can see just how big an opportunity still remains in attracting greater numbers into venues through sport.
What’s more, 2019 could be the perfect year of activity to ride that World Cup wave, as there’s not one, not two, but three World Cup tournaments scheduled for the months ahead. England cricketer Ben Stokes has already said how he hopes the Cricket World Cup (20 May to 14 July) can reignite the atmosphere experienced during last year’s football. It’s certainly a long enough tournament to garner interest. While that event takes place, the Lionesses will be crossing the Channel to take part in the Women’s World Cup in France (7 June to 7 July). While some operators may still be skeptical over the popularity of women’s football in the on-trade, it’s worth looking at some in-home viewing figures. MatchPint’s data shows that 4m people watched England’s women play the Netherlands in the semi-final of the Euros in 2017… but they all tuned in from their homes. To put this in perspective, Liverpool’s Champions League final against Real Madrid had an in-home audience of 4.2m. The demand for women’s football is there, but is the on-trade answering that call?
The third World Cup installment of 2019 comes in the form of the Rugby World Cup in Japan (20 September to 2 November). Now, I know what you’re thinking… “Japan? Why on earth would anyone want to come to the pub at the crack of dawn to drink beer and watch rugby?” Well, during the Lions tour of New Zealand in 2017, MatchPint tracked beer sales in venues throughout the day (from 7am), looking at pubs that showed the tests and pubs that didn’t. By 8am, pubs that showed the third test had sold 23 pints; those that were open and didn’t screen the game sold one. But the real story is how sales fared throughout the day – the average pub that chose not to air the rugby sold around 86 pints, whereas those who screened that third and final game of the tour sold 208, highlighting the longevity and loyalty of the fans that were in for the early-morning kick-off. It’s worth thinking about.
As those previous examples suggest, if you’re only screening Premier League football in your venues and not seeing a profitable return on your subscription investment, it’s because you need to be doing more with all of your sporting channels and opportunities. Take the Champions League for example, which returns on BT Sport this month. Around 56% of publicans have said they see a very positive impact on sales when English clubs are playing in this tournament. With Man United playing PSG, Spurs facing Dortmund, Liverpool going to Munich, and City up against Schalke, the immediate opportunity for these games is massive. Fingers crossed all four English teams progress.
Those same publicans have observed that the Champions League also brings in a younger demographic, which is also the case for American sports. We all know that the NFL is increasing in popularity year-on-year, but I’d say it’s also worth keeping an eye on interest in the NBA and Major League Baseball. Even if screening one of these sports once a week brings in as little as five people for every occasion, that’s five more loyal customers you can retain once a week for the rest of the year.
We could look at favourable facts and stats around sport in pubs until the Cowboys come home, but unless venues are doing it right, the ROI will remain restricted. For millions of pub goers – particularly that younger generation coming through – every element of the operation matters; it’s not good enough to simply switch on the TV, open the doors and wait for the crowds to arrive. Ask yourself if you’re making the most of your subscription. If not, what are you going to do about it? Hospitality, food, drink, aesthetic, marketing, zoning, atmosphere… it all adds up and can all determine whether the on-trade can finally get some wins against those Stay at Home Saints.