Opinion: Televised sport in pubs

Opinion: Televised sport in pubs

After a disastrous 2019 tour of sport-friendly pubs in a small Surrey town, Tristan O’Hana returns to the streets to look at who’s screening what and how.

Around two years ago, one of my local pubs in south east London closed. The landlord was forced to give up the business due to personal reasons. Now, this pub wasn’t the best in class (far from it – I’m not even sure it went to school), but it was a content boozer that had been gladly listening to the trials and tribulations of its locals for decades – its closure was a sad moment for the area.

But, you know what they say: ‘When one door closes, after months of boarded up windows and loss of hope, the builders arrive and then, some more months later, another door opens.’ The notice of licence that was eventually stuck to the front of the sealed-off site filled me with optimism – my area doesn’t really have any, shall we say, ‘contemporary’ pubs that are also showing sport. When watching the Championship play-off final in a local one season, a Millwall fan informed me I was ‘in bandit country’, before jubilantly gobbing on the floor. We remain friends to this day.

Alas, my optimism was to be savagely dashed, as the new pub that opened was effectively a direct replica of the operation that ran before it, only with the added smell of fresh paint. While I understand this is actually respectful and beneficial to the area, defiantly fending off any further potential of gentrification, I was a tad disappointed not to get a football pub of the modern on-trade on my doorstep. But you know what? Looks can be deceiving, for it was only last month that I drove past this place and noticed a rogue poster in the window advertising the screening of WWE’s Royal Rumble! For years, the pubs on this road have never looked beyond horse racing and football, but all of a sudden they’re promoting an 11pm screening of 30 gigantic men in spandex running about a wrestling ring? Just when you think you’ve got a place sussed! It was that innocently placed poster that led me to return to the televised sport in pubs topic. Last year, we looked at how a number of pubs were getting sport disastrously wrong, but this time round, we’ll look at who’s doing what well.

Boxing fit

I’m not a massive boxing fan – if it’s on, I’ll watch it, or will perhaps make a special effort to tune into the overly-hyped bouts. I was lucky enough to attend the Fury v Wilder press conference in 2018 – witnessing the fanfare and jibes that filled the room was enough to make anyone order the fight on BT Sport. It was electric. But can that charged-up atmosphere transfer into a venue when it comes to fight night? The answer is yes. In December last year, I was out with friends in the City of London and after a few shandies we made an impromptu decision to find a pub that was showing the rematch of Joshua v Ruiz. What a decision it was. We ended up in the New Moon pub in Leadenhall market, packed in with hundreds of boxing fans, all gazing up at the solitary big screen. Despite the fight not being the most action-packed, the room was captivated, loudly cheering anytime Joshua landed a punch. It all felt a bit Field of Dreams – if you screen it, they will come.

Complacent FC

Some would argue that big ticket items such as the boxing warrant more effort from the operator when it comes to marketing and communications around the event. This is understandable, particularly if the pub has paid an extra fee to screen the occasion, prompting greater promotional content online and in the pub itself. It is perhaps the regularity of football fixtures that has led to a touch of complacency when creating an environment to watch the beautiful game. OK, if you are showing the matches people want to watch, then of course guests will use your site accordingly, but it’s the extra effort in hospitality and creating an experience that will see those guests returning to your venue for the next fixture. I honestly believe that. If I’m near Victoria or London Bridge at the same time a Premier League game is on Sky Sports or BT, I will beeline to one of the ETM Group sites, Greenwood or Redwood, as I know I’ll get a view of the game, decent food and drink, and probably a seat too, all facilitated by friendly members of the ETM team. Sports fans enjoy hospitality too, you know.

So… what’s next?

The on-trade loves a major tournament, so I hope you’re all ready for the imminent Six Nations fixtures. As mentioned above, get the first game right and you could lock in some regulars for the entire tournament (not literally – please don’t lock people in your venues for six weeks). Beyond that, the Premier League continues to entice, as do all the other favourites. It won’t be long before summer is here, along with Wimbledon Fortnight and Euro 2020.

Beyond the usual, there are a couple of other sports that we’re keeping an eye on, and it might be worth you doing the same. I referenced wrestling in a jokey way, but the numbers turning up to wrestling screenings in, for example, some Stonegate venues mustn’t be sniffed at – niche sports have a mass market. The same goes for basketball, the NFL and many more. While I like to think that I’m relatively in touch with what works within the industry, there are also entrants to the market that I’m yet to fully appreciate – Esports being one of them. Just because I’ve never publicly cheered on someone playing a video game doesn’t mean millions aren’t already doing it. So, with next year’s televising sport feature in mind, I’ve made it my mission to attend some Esports events in the on-trade. If you’re venue is currently hosting such occasions, drop me a line and I’ll pop down. I promise I won’t bring my friend from Millwall.