Sunday night. It can be a depressingly quiet night for pubs. This Sunday night is looking like more of the same; it is bucketing down with rain in central London and everybody is quietly hurrying along Borough High Street to a dry haven where low-key preparations for the week ahead can be made.
This Sunday is also more of the same for the Belushi’s site in London Bridge. This venue, from multiple operator Beds & Bars, has a surge in trade on Sunday nights because of the sheer number of American football fans that flock to the venue to see the weekly NFL action from 6PM.
Two bars in one
The Belushi’s venue is two bars rolled into one. As you enter the site on street level, there is the typical tourist-friendly bar that Belushi’s offers at all its venues. Yet below this, there is the distant rumble of sports commentary and echoing cheers in the Dugout, an underground sports-dedicated venue that won Best Sports Pub at MatchPint’s 2016 London Sports Pub Awards.
NFL matches still to come this season
Green Bay Packers @ Atlanta Falcons (22 January, 8.05pm)
Pittsburgh Steelers @ New England Patriots (22 January, 11.40pm)
Super Bowl - to be contested between the winners of the previous two matches (5 February, 11.30pm)
As soon as you descend the steps into the Dugout, the first thing that strikes you is the colour. In what would otherwise be a relatively dimly lit underground venue, the plasma screens that deck nigh on every inch of wall space light up the venue.
Throughout the venue, which will soon be showing the NFL Wild Card playoff match between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Miami Dolphins, are American Football fans in jerseys of every team, from the Steelers – who are about to play – to the New England Patriots – who are not even playing this evening – is represented this evening.
After ordering a first drink at the bar, I take a seat at the table that has been reserved by calling in advance. I quickly realise that the seating arrangement of the venue has been intelligently thought through. Almost all the chairs are conveniently located so that there is a choice of TVs within direct eyeline; you can’t guarantee that everyone in your group will be watching the same screen while in this site, but you can guarantee that everyone will be able to comfortably see a screen.
Looking at the menu, social food appears to be the norm. It is not a glamorous or innovative food offer, but it is food that, like great sporting moments, is designed to be shared. The likes of Nachos El Grande (nachos topped with all the trimmings plus chilli beef and barbecue Pork) and Chicken Wings appear to be the most popular dishes.
On top of this, Belushi’s offers a specific ‘Quarterback Deal’ for customers in the venue from 6PM on a Sunday night for the American football. This deal, adaptable for two, four or six customers, offers not only food like Chicken Wings and Mexican platters, but also a choice of alcohol for customers.
No need for bar trips
Having decided on food, there is surprisingly no need to go to the bar. A member of the bar team that is covering the area collecting glasses stops and asks if any food or drink is needed. Producing a mobile phone from their pocket, the barman logs food and drink orders on a specifically designed app that sends orders directly to the kitchen and bar. They then take a credit card and set up a table service tab for the duration of the American football throughout the evening. This is a venue that takes its sport so seriously, there will not even be any need to take eyes off the sport for trips to the bar.
The match between the Dolphins and the Steelers begins and the noise in the venue immediately goes up a few more notches. Part of the atmosphere in the Dugout is artificially created; throughout the venue are hard wooden surfaces with the tables and chairs not having any cushioning to soften sound. The result is that sound from both the sport and customers bounces back and creates a noisier, but more atmospheric undercurrent.
The match that follows is not close. It is taking place in Pittsburgh, where it is -6°C – a whole 25 degrees colder than the current temperature in Miami – and the Dolphins are not able to play anywhere near their best in the conditions. The result is that the Steelers run riot.
As the Steelers go over for a fourth touchdown to take a 30-6 lead deep in the third quarter, the game is all but over and in the distance are the raucous celebrations of a table solely consisting of Steelers fans. That group of eight fans on a distant table are in their own secluded annex section of the venue, which has sofas in a horseshoe shape around a table with a large screen at the table’s head. They say that they have looked to book that area for every single Steelers game of the season thus far. After this match, they will now be making at least one more trip to the venue this season, with the Steelers having now secured their place in the post-season playoffs.
Mix of customers
Elsewhere in the venue, there is a curious mix of customers. Including several people that are sat at tables on their own, deep in thought, watching the game. All of these say that they have come to this venue for the NFL and try to come every week because of the atmosphere created by the venue for the occasion.
Meawnhile, there has been very little need to leave the table during the match thanks to the well-organised glass collection and table service operated by the bar staff in the venue. As the game begins to draw to a close, the tab is seamlessly settled with eyes still barely needing to be taken off the screen.
The Steelers victory is followed by another Wild Card playoff match, which runs until after midnight, with the venue reporting it was just as busy throughout that match.
The result is that this central London venue has completely converted its Sunday night trade between 6PM and midnight through an innovative American football offer. Sunday night no longer needs to be a depressingly quiet night for pubs.
Legal advice on securing a TEN for late-night American football
The Super Bowl starts at 11.30pm UK time and is likely to run until around 3am. This means that pubs with a licence that doesn’t run this late will need to secure a Temporary Event Notice (TEN) to sell alcohol throughout.
Jonathan Smith from legal experts, Poppleston Allen gives his advice on securing a TEN: "The sooner you put the application in, the less likely objections are. The minimum notice is two weeks for a standard TEN. We would recommend having a chat with your police licensing officer first and then submitting your application. The police may ask for conditions that are already on your licence to apply for the additional hours.
"People do need to be aware that if their standard licensing hours stop before midnight on a Sunday, two days' worth of TENs will need to be applied to take the venue both up to midnight and past midnight.
"For the hours, you might want to think about overtime (extra time, if the match is drawn at full time). You don't want to be having to close your bar ahead of another 35 or 40 minutes of overtime. If the police ask why you are applying beyond the likely close of the match, just say that you are concerned about overtime."