'Niche sports' and new broadcasters: the challenges facing sport pubs

By Stuart Stone contact

- Last updated on GMT

'A good challenge': Stonegate's Simon Longbottom believes new players in the competition for sports broadcasting rights will help drive innovation
'A good challenge': Stonegate's Simon Longbottom believes new players in the competition for sports broadcasting rights will help drive innovation
The Morning Advertiser asked Stonegate Pub Company’s CEO, Simon Longbottom, to reflect on the past 12 months in sport, and to look ahead to the World Cup this summer and beyond.

One of the main draws of this summer’s World Cup – and sport in general – is unpredictability. Last-minute twists of fate, controversial decisions and spectacular moments of skill seemingly plucked from the ether.

However, Simon Longbottom sees creating “certainty” around Stonegate pubs' sports coverage as the fulcrum of his group’s success this summer.

The operator of 700 managed pubs and bars across the UK – including Walkabout venues and Sports Bar & Grill sites across the UK – has released data that anticipates a £6m sales uplift across its estate during Russia 2018.

Longbottom sees delivering reliably high standards and speed of service as a failsafe means of getting there. 

“We have been thinking about the design of our pubs and about our ability to take bookings on our website. We've now got a small call centre which takes the calls from pubs so we're not getting in the way of service with management teams coming to take calls during the day - all of which is driving customers’ ability to get certainty.

“If you and I want to go and watch the England v Tunisia game on the Monday night we can get certainty; we know that we're booked and if we're regulars, we probably know which seats we're going to be booked in.

“A lot of our work has been around not only the pre-booked and having drinks already on the table, but we can then speed the whole process up.

“Twenty years ago when you asked what drove customer satisfaction in pubs, speed of service was never high up on the list, whereas now it's talked about.

“I don't want to be waiting five or ten minutes to get served. I don't want to miss the key moment, I want to stay in the atmosphere with my mates. I don't want to lose my seat."

Build-up to Russia 2018

Stonegate took sales data from 427 sites across its estate which screened the European Championship in 2016 and identified a total uplift of £5m for that tournament.

They then multiplied that figure by their current gametime average sales growth of 8.1%, revealing a potential total uplift of more than £6 million.

Much like the teams who’ll be lining up across four of the eleven time zones in the world’s largest country this summer, preparation has been meticulous.  

"It starts with long-term investment. This isn't an accident and we're not just jumping on the bandwagon a couple of weeks before.

“Four-hundred and fifty of our sites have invested in Sky and BT Sport over the last two or three years. We have taken the challenge to think, 'why are we different?' Anybody can get Sky and BT Sport in, but how do we create the atmosphere?

“It’s been a case of getting the best ideas from our best general managers. We believe wholeheartedly the best ideas are out there in our business with the folk who are closest to the customers.”

The top 10 sporting events in Stonegate pubs in the last year

Sport

Date

Uplift per pub

Foot-fall per pub uplift

Anthony Joshua v Joseph Parker 

Boxing

Saturday 31 March 2018 

+£1,725

+288

Roma v Liverpool

Champions League football

Wednesday 2 May 2018 

+£767

+128

Anthony Joshua v Carlos Takam 

Boxing

Saturday 28 October 2017 

+£755

+126

England v Ireland 

Six Nations rugby

Saturday 17 March 2018 

+£746 

+124

Real Madrid v Juventus 

Champions League football

Saturday 3 June 2017 

+£672

+112

Manchester United v Ajax 

Europa League football

Wednesday 24 May 2017 

+£637 

+106

Liverpool v Roma 

Champions League football

Tuesday 24 April 2018 

+£550

+92

Manchester City v Liverpool 

Champions League football

Tuesday 10 April 2018 

+£501

+84

Scotland v England 

Six Nations rugby

Saturday 24 February 2018 

+£497

+83

Manchester United v Liverpool 

Premier League football

Saturday 10 March 2018 

+£495

+82

A different challenge

The main challenge for this World Cup, according to Longbottom, won’t just be showing England games, but making sure that an increasingly knowledgeable audience can keep tabs on the stars they watch week-in, week-out in the Premier League.

“We genuinely believe the difference from World Cups in previous decades is the interest and knowledge of worldwide footballers because of the Premier League and the international spectacle it is. You kind of know that in every team there are British-based players, which I think adds to the interest.

"For the England games you will see an increased audience based on national pride and interest. I suspect the audience for the rest of the World Cup will be very similar to our existing audience, except their allegiances will be with the Premier League players they love in their team and they'll be playing for different countries."

As reported by ITV a week ago - and with only days to go until Russia kick off their World Cup in Moscow against Saudi Arabia on 14 June - only 34,000 tickets had been allocated to England supporters.

While a cohort larger than the population of Windsor descending on Russia sounds remarkable, when compared with the 58,960 who travelled to Brazil four years ago, the 72,000 who went to South Africa in 2010, and 83,000 who travelled to Germany in 2006, the number seems to demonstrate reluctance to follow the Three Lions this time around. Meaning there will potentially be more customers around to watch the action from the pub stool than the stands this summer.

"There appears to be some nervousness around anti-social behaviour, racism, other areas.

“I remember in South Africa there was some nervousness and they pulled off a fantastic tournament, so I'm still very hopeful we'll see this festival of countries coming together and all the bonding and friendship that sport should bring.

"If there is reluctance, and if there's too much expense, and the time zones and all the other things that have been mentioned, us and I'm sure other pub companies throughout the hospitality industry will be ready to look after people and create that atmosphere you can't get in your home.”

What will pubs be watching in the future?

The growth in popularity of sports such as boxing and rugby, as well as increased screen time for American football and netball, have shown that lesser watched or more “niche” sports can play a role in making traditionally quieter nights at the pub more profitable.

"Five years ago I would never have believed our biggest events would be boxing related,” says Longbottom.

“In the top ten you're also seeing rugby union and games not involving British teams. Last year our biggest event was the Champions League final, which was Juventus v Real Madrid.

“That is a big change from when football started being shown in pubs in the Nineties. It shows you the more cosmopolitan fan base in pubs and also interest in sports television has brought.

“It just shows you the power of some other sports. It's almost wrong to call them niche - American football is one of the most supported activities in America, with millions interested.”

In response to the release of figures showcasing the most popular sporting events at Stonegate pubs in the last 12 months, Longbottom commented: "This is exactly what we aim to give sports fans at Stonegate and our offer isn’t just limited to football.

"We work hard to cater for all sports – whether that’s boxing or more niche sports such as wrestling and American football.

"We will continue to develop our sports experiences in the coming years as we work towards our aim of becoming the UK’s leading provider for the sports-led occasion.”

The top 'niche' sporting events in Stonegate pubs

Sport

Date

Uplift per pub

Foot-fall per pub uplift

Mayweather v McGregor 

Boxing

Saturday 26 August 2017 

+£1,922

+320

Grand National 

Horse racing

Saturday 14 April 2018 

+£354

+59

All Blacks v British & Irish Lions 

Lions tour rugby

Saturday 8 July 2017 

+£374

+62

Superbowl LII 

American Football

Sunday 8 April 2018 

+£1,360

+227

Wrestlemania 

WWE

Sunday 8 April 2018 

+£1,446

+241

While nobody knows for certain exactly which sports will be on show in pubs in the next five years, there’s also increasing uncertainty over how we’ll be watching them.

With Amazon announcing that from the 2019-20 season onwards they’ll be showing 20 games per season, Longbottom believes the unknown quantities set to make their Premier League broadcasting debut bring a new challenge with them.

"I don't think we understand enough about how they will set up their B2B capabilities,” says Longbottom.

“I can see how B2C will work for operators coming into the sport marketplace and wanting a piece of the action, but it's not clear how the B2B platform will work - certainly we're not aware of that yet.

“If there's a market there in terms of advertisers and a business model, that's for them to decide.

“We'll obviously want to make sure we're maintaining the programme of key fixtures, key events for our customers and our pubs. I don't think any of those companies have talked about how they will monetise it yet.

"Sky and BT have done an amazing job of packaging together sport and engaging the customer. For anyone coming into that space they've got a hell of a job on their hands in terms of the presentation, the technology, the quality of the punditry.

“I think it's a good challenge. It'll help with innovation and further packaging together sport so it excites us if we're not actually at the game."

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