According to reports in The Telegraph, the Premier League football season will restart on Wednesday 17 June. ‘Games in hand’ between Aston Villa and Sheffield United as well as Arsenal’s trip to Manchester City will kick-off the post-lockdown schedule to bring all clubs to the 29-game mark before full rounds of fixtures resume on the following weekend.
With pubs currently slated to reopen no earlier than 4 July – less than a month after the Premier League’s planned return – fans are already looking forward to watching sport with their friends at the pub, according to sport pub finding app MatchPint.
“We’ve explored what fans want from a social sports occasion, how their lives have changed during lockdown, and the biggest challenges they expect as the country reopen,” co-founder Dom Collingwood tells The Morning Advertiser (MA).
“Unsurprisingly, fans have missed sport, particularly the connection, community and camaraderie it brings. Every one of the 15 fans we’ve interviewed and 250 fans we’ve surveyed suggested they were looking forward to watching sport with friends as soon as they’re able to.”
According to Collingwood, the biggest challenges pub-going sports fans identified as lockdown eases were finding out which pubs are open (87%), finding out whether pubs still have Sky or BT Sport (64%), finding out whether a sports pub has capacity before they arrive (52%), booking in advance to guarantee a seat in case of restricted capacity (31%) and finding pubs showing sport on outdoor screens (30%).
“We’re now focusing on how we work with customers and partners to help fans answer these questions and stimulate a return of social sports occasions in pubs as soon as it is safe to do so.”
While sport is a huge earner for pubs – with MatchPint data stating that, pre-social distancing, pubs broadcasting football saw on average incremental sales of £30,000 per year – a number of significant hurdles remain before live sport can return to big screens – not least that sites currently remain closed.
While every one of the remaining 92 Premier League games will be broadcast live across Sky Sports, BT Sport, BBC Sport or Amazon Prime, according to BBC, on what terms could their coverage return to pubs?
On top of this, while consumers seem keen for the return of live sport at the pub, Government guidance appears to knock any plans for screenings to make a full recovery from Covid-19 for six.
In Our plan to rebuild: The UK Government’s Covid-19 recovery strategy published on Monday 11 May, the British Government outlined plans to emerge from Covid-19 lockdown, setting out a raft of social distancing guidelines to be adopted “wherever possible”.
The Government’s recovery plan states that Public Health England recommends staying two metres away from people outside your household as a precaution – however, there have been widespread calls for this to be reduced to one metre to be in line with the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) guidance and in keeping with a number of countries across Europe.
What’s more, with the document urging people to avoid crowds and being face to face with anyone outside of their household, it’s likely that if sport was to return to the pub, measures such as pre-booked tables, table service-only and maximum capacities may need to be considered to ensure that customer flow is managed as carefully as possible and ensure watching any live coverage at the pub remains a non-contact sport.
Social distancing ‘collar’
Robert Rawlinson, CEO of integrated venue marketing and live sports streaming platform Screach – which beams live Premier Sport coverage including La Liga to bars across Rileys, All Our Bars, ETM Group, McManus and Beds & Bars’ estates – warns that the opportunity to use sport to entice customers to post-lockdown pubs comes with huge risks.
“Whether it’s free to air or not, it doesn’t matter, you’re going to throw the kitchen sink to get people into your pub,” he says. “Unfortunately, there is a collar on this – social distancing.
“On the one hand, you want to drive in as many people as you can as per your normal modus operandi but on the other hand you’ve got this collar so you can’t just run off and say ‘we’re open for business, everybody pile in’.
“The conflicting forces are pubs wanting to get loads of people in to get revenue and sport driving footfall but knowing that if they drive too much footfall that they are going to be non-compliant and not looking after people.
“The worst-case scenario is that the ‘R rate’ goes back up and they put the lockdown back in place. Everybody’s scared about a second wave – it could take three weeks to get up and running then they shut you back down again. On one end of the spectrum, you might get pubs that say ‘we don’t want that’ and, therefore, won’t put sport on because they feel it will cause too much of a challenge around managing trade.”
Rawlinson, whose company is currently rolling out a number of video training assets to help its pub partners bring staff up to speed with new post-lockdown pub practices and Government guidance via Screach’s streaming platform, adds that his “ultimate question” is whether or not pubs think using sport will make enough difference to post-lockdown trade that it’s worth taking the risk. Are the parched public going to be so determined to visit the pub that they will do so regardless of what’s on TV?
He says: “If there’s going to be this surge of people who just want to get outside and go to a pub because they want to go for a social drink with friends, even though sport is on does it make sense to run it or is it just going to cause you more of a problem?
“You’ve got to be super vigilant – but how does a pub do that and balance it with the need for revenue and putting products like sport into the mix? They have to be very agile in their thinking – either going with sport from day one, because they don’t want to take the risk that they don’t have as many people in as they’re allowed as often as possible, but knowing if it does overcook not be greedy because, if you’re greedy, you might find your legs get chopped off. Trying to tell independent pub landlords who’ve been closed for three or four months to turn people away, it’s an unrealistic ask.”
A potential tap-in?
Yet while smaller venues may face a squeeze, brewers such as Fourpure and Magic Rock have revealed that their large – and for the most part outdoor – taprooms could allow them to observe social distancing and, should it be commercially available, broadcast sport in compliance with distancing guidelines.
“We’re fortunate being based on a trading estate as we have a lot of room to play with, both indoors and outdoors,” Chris Bown, head of retail at Fourpure Brewing Co, tells MA. “Expanded and relaunched last year, our Basecamp taproom now stands at 5,000sq ft and we’ve been told it’s the biggest in London.
“The indoor space that we have is also a great advantage when it comes to social distancing because, in contrast to a lot of pubs, we have great big open spaces where we’re able to control the flow of people and any avoid possible contact much easier than other premises.
“When it comes to sporting events, we’re looking into using our space even more by setting up outdoor screens this summer. Our bench seating is already set up two metres or further apart so groups will be kept a safe distance apart.
Bown adds that hygiene and safety will also be at the forefront of our considerations for reopening under social distancing and welcoming customers for sporting events.
He says: “Very strict cleaning regimes, cashless ordering, table service-only, and hand sanitiser on tables will become regular features, not just for sporting events.”
Similarly, James Leslie – area manager at Magic Rock Brewing, which has brewed two beers in partnership with local side Huddersfield Town – explains: “Our extensive indoor taproom and outdoor seating area is ideally set up to allow guests to enjoy themselves while social distancing.
“Magic Rock Tap is located in a 4,000sq ft warehouse, allowing ample space for visitors, and easily allowing us to control the footfall through the site.
“We’ve always had hand sanitiser available for visitors to use and will be enforcing strict cleaning routines, table service and using a reservation system for visitors to book a table and pay for their drinks in advance to minimise contact.
“If we manage to reopen this year at limited capacity, we’ll be showing our usual cycling fixtures – downhill, MTBX, Tour de France, etc., provided that they’re going ahead – they appeal to our family-friendly set-up and are an integral part to our taproom experience.”
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