Sporting return: how can televised fixtures help pubs make a post-lockdown comeback?

By MA Editorial

- Last updated on GMT

Back in play: 'customers now have an expectation that when they venture out that will be able to have drinks, food and watch live sport all in one visit'
Back in play: 'customers now have an expectation that when they venture out that will be able to have drinks, food and watch live sport all in one visit'

Related tags Sport Coronavirus Bt sport Sky sports

With both sport and pubs making their long-awaited return from a blanket break in play, The Morning Advertiser (MA) asks how televised fixtures can help operators rediscover some pre-lockdown form.

According to sport pub finding app MatchPint, the thirst to watch sport in the pub has survived lockdown with fans proving ready and willing to return despite Covid-secure guidance on social distancing, track and trace and noise restrictions. 

The first three weeks of August saw only 11% less traffic on the pub finding platform than the end of the 2018/19 football season, for example, suggesting that fan confidence has more-or-less bounced back from the enforced time-out.  

Pubs to watch the conclusion of the Champions League in were especially sought-after and dominated searches throughout August. Though the final between Bayern Munich and Paris Saint Germain only registered 30% of last year’s demand, the all-English 2019/20 final between Liverpool and Tottenham was uniquely popular on these shores. 

“We have had so many guests tell us how the experience of watching sport at home just hasn’t been the same, so it’s been great to welcome them back, they’ve also been able to use our order and pay app so they don’t ever miss a moment,” Chris Conchie, head of sport at Greene King, says of sport’s comeback.

“It’s never been more important to bring people together and unite, so it’s been great to see our communities come together to take time out from what’s going on and for that time just be in the moment, enjoying a proper pint with fellow fans in a socially safe environment.”


Sky Business launches pub-focused video series

Pub licensees are the stars of a new Sky Business video series called The Pub: Football's Home​ which was filmed during lockdown and aims to bring sports fans back to the on-trade​.

The films profile licensees, front of house staff and customers who come together every match day to enjoy sport. 

Episode one, filmed at the Wellington in Hale, Liverpool – a Marston’s tenanted pub – is available now with more episodes released weekly throughout September.

In the remainder of the series, Sky Business visits the Contented Sole in Dumfries, Scotland; the Prince of Peckham in Peckham, London; the New Inn in Wetherby, Leeds, and the Globe Inn in Brentford, Middlesex.

“Our customers are at the heart of everything we do and our partnership with them is very important to us,” Simon Raggett, managing director of Sky Business said.

The Pub: Football’s Home​​ really highlights the role that pubs and clubs play and how sport has a unique and unrivalled way of bringing people together."

Sky Business has also created a range of support tools and events to help publicans make the most of their investment in Sky Sports. 

These include giving Sky Business customers access to handpicked digital training modules as a result of a new partnership with Facebook that gives to help develop their social media skills. Customers can learn how to create simple, attention grabbing ads to help reconnect them to their community and locals.

Pubs becoming one stop shops

According to Graham Byrne, director of commercial customers at Premier Sports, sport in pubs and bars will be a key player in the recovery of the knock-on effects of Covid-19. 

“Those premises that have been fortunate to be able to re-open now need to be a one stop shop for their customers,” he explains.

“Previously pubs and bars could specialise in one area, whether that was food, live music or live sports. However, customers now have an expectation that when they venture out they will be able to have drinks, food and watch live sport all in one visit.” 

Bruce Cuthbert, connectivity and commercial sport director at BT Sport, adds that live sport is a valuable “resource” in coaxing customers off the sofa and back into the on-trade on a more regular basis. 

“Covid-19 has had an impact on everyone, the way we live and work and the way we socialise,” he tells The Morning Advertiser (MA)​. “In these changing and challenging times pubs and clubs will need to use all of the resources available to them to encourage people back into their venue.  

“With live sport continuing to be played behind closed doors, there is an opportunity for venues to give fans the chance to enjoy live sport alongside other fans in a safe and controlled environment.” 

With all this in mind, Tracy Harrison, director of marketing at Sky Business, adds that the start of the new English football season comes at an ideal time for pub operators looking for a return to pre-pandemic form.

“With consumer appetite to watch live sport in the pub strong, we believe that the start of the 2020/21 Premier League season, and the variety of sport content that is available on Sky Sports, will help contribute towards the industry's road to recovery,” she says.

“Live sport will provide Sky Business customers reasons for pub-going sports fans to visit their premises. 

“By having clear and regular timeslots, this will enable licensees to plan, prepare and promote ahead of the games to help bring their communities back together again.”


Special part of British culture

For Startle's CEO, Adam Castleton, watching live sport in the pub is the next best thing after attending the match itself. While fans can’t yet return to the heady days of hugging strangers and chanting, he believes that the atmosphere and camaraderie has been missed as fans found themselves behind closed doors for almost a quarter of the year.

“Not only were sports fans unable to gather to enjoy events during lockdown, but sport itself has been sorely missed, so it’s the complete experience that’s been absent from people’s lives,” he tells The MA​. 

“Our recent Mind The Gap​ consumer research shows that 62.1% of people who have visited a pub since lockdown said it was not as fun as before. It’s likely that a dip in sport experiences has played a part in this, therefore building engaging sport offerings back up for customers is one way that operators can fill this gap.”

Ryan Fritsch, on-trade sales director at Budweiser Brewing Group UK&I adds that live sport has always played a crucial role in driving footfall and revenue for the on-trade, with more than two thirds of fans drinking out weekly at pubs and bars. 

“The biggest 25 days in the on-trade calendar last year were driven by bank holidays and key sporting events,” he explains.

“Now, however, venues face the challenge of encouraging punters to return. Almost a third (32%) of pub owners agreed footfall drivers were key to a successful recovery post lockdown. 

“The experience and atmosphere of watching a game in your local is unrivalled and is an incredibly special part of British pub culture. 

“With 65% of people saying they will still go to the pub to watch football, we can expect the return of the Premier League, among other live sports, to prove a powerful incentive for Brits to visit their local over the coming months.”

However, Castleton adds that the on-trade is “back to setting first impressions” when it comes to sport screening which he claims is as much an opportunity as it is a risk. 

“Our consumer research shows that 61.7% of pub goers are planning to visit less frequently than before, so the experience we give these early customers is critical to shape consumer behaviours in the coming months. 

“With most entertainment off limits due to Covid-secure guidelines, sport is a draw that is not only proven to drive revenues, but also provides a safe way of entertaining customers. This will help to ensure they keep coming back to the pub in the months ahead.”


Pub playbook

But how can pub operators ensure that sport makes a winning comeback? 

Premier Sports’ Byrne argues that post-lockdown pubs need to “broaden their horizons” to make a success of sport’s return. 

“It’s quite possible that you will be attracting new customers to your premises,” he says. “It’s therefore vital that you don’t rest on your laurels and just show Premier League football, offer a wide variety of sports.”

On top of this, BT Sport’s Cuthbert adds that operators need to shout about the fixtures they plan to show to inform customers know what is going be on.

“With people increasingly planning ahead and booking online, marketing and connecting with your customers has never been so important,” he says.

“Pubs need to ensure that their customers know what they are showing and when, the offers they have and the safety measures that they have put in place. With live sport being played behind closed doors, pubs have a fantastic opportunity to be the next best place to go to watch the game.”

While enticing fans back into venues is half the battle, Budweiser Brewing Group UK&I’s Ryan Fritsch highlights that encouraging their typically high dwell time and average spend per head in the current climate represents a stern second challenge.

“Sports fans spend an average of 90 minutes longer in the pub than the typical consumer so present high spending potential to pub and bar operators,” he explains. “Offering food alongside usual service is a good way for pubs to maximise these longer visits. It’s worth venues focusing on the experience they offer sports fans too - 94% of consumers who have a good experience watching sport in a pub will return.”

Startle's Castleton adds that the challenge of encouraging fans in to watch sport when many people are nervous about venturing out can be overcome by offering a safe experience they can’t replicate at home. 

“Think outside the box to engage customers to make the experience less passive and offer something that other operators are not,” he says. “Consider ways to attract customers before kick-off and keep them there well after the final whistle.”


Sports customers even more vital

Carl Hufton and Paul Oxenham, managers of Stonegate-owned Sport Bar & Grill sites in Old Street and Canary Wharf respectively, see Covid-secure matchdays as an increasingly important part of their sites’ lockdown recovery. 

The pair flag the return of both domestic and European football, as well as the eventual conclusion of the Six Nations Championship in October, as having huge potential to drive footfall during both core and non-core trading times. 

“We have always been a sport-led site, but in Canary Wharf, we usually rely on tourists and other businesses in the area for a lot of our trade,” Hufton tells The MA​. “Now, with tourism vastly reduced and many of our surrounding businesses still working from home, our sports customers are even more vital. 

“We’ll be focussing on driving our pre-bookings on big-game days, which have historically always been popular, but will be even more so as we be much more of a destination bar for sports viewing.”

Oxenham adds that being fully booked for all of the big sporting fixtures has also helped his team run “a tight ship” in terms of Covid-secure measures on matchdays. 

“Everyone’s contact details are automatically recorded for Test and Trace, we have a one-way system, and operate table service,” he explains. “We have a dedicated member of staff who ensures touchpoints are cleaned regularly and we have hand sanitiser readily available throughout the bar. I have also personally manned the door to ensure each of our customers are fully briefed on the way our bar operates. 

“Before we opened, we were a bit concerned about how our customers would react, especially to the noise restriction,” he continues, “but the majority have been incredibly respectful of the processes we have in place. They often thank us for operating a bar where they can come and enjoy the game, in a way that they also feel safe.”

Oxenham, whose site has shown as much live football as possible since reopening and has been fully-booked every weekend, adds that reduced capacity and high demand has resulted in a culture of booking early, particularly for key fixtures, such as the FA Cup and the Champions League finals.

“It’s sad having to turn people away, but it has also allowed us a level of predictability to keep those busy days running smoothly,” he says. “We have also been able to point some of our customers in the direction of other Stonegate pubs in the area, that perhaps might not usually be associated with watching sports.”

Hufton, whose venue reopens the day before the kick-off of the new Premier League season on 12 September, adds that he’s benefitted from the chance to visit colleagues such as Oxenham and see how they are running successful Covid-secure sporting operations. 

“We’ll be really encouraging pre-bookings, implementing full table service, as well as clear social distancing measures and enhanced cleaning regimes.”

Royal Dyche

Customers missing the pub

Justine Lorriman, who runs “football fanatic pub” the Royal Dyche in Burnley – a stone’s throw from their local Premier League side’s Turf Moor home – explains that from a business perspective it’s very important for them to show every live game having been shut for so long. 

“If we didn’t have live sport on there are plenty of other venues around us that do and clientele could easily go elsewhere,” she says. “It’s important to gain as much trade back as we can.

“Football is the number one sport here, although the snooker semi-finals and final had many of our customers glued to our outdoor screens. I think they’re missing our pool table which is currently in storage until we think it is safe enough to bring back.

“The Champions League football brought us an increase in trade - most would normally watch at home with the games being midweek but after lockdown people just want to be out socialising.”

While, Lorriman explains that the traditional matchday haunt has lost out on trade from Burnley’s home fixtures being behind closed doors, she says that a more even seven-day spread has been a leveller.

“Being a five minute walk away from Turf Moor we have definitely lost that trade from people going to the games, however we are lucky enough to have a lot of outdoor space so we have seen an increase across the week of people coming to the pub - plenty of new faces and this has evened it out,” she explains.

“Customers have definitely missed coming to the pub, for many it’s a community base for them, especially the older generation who don’t use social media or have a smart phone,” Lorriman continues. “They like to come and socialise, catch up with their friends. 

“For our younger clientele it has eased their boredom, there’s only so much Netflix you can watch. A pub can offer so much more. Having a pint with a bit of banter with friends, these things are priceless.”

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