Will a season of behind closed doors football leave matchday pubs ‘skint’?

By Stuart Stone

- Last updated on GMT

Goal rush: each Premier League match contributes in the region of £20m to the local and national economy according to the competition's chief executive Richard Masters
Goal rush: each Premier League match contributes in the region of £20m to the local and national economy according to the competition's chief executive Richard Masters

Related tags Premier league Sport Beer Finance Purity brewing company London Birmingham Sheffield Wolverhampton Football

With plans to open turnstiles from October now under review, matchday pub operators and stadium beer suppliers outline the impact of a prolonged, pandemic-enforced, fan exile on their businesses.

According to its chief executive Richard Masters, each Premier League match contributes in the region of £20m to the local and national economy – a traditional boon for matchday pubs and top-flight club beer partners. 

Yet, while the Premier League had optimistically outlined plans for a small number of fans to return to post-lockdown games from the start of October, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s recent response to a spike in Coronavirus cases kicked this into touch. 

Johnson’s pledge to reassess an October return came during the same press briefing at which he confirmed that gatherings of more than six people​ will be illegal from 14 September – a rule which does not apply to competitive sports teams.

"We will have to revise plans and review our intention to have fans return to stadiums – that doesn't mean we are abandoning it completely, we just need to review it," he explained. 

Regardless of the outcome, however, data from global research platform by Piplsay reveals that almost half (44%) of Premier League fans plan to stay away even if grounds reopen from October with 41% saying they will “definitely” endeavour to return to socially distanced stands.

While pubs are regularly touted as the next best place to watch sport​ away from the grounds themselves, feelings among pub operators remain mixed as we prepare to kick-off the 2020/21 season with games being played behind closed doors.

No other option for fans 

In numbers: sport in pubs

  • The first three weeks of August saw only 11% less traffic on sport pub finding app MatchPint than the end of the 2018/19 football season.
  • The biggest 25 days in the on-trade calendar last year were driven by bank holidays and key sporting events according to CGA.
  • CGA research found that almost a third (32%) of pub owners agreed footfall drivers such as live sport are key to a successful recovery post-lockdown.
  • The Champions League dominated searches on MatchPint in August, with the final being the most searched for fixture since sport has returned, though still roughly 30% of last year’s searches.
  • More than two thirds (69%) of sports fans drink out weekly at pubs and bars according to CGA.
  • According to CGA, two thirds of pub goers (65%) will still go to the pub to watch football.
  • Sports fans spend an average of 90 minutes longer in the pub than the typical consumer according to CGA and MatchPint data.

Sheffield-based multiple operator Danny Grayson, who runs Sport Shack’s three micro sports bars across the steel city, tells The Morning Advertiser (MA)​ that he is optimistic ahead of the new season – Sheffield United’s second Premier League campaign on the spin. 

While he says that post-lockdown trade has been strong, he believes that the best tactics for pubs during the coming season will be to live within their means, put their nose to the grindstone and “crack on”.

“Business has been fantastic,” he says. “July was full to capacity and to be honest I’m totally optimistic about the future. Why? Because I think this pandemic will be around a while so what’s the point of being pessimistic and fearing the future.

“I haven’t taken any bounce back loans and we have opened our three sites without the need to borrow which on reflection was a very wise move.”

Grayson adds that he feels operators need to stay positive, invest to keep sites match-fit, and take advantage of televised fixtures in order to claw back matchday trade.

As reported by The MA​, all 28 Premier League matches​ slated for September will be broadcast live via existing partners Sky Sports, BT Sport, Amazon Prime Video and BBC.

“Customers are coming to watch football in pubs and bars because they have no other option,” he continues. “They’re seeing our venues and realising there is a fantastic atmosphere. 

“Reduced capacity at grounds will have an impact on trade but we can make that up with the televised matches.”

Sport Shack

We have to make the best of it 

While Jamie Atkins of the Great Western in Wolverhampton, a regular matchday haunt for fans of nearby Wolves, sees “baby steps” being made and his pre-season takings gradually increasing, he struggles to see fans flocking back into matches via his pub any time soon.  

“We re-opened in July doing 30% of pre-pandemic trade and with firm protocols in place which will not be diluted as I’m taking this very seriously for the safety of my staff and guests,” he tells The MA. ​“I feel that because of our diligence we are now operating at about 50% of normal trade.  

“Football games behind closed doors to end last season saw us without any football trade and these home game days now see us operating at only 10% of what they would be. 

“No supporters at grounds will make a huge difference to our annual turnover and as for limited numbers in the stadium, it will depend if our normal match day guests are part of that limited number.”

Deterred from showing live football because of what he considers to be unsustainable costs and changes to his pub’s rateable value, Atkins adds: “I have no answers for the short term except to plead to everyone to use their common sense and think of others. We will get there in the medium to long term if we use the above and a successful vaccine has been developed. 

“I can't help feeling though that many will be very cautious for a long-time to come. This is the picture now; we have to make the best of it and cut our cloth to suit.”


Struggle to survive  

Martin Whelan of the Tollington in Islington, North London – a regular pre-match watering hole for visitors to the Emirates Stadium – has only decided to resume trading two days before Arsenal’s first game of the new season away to newly promoted Fulham.

“Footfall in zone one in London has been disastrous since the lockdown was eased,” he tells The MA​. “London is still like a ghost town.”

According to Whelan, fan footfall driven by Arsenal’s home games has contributed approximately 40% of his pub’s annual turnover in each of the past 14 years.

“Although it will be welcoming to have fans back in the stadiums sometime in the future, until there’s a vaccine found and the social distancing rules can become relaxed on sports bars like mine it’s going to be a loss maker as we could only trade at about 20% of the capacity that we would normally have on a match day,” he explains.

“Like all the businesses around the Emirates Stadium until we get back to some form of normality, we will all struggle to survive – a year of this and we will all be skint.”


Case Study – 2020 FA Cup Final

The 2020 FA Cup Final between Arsenal and Chelsea was the first in the history of the world’s oldest cup competition to be played behind closed doors and offered a lucrative post-lockdown trading day for sport pubs. 

According to MatchPint, the rerun of the 2017 final was the second most searched for event since lockdown, matching last year’s Europa League Final – which also featured Arsenal and Chelsea – for traffic. 

Venues broadcasting Arsenal’s 14th​ FA Cup final triumph saw an average 4.5% volume uplift during the game, peaking in the first half where sales were up 6.9% versus venues without live sport, according to Oxford Partnership Market Watch.

The same research found that venues showing the 2020 FA Cup Final also saw increased drinker dwell time, up 12.9% compared to sport-free venues.


Fan return very important

As a sponsor of Aston Villa, Warwickshire-based Purity Brewing Company worked with fans, local supporter groups and matchday pubs to ensure supporters can get the same beer both in pubs and Villa Park prior to lockdown. 

“With Villa Park sold out most matchdays our partnership Aston Villa is a very important one,” Purity's CEO and CO Paul Halsey tells The MA​. “Being a local brand and fan of the club, we have enjoyed working with the club on match days and activating the brand at stadia." 

However, despite seeing “significant decreases” in draught and package sales at Villa Park as the Dean Smith’s side ensured Premier League survival after July’s restart, Purity registered a spike in demand from sidelined supporters across all packaged lines via its online portal.  

“Previously only available at Villa Park and the support of the club, we were able to offer a ‘matchday experience’ for supports enjoying the game whilst watching from home,” Halsey says. “Sales following the final game of the season against West Ham were great as many fans were celebrating another year Premier League football next season.”

Aston Villa

Yet despite getting an increased number of online sales over the line, Halsey explains that fans returning will be “very important” not only as it is seen as returning to normality but in terms of beer volumes and revenue too.

“Having fans back in stadia will be hugely beneficial to us, as was the pubs re-opening in back July,” he continues. “Purity is a business built on a focus towards draught beer so it will be great to see supporters back in stadia enjoying our brand. 

“We see opening stadiums with limited capacity as a step in the right direction to getting back to normal. During the lockdown and close season we’ve worked closely with Aston Villa to ensure we can provide opportunities to ensure fans still get their favourite match day beer which we feel when supporters are allowed back will see an uplift in volume.

“Long term we hope outdoor events can come back as quickly and safely as possible. We are seeing green shoots with successful trial events across stadia around the country and hope to see football and rugby games in the new season with some fans back in the stands.” 

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