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All aboard the Mug Bug—a six-seat, motorized golf cart that can reach speeds of 35 miles per hour. The Ugly Mug uses the vehicle to transport baseball fans for free from the bar, located near Barracks Row, to Nationals Park and back again after the last crack of the bat. “That’s what you have to do these days,” says Joey Allen, the bar’s director of marketing and events. “You have to do whatever it takes to make customers happy.”
Sports bars are under pressure in the District’s increasingly competitive nightlife scene, especially when some, like sports persona Michael Wilbon, subscribe to the idea that D.C. is a nascent or “minor league” sports town. Several have closed recently including 10 Tavern from Phillips Seafood in Chinatown, The Prospect on U Street NW, Parlay Sports Bar & Lounge in Dupont, and Walters Sports Bar in Park View.
When former Walters’ owner Jeremy Gifford took over a failed bar in Park View, he banked on neighbors welcoming a sports bar. “We felt Georgia Avenue had been changing with lots of newcomers to our neighborhood—people might want to be able to watch sports from where they came from,” he says. Customers fancied the “West Coast happy hour” when fans could watch late games over discounted West Coast beers.
Walters ultimately only did big business on Sunday afternoons and struggled because of the limitations of its kitchen. “Our menu revolved around a small, ventless fryer and an oven like Starbucks uses,” he says. “Maybe in a more populated neighborhood with a proper kitchen Walters could do better.”
Sports bars are fickle and come with a unique set of challenges and preconceived notions. “Sports bars are a lot harder than people think,” says Ventnor Sports Cafe owner Scott Auslander. “You can really get bogged down in costs, especially technology costs.”
His narrow, two-floor bar opened in Adams Morgan in 2005. “We were the first sports bar that could be in a tiny space,” Auslander says. He believes Ventnor was among the first bars to mount flat screen TVs, which at the time cost thousands of dollars but didn’t require as much real estate on the walls.
It’s not just the display equipment that adds up. “I have to buy all of the packages,” Auslander says. “Sports bars to most people mean cheap food and cheap drinks, but the technology is expensive. For the owner, it’s quite the conundrum.”
“NFL Sunday Ticket is kind of outrageous,” says Peter Bayne. He co-owns some of the District’s biggest sports bars with Geoff Dawson. “For large venues like Penn Social, we’re spending up to $15,000 a season.” DIRECTV determines how much to charge a venue for the football package based on occupancy.
And since bars have to purchase DIRECTV to offer NFL Sunday Ticket, they’re reliant on a satellite dish. “If you’re wondering why every bar loses footage during thunderstorms, it’s because they have DIRECTV,” Bayne says.
Sometimes the public still isn’t satisfied with the options. “A family came in and was upset that we didn’t have the golf package,” Allen recounts. “The match comes on at 2 p.m., but they want to watch all of the pre-stuff. They’re mad we don’t have it.” It frustrates him when patrons want a la carte channels but expect to pay only $4 for beer even though the price of kegs is creeping up.
Sports bars have one big thing working in their favor. Younger generations are splitting up with cable. Auslander says if there’s a live basketball game on TNT, people under 40 usually have to go out to watch it. Indeed, a 2017 Pew Research Center survey found 61 percent of people ages 18 to 29 primarily consume television on streaming platforms.
The success of a sports bar is often tethered to the triumphs of hometown teams, presenting another pitfall. Whether a team reaches the playoffs can be a make or break issue for owners. It’s why Bayne drools over doing business in a sports-obsessed city like Boston, where teams have had extended runs at greatness and fans want to watch every game.
Despite the fact that a D.C. team has not won a championship in one of the four major professional leagues in more than 25 years (the Washington football team was the last to do it, in 1992), Bayne is optimistic the future holds something better for D.C. sports and D.C. sports bars.
“It used to be that we were just a football town, but hockey is chipping away at it,” he says. “The energy behind the Caps feels different.” His bars are “seas of red” during playoff games.
When Walters was open, Gifford says a Caps playoff run had the ability to double his bar’s monthly sales. He also feels D.C.’s significant population of transplants plays in its favor. Maybe someone’s hometown didn’t have a basketball or baseball team. “People from all over the country move here and latch onto our sports teams,” he says. “Nobody comes here and becomes a Redskins fan, but baseball and hockey have been adopted quickly by our transient community.”
Mike Bramson, who co-owned The Prospect, compares D.C. to Chicago, a city that has a more mature, imbedded sports bar scene. “Whether there’s a game on or not there, sports bars are packed,” he says. “With the Caps doing so well and other sports teams getting better, I think that culture will improve here. But for now, sports bars are too niche. You do extremely well during the season or a specific game, but in the off-season it slows down.”
The peaks and valleys sports bars weather can negatively impact staffing. “You load up on big games and cut people during slower times,” Bramson says. “It’s hard to tell a good bartender, ‘We don’t have the shifts for you.’” The swing in staff numbers can also cause consistency issues with food and service.
“Ramp up in the fall and it goes to June, then it completely dies off unless you’re a soccer bar,” Allen of The Ugly Mug adds. “Maybe there’s soccer or the Olympics, but other than that you live and die by sports.”
Allen, Bayne, and millions of fans are embittered that the U.S. men’s national team choked and didn’t qualify for this summer’s World Cup. “We would have had a line around the block at Penn Social,” Bayne says. “For them to blow it, it’s crazy. It’s sad for the team and the country, but also sad for businesses. You wait four years for this.”
Because sports outcomes are unpredictable, sports bars have to cater to more than just sports fans by differentiating themselves. “If you just try to be a sports bar, it’s not enough,” Auslander says.
He believes focusing on the surrounding community and becoming a neighborhood bar is the best strategy. “Whether it’s food, drink, or camaraderie, you have to provide something beyond sports.” Ventnor prospers on the District’s political DNA by serving specials during State of The Union addresses. They also offer trivia nights and crowd-pleasers like summer crab feasts.
Arturo Zaloga, the general manager of Lou’s City Bar, agrees. “Your bread and butter is the neighborhood,” he says. “Games supplement it, but it’s the people from Columbia Heights that keep us going.” Bar moguls Eric and Ian Hilton began operating the bar about a year ago and recently tapped a new chef to up the quality of the food.
The Ugly Mug also made improvements to its food menu with the help of Lucky Buns’ chef Alex McCoy. “We wanted to get someone fresh and trendy in the industry,” he says. “You don’t have divey sports bars in D.C.—you have nice sports bars with craft cocktails and gourmet hot dogs. It’s almost like your living room in here … That’s what our sports bars feel like in Washington.”
When Rob Zahn opened one his popular New York sports bars in D.C., he took a different approach. Instead of targeting a neighborhood for Proper 21, he looked for real estate surrounded by offices and found a location at 1319 F St. NW.
“We’re a sports bar, but what we do is target corporate areas where there’s a built-in lunch crowd,” the NIEUW Group partner says. Work happy hours and events are big money makers.
Proper 21 is an upscale sports bar, with walls lined with art instead of dusty items commemorating yesteryear’s sports greats. Bayne’s newest bars, Franklin Hall and Church Hall, have similarly polished atmospheres. The latter even has a twinkling chandelier.
While some sports bars have gotten a leg up by offering niceties typically reserved for fancy restaurants, others attract customers by appealing to out of town teams with devoted followings. “It’s better for a business to find a fan-base that’s non-Redskins and really embrace what they want by creating a scene that’s a home away from home,” Bayne says.
Bayne courts college alumni groups with drink specials and will play a school’s fight song over the sound system when they score a touchdown. “People want the nostalgia of when they were 20-year-olds drinking light shitty beer all day,” he says.
The popularity of fantasy football has also been a big boon for sports bars. Participants went from not following football at all to agonizing over every game. In addition to welcoming larger crowds during the season, bars could host beer-fueled fantasy draft parties.
Could legalized sports betting boost sports bars in the same way?
“It will make for more people that are interested in sports,” Auslander predicts. “It’s sort of the next level of fantasy for people.”