Summer sports wave: boom or bust?

Beleaguered Metro bars and restaurants are banking on a business bump from the resumption of pro sports league competition

No ticket sales yet at the Vancouver Canucks’ Rogers Arena, but National Hockey League competition is set to resume in August after being shut down in March | Chung Chow

There are likely many B.C. residents impatient for sports to resume as most professional leagues in North America plan to relaunch in the next few weeks, but Trevor Poirier is likely the most impatient of them all.

For entrepreneurs like Poirier, owner of Yagger’s Restaurant & Sports Bar, the return of televised sports is more than a welcome distraction from COVID-19. It is a key difference-maker in a bid for economic survival..

“It’s what we’ve all been waiting for,” Poirier said. “I mean, we are a sports bar – so our reason to be is live sports, and we are eagerly anticipating it.”

Places like Yagger’s had a taste of how things might look post-relaunch on July 12, when UFC 251 in Abu Dhabi drew a larger number of patrons to local restaurants and bars that were showing the event. Yagger’s, which reported that business had been slower since reopening, was filled to its safe limit of 60% capacity for the night – with tables separated by Plexiglas or a safe distance of two metres.

“We had 50 people in here, and I probably turned away 100 to 125,” Poirier said. “It is frustrating, but I think more than anything, I’m just excited to see more bodies out at the bar and cheering.”

The picture is the same at the Boston Pizza on West Broadway in Vancouver, where owner/franchisee Nadeem Ahmad said the jump in business during UFC 251 was hard to miss.

In addition to a number of European and Asian soccer and baseball leagues’ seasons already underway, North American sports are slowly returning. Major League Soccer launched first with its showcase tournament in Orlando on July 8, and the Vancouver Whitecaps FC played its first game on July 15.

The Major League Baseball season is scheduled to run 60 games starting on  July 23, while the National Basketball Association will restart on July 30. The most hotly anticipated return in B.C. will be the National Hockey League, which will relaunch on August 1 with five games between the hub cities of Toronto and Edmonton.

The Vancouver Canucks begin their schedule a day later on August 2 in Game 1 of its play-in series with the Minnesota Wild.

The incoming wave of televised sports content is music to the ears of Poirier.

“Without a doubt, there’ll be demand because Vancouver is a pretty ‘homer’ city, and people will come out to support their teams,” he said.

BC Restaurant and Food Services Association president and CEO Ian Tostenson said the significance of sports restarting and its impact on B.C. establishments rest on the relaunch’s expected impact in urban areas – a market that has been hardest hit by the pandemic-driven economic malaise.

Tostenson noted that restaurants in the suburbs are reporting around 80% sales compared with the same time last year, while markets like the Okanagan are seeing almost no effects as B.C. domestic tourists (including visitors from Metro Vancouver) are pouring into the region.

Meanwhile, the picture is very different within the Lower Mainland and Greater Victoria urban core.

“The problem we have in the urban areas of Vancouver and Victoria is that we have no international tourists and no business people,” Tostenson said. “So we are running at capacities of 20% to 25% of last year in these places, and it’s an absolute disaster.…  Anything you can stitch together to get people to come will work.

“While [sports restarting] is not necessarily going to draw people downtown, it’s going to bring people out of their apartments as something to do. It can be a mundane experience right now for bar patrons because when you go to a bar, you have to essentially stay in your small pod and keep a social distance, and that’s a really tough thing for bar patrons to do. But if you have something to divert people’s attention – like a sporting event on a screen – then the experience becomes a lot more palatable and appealing.”

The B.C. industry is at a crucial point in its relaunch.

Tostenson estimated that the province lost between 10% and 15% of restaurants that decided not to reopen after closing in March.

He added that every owner he knows is doing everything they can to make their establishments economically viable after reopening – because there is “no going backwards” for the sector.

Tostenson said he expects B.C. restaurants and sports bars will remain safe, even with the anticipated increase in demand from sports fans – because the industry’s survival depends on it.

“There are 190,000 people who work in the category, and we are at maybe 50% employment,” he said.

“So what we are seeing here is every restaurant doing everything they can to win back a customer’s confidence, because if we do something wrong, a customer is not coming back – not just for next time, but forever. We need to check the boxes in both public safety and economics, and there’s no reason to open if you can’t do it safely. And we are showing that we can open safely.”

Thomas Drance, senior writer covering the Vancouver Canucks for the Athletic, noted that this may be an opportunity for restaurants to think outside the box.

For example, the MLS’ New England Revolution hosted drive-in game viewings on the field of Gillette Stadium.

“I think there’s going to be tremendous opportunity for establishments to be creative in finding solutions,” Drance said. “Can you mount a television outside? Are you able to set up an environment – if social distancing is not possible – for safe viewing outdoors? There are some interesting ways to go about this, and I’m curious to see how people adapt to enjoy games socially in a new normal.”

Yagger’s Poirier agreed that “new normal” is key, because some sport-viewing habits – at bars or otherwise – have likely changed for the foreseeable future.

But Poirier also agreed that it isn’t necessarily a bad thing – as long as there is some financial support in place for restaurants while they are kept at lower than 100% capacity.

“A lot of people said they like the new world because the bar’s not crowded,” he said. “Now, obviously, that’s not very viable for me as a business, but thank God for subsidies to help us with that.

“In the end, I’m a big sports fan. All my friends are big sports fans. People are looking for a reason to be able to be at a sports bar, but people are also looking for a safe way to do it.

“You will not see 25 people jammed into a small space anymore, but people are stoked for the restart. Some will stay home, but for many, that’s simply not the same as the experience in a public setting.” •