Why it's a New Era for America's Classic Sports Bar
For many years, the array of sports bars across the country, including the largest chain Buffalo Wild Wings, mid-sized Miller Ale House, and smaller chains like Glory Days Grill and Arooga’s Grille House & Sports Bar, as well as independents, kept fans happy. As one writer described it, “potato skins, chicken wings and camaraderie” drew scores of customers, particularly on Monday and Thursday nights when the NFL plays and Saturday afternoon for the college football faithful.
And then it seemed as if selected sports bars peaked and lost their mojo. Too many fans started gravitating toward upscale or nutritious dining, beyond chicken wings and fries served on a platter. Since NFL ratings were also cresting, some guests soured on watching pro football. Moreover, many patrons have large-screen TVs at home with multiple screens to soak in fantasy sports, so the need to trek to a sports bar subsided, except for the camaraderie.
For example, revenue at Buffalo Wild Wings, which had been a growth stock, dipped in 2017. Same-store sales fell 1.6 percent in 2017 before it was sold to Arby Restaurant Group for $2.9 billion, a division of privately held Roark Capital Group. It also sold off 60 company-owned eateries to franchisees in 2017, but still owns more than 1,200 outlets. One industry analyst who prefers anonymity says that Buffalo Wild Wings was undergoing management changes and is back on track. The company tapped Lyle Tick, managing director for Walgreens Boots Alliance beauty brands business in the Americas, as president in September. Check out more of the recent changes, including a refreshed logo and marketing push, here.
Events to attract fantasy sports fanatics have stepped up at some sports bars, and the long-term possibility of legal betting looms. But the sports bars that are growing offer more than chicken wings, and are strengthening their menus and attracting wider audiences.
One factor that hurt sports bars is the intensified competition, explains Gary Stibel, founder and CEO of Westport, Connecticut-based New England Consulting Group. “It’s hard to walk into a restaurant, even a white-table cloth one, and not see a TV at the bar,” he says. Furthermore, the prime audience of millennials is maturing and having kids, and their “wives don’t want to go to a sports bar,” he adds.
Kevin Moll, president of Denver, Colorado-based Restaurant Consulting Services, says customers are confused about the identity of sports bars. “Are they a bar that serves food, or do they specialize in alcohol? Is it a place to drink and watch sports or a place to get a meal?” he says.
To develop its competitive edge, every sports bar has to conduct “specific market research of what they can offer that other eateries don’t,” Moll says.
American tastes are constantly in flux and most sports bars became “same-old, same-old,” Moll adds. Stibel agreed, saying, “If you’re not innovating, you’re old news.” Sports bars need to introduce new “sauces or beers” or lose their customers, he says.
Many sports bars are viewed like a fraternity house for millennials or an after-work drinking place for guys. And that left women, who compose 51 percent of the population, and families feeling left out.
“If a sports bar wants to be busy, it should market itself exclusively to female clientele. You’ll get guys automatically,” Moll quips.
To adapt, sports bars need to modify their menu, Moll says. Offer chicken wings sautéed in lemon or olive oil as an alternative to fried chicken wings and quinoa as an option to fries.
Glory Days Grill, which has 34 eateries (21 company-owned and 13 franchised), mostly in Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, and Florida, refers to itself as a “grill and bar or a sports-themed family restaurant,” says Gary Cohen, its Gaithersburg, Maryland-based executive vice president. But it has been growing, adding four outlets in 2017, and will add five by the end of 2018.
Cohen prefers not to describe it as a sports bar because of the negative connotations, “like pub grub and fried foods, and a bunch of guys standing around and yelling at a TV.”
Glory Days Grill’s, launched by three founders in Burke, Virginia, in 1996, is still committed to serving as a neighborhood gathering place, like the sports bar on the long-running “Cheers” TV series. Each outlet is involved in the community, sponsors Little League teams, has all games on “and never feels like a corporate chain,” Cohen says. Most average 30 TV sets and 50 TVs in the newer spots. There’s even a screen tuned into Cartoon Network at all times and speaker boxes on the tables to control volume.
Despite people’s having their big screen TVs at home, most customers like to celebrate what Cohen calls, “glory moments” with friends and family. If a son scores his first goal at a soccer game, or daughter receives her first A on a science test, a meal at Glory Days is fitting. Glory Days Grill requires of its operators is to sponsor a minimum of 10 local sports teams a year. Additionally, locations are designed with a separated space for event occasions, an ideal fit for local teams to come and hand out awards, or anything else that fits this community vibe. Just in the past year, Glory Days Grill gave back $400,000 to its community through various programs.
Glory Days Grill expanded its menu beyond burger and fries, offering lobster rolls, berry salads with homemade dressing, Impossible vegetarian burgers, and a two-tiered kids’ menu. But its website still promotes $6 burgers on Monday’s and $6 tacos on Tuesday’s.
“That’s our mainstay menu. We have to offer what got us to the dance,” Cohen says.
But unlike the prototypical sports bar, Glory Days Grill attracts “young families with children, who are involved in sports, and college students returning home. We’re not a typical dating spot,” Cohen says.
Women are encouraged to dine at Glory Days. In fact, 70 percent of its menu items including salads and seafood, can be ordered in half sizes, often a crowd pleaser for women.
It’s also stepping up its franchising efforts. Cohen points out, “We believe our concept is ripe for growth, and we can grow on parallel paths, both company-owned and franchised units.” Bob Basham, co-founder of Outback Steakhouse, is currently directing a group in Florida that has already opened eight locations, with plans for 30–50 restaurants.
When the Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup last June, every Glory Days Grill in the Washington, D.C./Virginia area was packed. “People still love sports; it brings people together,” Cohen says.
Gary Huether, the CEO and founder of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania-based Arooga’s Grille House & Sports Bar, which has 19 outlets (10 company-owned and nine franchised), also wants to transcend the sports bar stereotype. “We have to overcome the frozen to the fryer crap food stereotype,” he says, bluntly.
Instead Arooga’s offers high-quality food such as wagyu beef burgers, which are derivative of Kobe burgers, crab pretzels, hand-breaded Mozzarella triangles, and the Impossible vegetarian burger. “Our chicken is raised without antibiotics and soups and dips are made to recipe,” he says.
Moreover, at 17 of 19 Arooga’s, the space is divided between eatery and sports bar, each with a different sound system. “Our goal is to have our guests back a couple of times a week. One night a patron comes in with his family and sits at the restaurant, and the next with his colleagues after work,” Huether says.
It appeals to people “eight to 80,” he adds. “At the bar, you’ll see a construction worker, next to a mom, next to a millennial. We’re not pigeon-holed.”
Most Arooga’s showcase 80–100 TV’s on site, enabling patrons to watch all the NFL games going on at one time. “The energy is so strong that it’s like going to the game. And many fans come in their jerseys, Eagles, Steelers, Packers,” he says.
“We’re going for higher quality ingredients. We put the focus on food and 40 different draft beers and provide TVs,” Huether adds.
How much can Arooga’s grow? “If there are a thousand Buffalo Wild Wings or so, there can be a thousand Arooga’s,” he says.