Next-Gen Sports Bars

High-tech and High-touch, Today’s Sport Bars Focus on Quality Food, Drinks and Entertainment

Like everything else in life, sports bars are continually changing and evolving. And just like on the playing field, it’s all about amping up the action. Rapidly shifting consumer tastes and desires are combining with ever-savvier owners, resulting in next-wave concepts that are once again reinventing the notion of what exactly comprises a sports bar.

Long gone are the days when a venue could air The Big Game on a 25-inch television behind the bar and call itself a sports bar. To compete in today’s crowded marketplace, it’s critical to discover new ways to create excitement so your customers think of you first when it’s time to choose a venue at which to cheer their favorite team.

Today’s establishments have totally redefined this genre, in many cases blending elements of other successful dining and nightclub concepts. And developers of these next-generation sports bars find customers are responding not only with loyalty but also with their wallets.

So what are patrons are looking for today? As with guests of most segments of the industry, the mantra these days for sport-minded patrons is more options and more value. And those establishments mastering both categories are reaching the finish line quickest.

“You used to get by with one TV, but now it’s bigger and better. You can’t have too many TVs with many choices and options,” says David Commer, president of Commer Beverage Consulting. “It’s critical that anyone can watch anything they want, even if that means watching a tennis match during the Super Bowl.”

Additionally, people must feel as if they’re getting their money’s worth. “You need to have added value. You have to ask why someone is going to seek out your venue rather than another,” explains Corey Nyman, director of operations with The Nyman Group, a consulting and restaurant management company. 

Commer agrees. “One of the mistakes operators do is confuse value with cheap — cheap is not always cheap. Value in this instance needs to be inexpensive, but quality is important,” he says, noting that offering smaller plates with high-quality food seems to be a good game day strategy.

Retro food also is in the spotlight today, crossed with higher quality menu selections that appeal to both men and women. Message: It’s important to serve something other than just fried foods; salads and fish seem to be big hits these days — an anomaly in what used to be a fried-food-centric category.

As for drinks, experts agree some people now opt for non-traditional beers when out to watch a sporting event at their favorite watering hole. They can get the big-name brands at home, they reason, so when imbibing on-premise they want something regional and handcrafted.

Oh yeah, and flawless and informed service is a must. “People don’t want to wait 20 minutes for a drink. And your servers should know something about the sports that are being broadcast, too,” Nyman says.

Here are some establishments that have found success in an increasingly crowded field, playing to both men and women and offering something outside the tired old sports bar concept.

Celebrity Ventures
By taking a single concept and rolling it out in different cities under different names, Celebrity Ventures is tapping into the local scene with success. The company operates two outlets — deals are in place for more — named after local sports heroes rather than a generic catch-all name. Across from The Ohio State University, for example, there’s Eddie George’s Grille 27, and Pittsburgh is home to Jerome Bettis’ Grille 36.  According to Bob McCarthy, partner and vice president of concept development with Celebrity Ventures, it’s critical to maximize your potential audience. And while many sports bars consider women as an afterthought, McCarthy sees appealing to the female demographic as paramount, which is why the company blended a restaurant concept with sports bar appeal.

“People looking for a sports bar experience find that, but those looking for a restaurant that has sports viewing can find it, too. Men want a place to bring wives and girlfriends, so we look for ways to attract broad-based clientele,” McCarthy says. “We knew we had to be gender neutral.”

In addition to traditional sports bar fare, the Grille menus also boast edamame, crispy tuna rolls and assorted fresh fish. That, combined with a stylish atmosphere and more than 60 flat-panel televisions, is where Celebrity Ventures’ formula really begins to play out. To grab the lunchtime crowd, channels are switched to Bloomberg News or CNBC; during commercials in sporting events, a DJ plays and then takes over on weekend nights when the games are done. The venues also utilize NanaWalls, which split larger spaces into smaller spaces quickly and easily so some guests can watch tennis while others take in a football game — all without disturbing each other. 

Lagasse’s Stadium
Bam! Chef Emeril Lagasse is taking the sports bar concept up a notch with his newest Las Vegas outpost, Lagasse’s Stadium at the Palazzo Las Vegas. Setting the stage for an entirely new way to watch sports in a social environment, this place is more like a living room than many people’s, well, living rooms. With 109 televisions, it’s all about wall-to-wall action. And of course there is the chef’s world-renowned cuisine to enjoy while quaffing some tasty beverages and taking in the big game.

“The place is an extension of home because it is such a comfortable setting,” says general manager Marc Zakin. “And when it comes to food, we have everything from nachos and wings all the way to filets and salmon tartar.”

The combination of high tech and high taste is helping expand the venue’s target audience. Interestingly, Zakin expected patrons to be about 75 percent men, but just a few weeks after the fall opening, he finds it’s actually more of an even split. Women are particularly interested in specialty drinks and cocktails, which were co-created by distributor Southern Wines and Spirits.

The 24,000-square-foot space also has themed rooms, each focusing on a particular sport. And since it’s Las Vegas, there is a sports book available right there to make watching games a little more interesting.

Xtreme Sports Bar + Lounge
In Reno, Nev., the Grand Sierra Resort has opened the Xtreme Sports Bar + Lounge. Rather than just focus on the big sports such as football and baseball, this place is an homage to extreme sports like snowboarding, skateboarding and motocross. Turns out Reno is a major encampment for extreme sports athletes and their fans, so going this route was natural.

“There’s a whole generation of people today where sports are something totally different,” explains President and CEO Richard Silverman. “[The bar] is absolutely at least 50 percent focused on the extreme athletes of the world.”

Walls are adorned with 40-foot murals of Olympic athletes, BMX champs and local favorites; food menus appear on snowboards, beer menus on skateboards. Plus, the Xtreme Girls serve up the food offerings, all of which are extreme versions of bar food found elsewhere in the country. As for drinks, expect kegs rather than traditional bottle service.

The bar also has authentic memorabilia and features 25 high-definition 42-inch plasmas and one LCD high-definition projection with a 12-by-8-foot screen. More than 30,000 watts of power drive a 50-plus speaker sound system, which comes in handy when the place turns into a nightclub several nights a week. And even that’s gone extreme, as the house DJ plays alongside the house band Audioboxx in a major musical mash-up. It’s all helped create a venue that appeals to men and women equally, according to Silverman.

Tilted Kilt
Ruling the Midwest and Southwest with a plaid skirt is the Tilted Kilt Pub & Eatery, and the Tempe, Ariz.-based franchising company is looking to dominate the rest of the country; 26 locations are now open and seven are in the works.

Casual and comfortable, the Tilted Kilt is the perfect antidote for those looking for something other than a serious and upscale sports bar. Here, the focus is on delivering good food in a fun, sports-oriented atmosphere. Its all-female wait staff is clad in the official “uniform:” a miniskirt-style kilt, starched button-down shirt tied to bare the midriff, sporran, stockings and flashings. The chain’s tagline is “The Best-looking Sports Pub You’ve Ever Seen,” and the 2010 calendar featuring the staff was released this fall amid much fanfare in the restaurants. Décor-wise, the pubs play on a traditional Celtic theme but inject the atmosphere with a comical twist. There are humorous limericks on the walls, and a variety of cheeky displays encourage customers to let their guard down and have some fun.

Of course there are plenty of HDTV screens to watch the game, along with pool tables and dart boards. The food menu is also as casual as the atmosphere, delivering the requisite wings alongside “Sloppy Janes,” “Drunken Clams” and updated versions of Irish classics such as Shepherd’s Pie and bangers and mash. Steaks, chicken and stews round out the menu, which also features seasonal specialties. NCB

Games People Play

Capturing business at sports bars isn’t all about the newest technology. In fact some folks like to completely unplug when visiting a sports bar.

At New York City’s Southern Hospitality, for example, it’s all about creating a laid-back atmosphere, says director of operations Chris Russell. “This place is about being who you are, and we are not about following tech trends. We have an old school heart,” he says. Instead of over the top accoutrements, management focuses on basic college drinking games like beer pong and quarters. Beer pong has proved to be a great sales tool, as pitchers for a game cost just $10.

“We want to turn trial customers into long-term customers,” Russell says. “And long-term relationships are built on old school games.”

On the plugged-in side, one old school game that has proven popular for two decades at bars is Golden Tee. According to Gary Colabuono, marketing director with Incredible Technologies, this classic game is still a lynchpin strategy for many bars. Some operators are also leveraging the popularity of sports-oriented gaming systems such as those available from NTN Buzztime, TouchTunes and others. Additionally, recreational leagues for games like darts, pool and even skeeball help establishments capture repeat customers.

“This is a nice melding of all things going into why bar games are popular. It comes down to social competitiveness. You play with buddies, have a beer and while one plays the others scope out the place for ladies,” Colabuono quips.


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