When cardboard cutouts filled the stands and the real fans were at home on their couches, Tom Ryan and his team were plotting the rebirth of Denver’s sports bar scene.
Banking on corked-up demand, they prepared for this summer’s launch of a new 14,000-square-foot pub in downtown Denver, with high-definition video screens, immersive, room-size video games and the ability for patrons to play TV audio feeds on their phones — the better to drown out their obnoxious buddies.
“Tom’s Watch Bar is the modern version of a sports bar,” said co-founder Ryan, describing their ambitious new start at 19th and Wazee streets, hashed out as the pandemic jeopardized or closed sports bars across the country.
With the absence of sports in 2020, agile establishments like Tom’s Watch Bar are making up for lost time with innovation and big investments, while other Denver bars cater to shifting tastes and niche markets.
The new signs of life come after a bruising year that left many sports bars reeling.
Across the U.S., more than 110,000 restaurants permanently or temporarily closed due to coronavirus, according to the National Restaurant Association.
Sports bars faced unique challenges. Taverns missed out on busy events like March Madness and St. Patrick’s Day that typically created a nest egg for lean months. Businesses near stadiums suffered without pre-and post-game foot traffic. In November, Sports Illustrated chronicled the demise of longstanding institutions like The Fours in Boston, a mainstay for Celtics and Bruins fans for more than 40 years.
For some businesses, survival depended on emergency governmental assistance — and landlords willing to flex on the rent.
Blake Street Tavern is a block from Coors Field. “I know there is going to be 81 days I can make money,” owner Chris Fuselier said about home games. “I didn’t get any of that last year.” The only way you could tell the Rockies were playing last season was the glow from the stadium lights, Fuselier said. There wasn’t any sound. Nobody was battling for parking or selling peanuts on the sidewalk.
In 2020, Blake Street Tavern took in $2.3 million in sales, less than half of its normal revenue, even as Fuselier paid $42,000 a month in rent. Without federal help from the Paycheck Protection Program and the Restaurant Revitalization Fund — and his landlord agreeing to make a deal on rent — the bar wouldn’t have survived, he said.
Fuselier’s company, CJF Holdings, was approved for two Paycheck Protection loans, one for $390,300 in April 2020, the second for $546,400 on Jan. 16, according to Small Business Administration data. The first loan was forgiven as of November, according to SBA documents. The PPP loans were used to help pay 61 employees last year, and 40 this year. The company was approved for a $1,799,153 Restaurant Revitalization Fund grant, SBA data shows. Fuselier confirmed the loan and grant amounts.
Before the pandemic, sports bars were already up against a changing world.
When Fuselier opened Blake Street in 2003, he spent $50,000 on what he thought were top-of-the-line TVs, the pre-flatscreen anvil-size kind that ‘80s rock bands threw out hotel windows. The following year, he traveled to Chicago to check out the bar scene.
“Every bar there had this new thing called HDTV,” he said. “I came back to Denver and no one had HDTV except ESPN Zone, so I turned around and spent $80,000 on HDTVs. It put us on the map.”
Today, sports bars have to compete with people’s living rooms, Fuselier said. Most families have their own at-home cinema, so it’s difficult to impress with high-def. To add to the experience, taverns focus on interactive games and classics like darts, pool, Skee-Ball and cornhole. Now that gambling is legal, sports bars are betting on betting to keep people coming. Fuselier already partnered with SuperBook.com, which operates sportsbooks in both Vegas and Black Hawk.
The newly legal vice could help lure a Gen Z crowd that may be less interested in pro sports, but more apt to go out on the town. Fuselier, 57, said he would starve if he had to rely on his age group coming to Blake Street. Getting the younger cohort to come inside — and stay — means embracing shifts in how people consume entertainment.
“People are cutting the cable cord,” Fuselier said. “Instead of watching sports, we’re all experts in Netflix and Hulu and Prime.”
High-tech amenities are likewise a main draw at co-owner Ryan’s Tom’s Watch Bar.
Walk into the McGregor Square restaurant and a 165-inch stadium screen demands your attention, even though it’s competing with over 115 other flashing TVs. The two-story, indoor-outdoor restaurant and brewpub opened mid-June. The concept is a relaunch of the former Tom’s Urban diner-style restaurants. There are five other locations nationally.
Upstairs, AC Golden, Coors’ pilot program known for Colorado Native, serves freshly brewed beer straight from the tank. Instead of Golden Tee, a coin-operated arcade golf franchise, the bar has Topgolf Swing Suites for rent by the hour–private rooms that let patrons practice with real clubs in front of giant video screens.
Changing with the times has meant accommodating new sporting trends, some more dubious than others.
“Over COVID, in the absence of (pro games), there were some really cool emerging sports,” Ryan said. “We have a (pre-recorded) loop of obscure and outrageous sports as well—Russian face-slapping, Thai snake-whipping, professional tag.”
Professional and collegiate games remain the most popular. Both Tom’s and Blake Street are home to dedicated alumni groups from all over the country, which buoys business. Ryan said there is considerable interest among special events like UFC and major golf tournaments, and there is a growing group of soccer and WNBA fans.
The clientele is changing too. Men still dominate the customer base, but Ryan said there is more diversity and gender balance. The recent announcement of the first openly gay active NFL player, Carl Nassib of the Las Vegas Raiders, is an example of a small shift within hyper-masculine sports.
Tight End, a new gay sports bar, opened in April at the old Streets of London location on East Colfax Avenue at Humboldt Street. Owner Steven Alix, who also owns X Bar and Squire Lounge, said that Stoney’s Bar and Grill at East 11th Avenue and Lincoln Street was always welcoming to the LGBTQ+ crowd, but there was no specific place for the gay sports community in Denver, unlike most large cities. A place like the Tight End gives people who don’t fit the jock stereotype a place of their own. Other niche concepts have popped up, including Put Me in Coach, an all-vegan restaurant in Los Angeles, that has gleefully dodged the chicken wing crisis. Stadium Swim in downtown Las Vegas is a swimming pool venue with a 143-foot screen that airs sports all day.
Breastaurants—a sports-bar-related niche touting scantily clad servers—showed mixed results weathering #MeToo and the pandemic. Even Hooters, the “delightfully tacky” chain that helped launch the trend, has embraced reinvention. The company rebranded in 2018, keeping their wait staff’s iconic orange hot pants but modernizing interiors and updating their menu.
Hooters competitor Twin Peaks continues to grow, going against the overall trend of casual dining closures for over a decade. Corporate suburban chains that season dishes to the lowest common denominator are no longer desirable—not even for a free birthday sundae and an uncomfortable serenade by the entire staff. Twin Peaks kept up their menu and beer offerings to somehow attract younger diners who would rather spend their dollars at fast-casual spaces or higher-end spots.
New trends in sporting-related entertainment are popping up across the country.
Appealing to refined palates, Michelin-starred chef Nicholas Stefanelli created the casual menu at William Hill, a new stadium sportsbook in Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C. J. Bespoke in New York is an upscale speakeasy-style spot described as a cocktail bar “with sports programming.”
In Denver, Tom’s menu isn’t overly fancy, but it offers fun drinks and traditional favorites with exciting adjectives in front of them, according to Ryan, also the co-founder of Smashburger. Items include Kentucky hot chicken tenders with a cornbread pancake, the bar’s version of chicken and waffles, an elevated prime rib sandwich and condiment flights.
For speedy service, Ryan’s team developed the “kitchen engine,” a dialed-in back-of-the-house process that gets food to the table in 10 minutes or less. He said they achieve their goal 95% of the time. They also offer Tom’s Size double-and-a-half (a triple?) cocktails and 40-ounce pours, saving pre-gamers time so they can get to their seats before the first pitch.
The trick to being successful, tavern operators say, is to be faster, better, fresher and bigger — while always offering a taste of something new.
“Experience counts more than it ever has,” Ryan said. “We’ve gone from a transactional market to a much more experiential market. We take familiar things and tilt them just enough to give them some level of rebirth or reinvention.”