Tavern owners ponder life after football

Should the current National Football League lockout stretch into the 2011 season—previously scheduled to begin in early September—there will be an impact on Las Vegas, even though the nearest NFL team is in Arizona.

That a work stoppage will hurt the casinos of Las Vegas—particularly on the Strip—is hardly mysterious. Even though football betting doesn’t generate a ton of revenue for casinos (less than $26 million for the Strip in 2010 for both college and pro football), it’s an amenity that draws a relatively free-spending crowd. The casinos will be just as sad to see the sportsbook big screens tuned into bowling on Sunday as anyone.

But the cancellation of even part of the NFL season will hurt more than the tourist corridor. Taverns will feel the pinch, possibly even more than the casinos.

According to Christopher Abraham, vice president of marketing at Golden Gaming, which runs PT’s and Sierra Gold Pubs, football fans are smack dab in the middle of the company’s target demographic, and losing Sunday pro football would be a huge loss.

“A vibrant NFL season is extremely important to the local tavern industry,” he says. “The lack of an NFL season would significantly impact Sunday and Monday business at PT’s and Sierra Gold. Food and beverage sales would be affected the most.”

Last fall, just as football season was gearing up, Abraham shared that NFL-season Monday nights saw business more than double, compared with non-football Mondays. Those boom-nights make a big difference to the company, and the prospect of losing the nearly automatic draw of pro football is a daunting one.

Even those businesses that won’t take a direct hit from football-free Sundays and Mondays are anticipating changes.

“We actually have a challenge with sales when there is a compelling football event televised,” says Metro Pizza’s John Arena. The company does more than two-thirds of its sales on dine-in business, and sit-down restaurants aren’t conducive to football watching. “Super Bowl Sunday is an average day at best for us,” he says.

But that doesn’t mean he’s going to be selling more pizzas should the NFL go dark.

“The real impact for Metro Pizza is going to be the fact that if fewer football fans come to town, our customers will earn less money. Over 90 percent of our guests are locals. The hard-core gamblers are going to bet on something else; it is the recreational gambler who is coming to town for a football-related getaway that may stay home and that can impact everyone in town.” But not everyone thinks a work stoppage will mean hardship. A local tavern operator who preferred to remain anonymous admits that hosting professional football is a mixed bag.

“The NFL package is very expensive,” he says, “and for a lot of operators it doesn’t always pay off. You have to sell a lot of drinks to make it worth your while, and if your focus is more on gaming, it can actually be a distraction.

“Not having to put resources into pro football in the fall means you can put them into other things, like gaming promotions, which is what draws most customers to taverns in the first place.”

Nonetheless, plenty of taverns would have to get creative. Some will try to shift attention to college games—PT’s and Sierra Gold, Abraham says, already run robust promotions and specials for college football fans, with different locations serving as different “home bars” for transplants and alumni from across the country. With a lack of NFL games, we can expect to see more of that.

It’s possible that other taverns would redouble their efforts to promote non-football-related attractions, possibly with an eye toward making them permanent after the lockout is over. Or, early in the fall, they’ll promote baseball—remember America’s pastime?—and shift to early-season basketball after the boys of summer have finished playing. Neither of those sports has the same almost-tribal draw as football in America at this point, but they may be a suitable substitute for sports-hungry fans.

If anything, the NFL lockout, should it result in missed games, will give Las Vegas business owners a chance to improvise. They might find something that draws even more attention than football. So maybe it’s best not to view a potential work stoppage as a forfeit, but as a chance to play a whole new game.

David G. Schwartz is the director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research.