The coronavirus pandemic has caused unprecedented changes to the professional sports calendar. When the NFL season started two weeks ago, it was the first time in history that every major American sports league had games scheduled on the same day. For sports fans, the calendar has never been more crowded, but local sports bars have never been less so.
Limitations on dining room capacity have forced sports bars to be more creative in how they host and entertain their patrons. That’s meant more time outside, very limited capacity, and ongoing financial strain which dates back to March.
At Legends, the reduced indoor capacity meant changes to how long patrons would stay inside the restaurant. Customers were asked to make reservations for the game they were interested in watching, with an understanding that they would clear out for the next party once the game was finished.
“A lot of that isn’t typically how we do business here,” said general manager John Peterson, who has been at Legends for eight years. “It’s hard for us to impose time limits. We’ve never been that bar. In practice, people stayed a little longer and people who wanted to see the afternoon games showed up a little early, so we had a tense hour or so. There’s growing pains for sure, every week we’re trying to get a little smarter. We’ve got more help coming this week and we’ll have more signage up as well, just trying to get better every week.”
With the limited capacity allowed indoors, Legends took advantage of its patio seating area, as well as its newly-constructed parklet on Second Street, which allowed for additional patio seating. Nevertheless, Peterson said that the seating capacity was at just about 20 percent of what a typical NFL Sunday would bring.
In Bixby Knolls, EJ’s Pub reported a roughly 60 percent capacity for their outside seating area, located behind the bar in its parking lot area.
“It’s been survival mode until we knew the NFL would be playing their season, and then it was scramble mode to make it work,” explained manager Corrie Matthews, who has worked at EJ’s for 15 years. “We got a tent outside in the back parking lot and got that all wired up, then we purchased roll carts and took six indoor TV’s outside so people could watch out there. It helped us out a lot.”
EJ’s also has a patio area out front, and fans could sit within viewing range of TV’s inside. Matthews said that although it was far from a ‘normal” NFL Sunday, it was well-received by her staff and customers.
“Everyone was excited to have people back,” she said. “The feeling was back and people were just excited to be around other people watching sports.”
The return of professional football, coupled with the Los Angeles Lakers’ ongoing run through the NBA playoffs, has provided a welcome uptick in business to an industry in need. The lockdowns have put tremendous financial strain on bars and restaurants, leaving them to find new means to survive.
“Truthfully, we’ve been absolutely crushed,” said Peterson of the situation at Legends. “Thankfully, this is such an established business and has reserves to keep our head above water. But we’re deep into the reserves. It’s not just the losses that come through the shutdown–building the parklet, buying misting fans, outdoor lighting, new TV’s for people outside–all the associated costs are running up.”
According to both Matthews and Peterson, community support and customer loyalty have been extremely important to help keep the businesses going. So despite the decrease in business and resulting financial hardship, there remains optimism.
“Our clientele has been beyond supportive and that has been amazing,” said Matthews. “Even from the beginning, if people were scared they would come by just to get a gift card. That has been overwhelmingly positive for sure.”
Matthews added she feels lucky EJ’s has food to offer its customers, since many of her friends who own breweries or dive bars are facing a much bleaker outlook.
While the return of the NFL won’t solve every problem at EJ’s Pub, Legends, or other establishments like them, it’s a needed boost during a challenging time. And the good news is, those in charge are committed to overcoming the adversity.
“Fortunately for us, we have owners who are extremely flexible and motivated, and who love this bar and this city,” Peterson said. “We have a staff who is extremely resilient and optimistic and everybody is on the same program of how we’re going to make it work. Everybody wants to survive this, and we will.”