Mid-March is usually a great time to own a sports bar.
March Madness begins. The NBA season is well underway. The MLB season is nearing its start, and The Masters brings in a weekend of fun in early April. The NHL playoffs begin in April, too.
This year, March and April are not only disappointments for sports fans, but they’re also nightmares for sports bars.
Due to the spread of the coronavirus, March Madness is canceled. The NBA season is postponed. The MLB season is postponed. The Masters is postponed. The NHL season is postponed. Other than random NFL free agency news, sports are virtually nonexistent.
How does a sports bar handle the widespread postponement of sports?
“Well, I guess we close,” Rick Wampler, the co-owner of Charlottesville’s Draft Taproom, said Sunday night about an hour before the business posted on Twitter that it was temporarily closing.
The establishment, which features 60 different beer taps and an abundance of TVs, is located on the downtown mall and it’s a fan favorite. During UVa sporting events, Draft Taproom frequently hosts watch parties for fans.
It’s a popular spot to catch a game.
The last few days, that popularity has diminished amid the spread of the coronavirus and the recommendations of people to distance themselves from others.
On Saturday, Draft Taproom brought in roughly one-third of the revenue on beer sales as it had two weeks prior, when the UVa men’s basketball team played Duke in Charlottesville on a Saturday.
Comparing Saturday’s sales numbers to the same Saturday a year ago, there was a 78% dip in sales. This isn’t typical for March.
“That’s our biggest month,” Wampler said. “With the season changing too, I think it’s one of the better months for the mall.”
Instead, the business temporarily closed.
Rather than planning out watch parties for the UVa men’s basketball team’s NCAA Tournament games, Wampler is scrambling to help employees find temporary jobs. He’s created a Google spreadsheet to help create ideas for temporary work.
“We let them know that we’re committed to reopening with everyone still on board, and we know that means we’ve got to try to fill those gaps and try to get them a paycheck,” he said.
Wampler thinks yard work this time of year could work for some employees considering the work can still follow social distancing practices, and he encourages anyone in need of yard work to reach out to his business at firstname.lastname@example.org.
He’s also hoping that his business can embrace the unprecedented events. For example, the business has a few remodeling efforts it hasn’t done yet, and it plans on doing those in the coming months. The work can help a few employees earn a paycheck and better the business when this hiatus ends.
“We’re just committed to keeping everyone healthy and with some kind of stable income, so that whether we reopen a month from now or four months from now, they’ll be able to transition back to us,” Wampler said.
As Wampler worries about employees, he also has to worry about multiple months without his business bringing in revenue. He’s dealing with costs that most people wouldn’t consider.
Understandably, Draft Taproom purchased subscriptions to cable TV packages as well as access to TV packages for each of the four major professional sports leagues. Wampler says he needs to find out what the refund policy is.
It’s going to be a busy few days and weeks of figuring out how to make ends meet without an open business.
Less than 10 days ago, UVa hosted Louisville on Senior Day. Fans gathered in JPJ Arena, while some watched from Draft Taproom. After flooding out of the arena, some fans made their way to the downtown mall to grab food or a beer. That prospect seems outlandish now, as large gatherings are being restricted nationwide.
“We’re big data guys, so we’ve been following this closely and should have seen this coming,” Wampler said. “It’s all obvious in hindsight having seen it happen in other countries, right? But I think it’s really hard for your brain to make that big of a leap.”
Draft Taproom brought in a massive crowd on the final day of February for UVa-Duke. It alerted customers of a temporary closure before the scheduled start of March Madness.
Everything came quickly, and now the business is forced to react.
“It was kind of one sucker punch at a time,” Wampler said. “You woke up one day and things were gradually different and gradually different — it’s been a crazy week.”