As the Phillies report for spring training this week, baseball fans aren’t the only ones hoping for good news out of Clearwater. Bar owners across Philadelphia are, too. When you’re a fan, dismal performance by your city’s teams can ruin your mood. When you own a bar, it can ruin your bottom line.
And 2015 — the worst year in Philly sports history — was a bummer.
“Thank god for Matt Rhule!” joked South Philadelphia Tap Room and American Sardine Bar proprietor John Longacre, praising the Temple football coach who led his team to a breakout season. It was the lone bright spot in the city’s sports landscape; ESPN Gameday even showed up.
“The hospitality industry in Philadelphia without question does better when the local sports teams are winning,” Longacre said. Teams can affect business at any kind of food and drink establishment, not just sports bars, he noted, because game-watching generally brings people out and about.
Nate Ross, co-owner of Queen Village’s New Wave Cafe, credits franchise teams with an even bigger effect on the city’s disposition.
“Sports are a huge, huge driver of Philadelphia’s positive attitude about itself, and that translates into millions of different businesses. Obviously bars and restaurants, but it trickles down to the average man on the street’s perspective about how their own life is going.
“What was so extra great about the Phillies in 2008 was they were a homegrown team — everyone knew all the players’ names. It was part of conversation.”
The golden year
Chase Utley. Ryan Howard. Cole Hamels. Jimmy Rollins. Ah, 2008. It’s a year Philadelphia publicans remember fondly. Because the flipside to last year’s season — i.e. one in which the pro teams did great — actually made a huge difference in a positive direction. In the case of the Phillies’ World Series year, it even offset a potential sales dip caused by a recession.
The financial crisis that roiled the U.S. economy in 2008 didn’t slam the tavern industry as hard as some other sectors. General unemployment nearly doubled, banks failed, the Dow fell 40 percent, housing prices fell 30 percent, new construction slowed by 80 percent, and hotel occupancy rates were at record lows.
Even if it wasn’t the worst hit, the restaurant industry was affected. The Dow Jones U.S. Restaurants & Bars index dropped close to 13%, dragged down by sales losses at companies like Ruby Tuesday and Cheesecake Factory. Starbucks closed 600 stores, and Bennigan’s filed for bankruptcy.
In many cities, high-end restaurants felt the heat even more than chains. Luxe dining in hotspots like L.A. and Miami took a serious dive, according to an article in the New York Times that also cited troubles in Chicago. Philly wasn’t yet considered to be on the same level, but the number of fine dining restaurants did fall for the first time in 16 years, from 221 in 2007 to 217 in 2008. That’s a pretty small drop, though, and over the same period, the number of outdoor cafes in Philadelphia grew by 5 percent.
Casual dining follows a different storyline than fine dining, it turns out. Many bars in the city didn’t feel the downturn at all — in large part because of the Phillies World Series run.
“The Phillies championship run in 2008 and 2009 brought people out more than we can ever remember,” offered Mike Anderson, manager at Cavanaugh’s Rittenhouse.
“In ‘08 and ‘09 when the recession happened, we were doing good because the Phillies were doing good,” said Bob Loughery, who owns Center City’s Cherry Street Tavern with his brother Bill. “We were packing ‘em in. Everybody comes out, gets on the bandwagon.”
On Spring Garden, McCrossen’s Tavern experienced the same baseball-related surge. “In 2008, when that recession hit, the Phillies were on fire!” said co-owner Michael Rodolico. “During that year, the Phillies kind of carried us. We’re not even a sports bar, but everyone’s in a good mood.”
Rodolico cited the maxim that “when people are sad, they drink, and when people are happy…they drink,” but some publicans beg to differ.
“Anyone that tells you bars are recession proof is fibbing,” said Mark O’Connor, partner in Philly’s two Irish Pubs. “The Phils definitely offset the downturn. We would be packed during games, [with] LOTS of Phillies jerseys that looked like they had been purchased on the way to the bar.”
It wasn’t just the Phillies who were good in 2008, of course. The Eagles had a banner season that earned them the 6th seed in the NFC Playoffs and took them to the Conference Championship game. The Flyers had a winning record that year, too (44-27-11). The Sixers…well, they were at .500, which is at least much better than recent performance.
Baseball vs. football
Not all sports have the same effect on bar business.
For the Irish Pub, the Phillies and Eagles are the most impactful. The same holds true at Grey Lodge Pub in the Northeast, but proprietor Mike “Scoats” Scotese is quick to draw a distinction between the two.
“The Eagles doing well means good business until the really big games, and then biz falls off a cliff because everyone is at a house party watching,” Scoats said. “The Phillies big games often fall on a weeknight, so house parties are rare.”
The Flyers draw some crowds to the Grey Lodge, as they do to Cavanaugh’s, “regardless of their record.”
But baseball is different. For one, the season is longer. And two, the lazy pace of the game is perfectly suited to bar talk.
“Part of baseball’s beauty is the fun of sitting and relaxing as you watch the game,” observed New Wave’s Ross. “And the other part is its ‘everyday-ness.’ You could be asking your doorman, or your cab driver, or your bartender: ‘How’d the Phillies do today?’
“Right now no one cares but the baseball fans,” he continued, “but hopefully the Phillies will cultivate new stars. It’s just part of our civic pride. It’s part of the fabric of Philadelphia.”