- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 9, 2020

The return of the NFL is always great for business, says Washington sports bar owner Jeremy Gifford.

In a city where everyone, it seems, is from someplace else, NFL Sundays mean every table in Mr. Gifford’s establishment is occupied, every bar stool taken, as friends and fans cluster around the screens of their choice to root for their hometown 49ers, Broncos or Bears.

A typical Sunday during football season can bring in $15,000 to $20,000 at Mr. Gifford’s Walters Sports Bar near Nationals Park. But, as the small-business owner readily acknowledges, there is nothing typical about football this fall.

In the middle of a pandemic, with occupancy restrictions set by city officials, Mr. Gifford has had to lower his expectations. He figures the usual NFL-related boost in his business will be off by 75% this year.

“By and large, football is, as Jon Taffer says, the 16 days a year that sports bars actually make money,” said Mr. Gifford, referring to the entrepreneur behind the popular television series “Bar Rescue.”

“This year is quite different,” Mr. Gifford said.

The differences extend well beyond half-full sports bars.

A COVID-19-wary, player-protesting, socially conscious NFL returns Thursday night with the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs hosting the Houston Texans in a mostly empty Arrowhead Stadium. Fans, players and coaches will be masked as part of the NFL’s beefed-up pandemic protocols.

Only six of the league’s 32 teams will have fans in the stands to start. The Washington Football Team — “Redskins” was abandoned over the offseason under pressure from activists and sponsors who saw the nickname as a racial slur — will be one of the 26 other franchises opening the season in empty stadiums.

More changes: Players must wear masks for the coin toss and players, coaches and staff are strongly encouraged to do so on the sidelines too. No jersey swapping on the field after games. No standing within 6 feet of the other team after the final whistle.

In addition to the pressing health and safety concerns, the season will unfold against the backdrop of a league scrambling to embrace a wave of social activism sparked by the Memorial Day death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

A lot is at stake. After all, the NFL generated more than $16 billion last year. That’s just the league’s revenue, which doesn’t include the income for networks dependent on the games, the advertisers that rely on those viewers and every other industry and small business such as Mr. Gifford’s that depends on the league.

“The key to survival is the NFL,” Jon Lewis, the founder of Sports Media Watch, told The Washington Times last month. “As long as the NFL is there, everybody — and I don’t just mean the networks, I mean the blogs, I mean everyone who counts on sports for a living — as long as there is NFL, you can at least get through the rest of the year.

“If there’s no NFL, then you’re talking apocalyptic-type events throughout the industry.”

The money involved is why business owners are still willing to go all-in on the NFL.

It’s not a decision Mr. Gifford made lightly. The league’s “Sunday Ticket,” a bundle that allows bars to air every game, is expensive. For his establishment, it’s about $14,000 a year. Despite all the open-ended questions about this season, Mr. Giffords said DirectTV, which offers the package, wasn’t willing to offer a discount.

But the District, Mr. Gifford said, isn’t like Boston, where he could get away with airing just the local team and the select few games on national television each week. “Unfortunately, the team here in Washington hasn’t been so great, so the fan base has kind of waned over the years,” he said with a chuckle.

Doug Schantz, owner of Nellie’s Sports Bar, said his decision to buy the package was a “no-brainer” because he needed a way to draw in customers. He also pays considerably less than Mr. Gifford because Nellie’s has a normal capacity of 150 compared with Walters’ 350.

Mr. Schantz, however, has planned on game days running differently from past years. Fewer customers means fewer workers, and bartenders now serve as bar-backs as well. City ordinance requires no more than six people at each table, 6 feet apart. Staffers will have to remind customers not to stand, he said.

“It’s slower,” Mr. Schantz said, “but the fact that there’s less people seated in your bar, that is not that hard to fill it. Your die-hard fans are going to come.”

That isn’t the case everywhere, such as the tourism industry in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The Associated Press said every home game for the Packers brings in $15 million alone. The Packers won’t have fans in the stands this year, leading to a slew of cancellations of hotel reservations.

According to Forbes, the NFL draws in $5.5 billion from attendance and other stadium-related revenue. In 2018, Washington earned $205 million in stadium revenue, accounting for 41% of its income.

Experts have wondered whether the league, without fans at most games, will increase its television ratings again. After an 11% decline in 2017, NFL ratings jumped in the past two seasons, including a 4% increase last year.

Mr. Gifford will be watching. He’ll just do it with fewer people around.

“It’s weird. Normally, I’d be spending a bunch of money advertising and promoting beer specials and all sorts of crazy things,” he said. “But I’m almost doing almost the opposite. I’m just telling people, ‘If you’re not here by 11 [a.m.], you’re probably not going to get a seat.’”

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