But the coronavirus pandemic has endangered many of the weekly rituals. Crowd sizes will be limited. Seats have been reconfigured to keep customers six feet apart. Rules prevent fans from getting up and moving around the bar, standing in front of a random TV showing a touchdown replay. Masks are required when not eating or drinking. And reservations are becoming a must. Here’s how some local sports bars are dealing with the new reality.
Bars in D.C. are allowed to operate at 50 percent capacity — if they can find a way to space their tables and make up for lost bar seating. The numbers definitely don’t work at Walters Sports Bar, across from Nationals Park. “The bar is 80 percent of our occupancy” says owner Jeremy Gifford. “We went from an occupancy of 330 to 65, if every single table gets filled. If two people sit at a booth that four people could sit at, I’m down to [a maximum of] 63. I hate being that guy, but I can’t afford the package if we’re only going to serve 25 to 30 people at tables” on a Sunday afternoon.
Ah, right: “The Package.” DirecTV’s Sunday Ticket, which allows fans to watch out-of-market NFL games, costs $400 per season for home subscribers. But bars in the D.C. area can pay 40 times that or more for a regular season subscription, based on their occupancy. A bar that doesn’t show every game on Sunday will watch customers do an about-face at the front door.
Last season, Gifford says he didn’t mind if regulars hung out at the bar and watched games while nursing a beer for a few hours. Now, that’s impossible. To cover what he says is “the five-figure cost” of his satellite package, Gifford is monetizing every available seat. To reserve any of the five hightop-style tables, three indoor booths, or six outdoor “streetery” picnic tables, customers have to pay $100 per table, which will be deducted from their final tab. With a group of six, that works out to a guarantee of $17 per person, plus tax and tip — not much more than an order of wings and a couple of drinks.
There are rules to follow — there’s a map on the Eventbrite ticket page showing where each game will be shown on Walters’ three-dozen TVs, so that someone who wants to watch Green Bay and Minnesota can figure out where they need to sit. Reservations are for 1 p.m., when there are nine games, and there’s no time limit on individual tables. “As a table gets up and leaves, we’ll seat more,” Gifford says. “We’d empty out 80 percent of our capacity after 1 p.m. games last season, anyway. … We’re not going to kick you out if you’re drinking and having fun, but I reserve the right to ask you to move on if there’s a wait.”
Most seats on the patio will be first-come, first-seated, and Gifford hopes that the streetery in front of Walters, which currently consists of six tables occupying a parking lane, will double in size, taking over a lane of N Street SE. It won’t be fancy, but that doesn’t matter. “When it gets cold, we have a big Bills crew that comes here, so I’m going to tell them, ‘Go outside and pretend you’re in Buffalo.’ ”
Fan clubs — for professional teams as well as college alumni — provide bars with guaranteed crowds and revenue. But this year, some are reluctantly cutting ties. The D.C. Bears Fans have been packing into Union Pub since 2006, despite the team’s uneven performances. Sundays, says general manager Ashley Saunders, are filled with “large groups of people who want to come and cheer and jump around and high-five,” which sounds wonderful and normal. It’s also a health risk, so for safety reasons, “we’ve taken a year off from hosting game-watching parties,” Saunders says. (Lest the Bears fans take it personally, Union Pub has also suspended events with the local University of Alabama alumni, who rule the bar on Saturdays.)
That doesn’t mean that Union Pub will be dark on Sunday afternoons: The Capitol Hill bar has nine tables and 38 seats on its covered patio, with views of three TVs and a projection screen. Inside, there are two dozen more TVs, though Saunders says capacity is about 30 percent of what it was. Reservations are essential — you can book a table for 3½ hours instead of the usual 90 minutes — especially when the Bears are playing, as some die-hards can’t stay away. They just don’t want to encourage capacity crowds, Saunders says.
For Bears fans and Bama alumni who’ve decided they feel safer watching at home, Union Pub has to-go food and drink packages that include Chicago-style hot dogs and growlers of Goose Island, or totchos, Jello shots and bottles of sweet, fruity Yellowhammer.
At Caddies, the most recognizable sports bar in Bethesda, “We encourage banter,” says owner Ronnie Heckman. “If I see a Packers fan and a Bears fan at the bar, I’m going to introduce them. Next week, they can come in and root against the Lions fan sitting at the bar.” Each week, you’ll find a group of Kansas City Chiefs fans in front of their designated TV and, a few sets down, the Patriots fans by theirs. Parents are encouraged to bring their kids, says Heckman, who grew up watching the Washington team with his father. “This is as close to ‘Cheers’ as you can get.”
Where Caddies might have welcomed 140 or 150 customers inside last year, Heckman says, this year’s capacity might be closer to 65, even with the large garage doors at the front of the building that roll up to make the indoors feel open to the elements. But the pandemic has provided the kick in the pants to finally get some work done. “We always wanted to put TVs on the patio,” Heckman explains, “but something always came up, and it was, ‘Oh, maybe next year.’ Well, now that’s the major priority.”
In addition to the three screens going onto the spacious patio, the TVs in the bar and dining room have been replaced with larger screens, and moved to optimize viewing from more angles to allow customers to follow players on their fantasy teams without getting up and moving around. If you want to make fun of the poor Lions fan this season, you’ll have to do it in a socially distanced manner. Just remember to arrive early: Last season, Heckman says, most seats would be full by noon. This year, since Caddies doesn’t take reservations, he’s expecting customers will line up before doors open at 11:30 a.m.
Lou’s City Bar: They’ve got a team and a patio, but they can’t show the game.
Since 2015, Tennessee Titans fans have been gathering at Lou’s City Bar in Columbia Heights. And after making it to the AFC championship game in January, you’d think the D.C. Titans would be looking forward to the first game of the season at Lou’s. Except they can’t watch it there. The Titans face the Denver Broncos on Monday Night Football, with kickoff at 10:20 p.m. By law, D.C. bars have to close at midnight. “We’re doing a pregame happy hour instead of a viewing party, because we don’t want to kick people out at halftime,” says Mark Helliwell, the managing partner at Lou’s.
He hopes this situation won’t be a problem by the end of the season: “I hope it’s something D.C. can change. Two months ago, we didn’t need to be open after midnight, because there was nothing to do, no one was around. Now, it’s different.”
Lou’s, which fronts onto Irving Street NW, has revamped its patio this summer: There are now 10 tables served by an outdoor bar, and facing TVs with an upgraded sound system. While that’s working for now, Helliwell doesn’t think it’s the solution for football season. “We think there will be a transition: As the weather gets cooler and the sun goes down earlier, we think people will want to sit inside,” he says, acknowledging that not everyone will be comfortable indoors, despite a new HVAC system. “It will be slow. A customer puts a toe in the water — I went in, it seemed safe, maybe I’ll call a friend and see if they want to go next week.”
Still, Lou’s only has less than half of the 145 seats it had pre-pandemic. “I’d say, for the most part, people have been very understanding,” about seating arrangements and availability, Helliwell says, because Lou’s doesn’t take reservations. But he thinks football might be different: “I haven’t had 40 people show up at once before. I can’t have a line under any circumstances” because of social distancing rules on the sidewalk. “I will apologize and tell people to come back later.”
Though it’s really a neighborhood Irish bar at heart, Duffy’s has always drawn a steady crowd of sports fans, including a Green Bay Packers crowd. Operations manager Richard Wright says Duffy’s has added a second TV on its tented 34-seat patio — really a glorified wedding tent over the alley next to the pub — but other than that, Wright says, “I’m taking a wait-and-see attitude, and we’ll adapt as needed. We’re hoping we’re going to stay busy.”
Reservations are generally required for the outdoor picnic tables, while seats inside are easier to come by. The award-winning wings fly out of the kitchen, through a service window on the patio and into the arms of delivery drivers, who glance up at the TVs while waiting for orders.
Going into its 27th football season, the Crystal City Sports Pub is everything a classic sports bar should be. Approximately 100 TVs fill its three levels and front porch, ranging from a 10-foot projection screen on the clubby top floor to an array of “normal” screens behind its bars. There are so many screens that, on weekends, the staff posted maps of three floors to help NFL fans and alumni groups find the TVs showing their games.
Now, though, groups are more spread out to encourage social distancing, and college alumni parties, which have been so important to Crystal City, are few and far between. Ohio State and Iowa are among the official groups hosted there, and “with the Big Ten shut down, that hurts,” says co-owner Jim Madden. And while the Big 12 will be taking the field this year, the local Baylor alumni group, which has gathered in Crystal City for more than a decade, won’t be watching: Baylor University’s alumni network made the decision to cancel all watch parties across the country this year “to protect the health and safety of the Baylor Family.”
Still, Madden is hopeful. The pub’s parking lot across the street has been turned into an auxiliary outdoor dining room with 70 seats and a large projection screen, covered by catering tents the pub had previously used for weddings and special events. “It’s a little bit of a walk for the staff,” Madden says, but it’s proving popular. “We’re testing the viability of having a dish out there,” which would allow them to add televisions and show more games. Early morning football attendance may be down, but the pub became an official viewing location for Premier League champions Liverpool last year, and interest in English soccer might draw new customers.
Besides, when it comes to the NFL, “usually, there’s one team every year that can be a surprise,” and fans come out of the woodwork to cheer them on, Madden says. “It’d be nice if that could be our hometown team.”