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Is Game Night at the Sports Bar Becoming a Thing of the Past?

With NFL season in full swing, fans should be packing into sports bars on Sundays — so why are so many streaming the game at home instead?
Fans at a Boston bar react while watching the first half of the Super Bowl in 2017.
Fans at a Boston bar react while watching the first half of the Super Bowl in 2017.Michael Dwyer / AP file

With NFL season in full swing, fans should be packing into sports bars on Sundays — so why are so many streaming the game at home instead?

Recent research from Foursquare found that in 2016, Sunday sports bar foot traffic dropped by 12 percent in cities with NFL teams; cities without their own teams saw a 13 percent drop. Furthermore, there was a 10 percent decline in people who went to a sports bar more than three times during the 17-week season, while only 40 percent of fans who had been to sports bars more than six times during the 2015 season repeated this behavior in 2016.

Fans at a Boston bar react while watching the first half of the Super Bowl in 2017.Michael Dwyer / AP file

A Surge in Online Viewing

Certainly 2016 was a unique year as an historic presidential election played out on television sets across the U.S; but Foursquare's data points to another, more sustaining trend: people just aren't watching TV like they used to. The digital age has paved the way for streaming and subscription services and, in some cases, piracy (Irdeto, a digital platform security company identified 239 illegal streams of the recent Mayweather vs. Mcgregor fight and were watched by nearly 3 million people).

"The number of online viewers [watching sports] is definitely increasing and supported by public data, however that is also because more online subscriptions are being offered," said Symon Perriman, president and founder of FanWide. "Media rights holders are realizing it is better to monetize from that distribution channel than fight it and deal with piracy."

These Pretzels Are Making Me Thirsty...And Broke

Mike Clancy, a 31-year-old fitness trainer says he used to do the "sports bar Sunday ritual," but that after a while it got old — and pricey.

"The food is usually subpar and the cost for the weekly bar ritual can yield a strain on finances," said Clancy, adding that he bought the DirectTV NFL Sunday Ticket last year and spent the 2016 season watching at home with friends.

"There were definitely differences, some better and some worse — like having homemade foods with much more flavor and quantity but not having as much opportunity to sit and be waited on like at a sports bar. [And] there's something to be said for walking into an establishment that is decorated with your favorite team and being around hundreds of fans vested into every play of the game."

But ultimately, the pros of watching at home beat out the cons. Clancy says he will keep it up unless he finds a place that has "exceptional quality food at reasonable prices."

While some fans relish the social aspect of watching in bars, others prefer the solitary comforts that streaming provides.

Ryan Joe, a 35-year-old die-hard 49ers fan originally from the Bay Area, used to go to sports bars to catch the game mostly because it was hard to find San Francisco games aired in NYC.

"The only way I could catch a game was by going to a sports bar," said Joe. "But I stopped going out to watch football, because now it’s much easier for me to find a live stream of an NFL game online than it was just a few years ago."

Joe also likes the ability to tune into his smartphone and/or laptop during a game.

"Typically what I do is check the Twitter feeds and refresh, which tracks the play-by-play."

Women Have to Block Rude Men

In recent years, the NFL has woken up to the fact that it needs to market more towards women — which constitute nearly half its fan base — but sports bars may have some catching up to do in this department.

"Often the bars are crowded with drunken men, yelling over games, and some who are rude or get physical with female fans," said Kryss Shane, a 34-year-old OSU Buckeyes fan based in Los Angeles who has largely given up on the sports bar scene. "No one wants to pay to go somewhere where they can only hear drunken cursing at the TV or where they have to consider what they wear based on whether a drunk jerk may try to grope them."

Helena Wilcox, a 22-year old recent college graduate living in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, finds that sports bars have "the reputation of being boys clubs — and that keeps women at an arm’s distance."

She also notes that these bars tend to be too expensive to stay in for an entire game.

"I’ll go to a bar to watch the first half and spend some time with friends but usually by the second half, I’m ready to go home and watch from the comfort of my own couch," said Wilcox. "It comes down to the fact that it’s expensive to sit around in the bar for two to three hours (sometimes almost four, if it’s a college game) and as a recent grad I don’t have the money to drop on rounds of drinks or food, and it’s definitely not something I can afford to do every weekend."

That women may not feel welcome in sports bars is an issue that Bob Weimar, owner and manager of Hattrick's Sports Bar & Grill in Hatfield, Pennsylvania wants to change. He'd like to feature women-only drink or food specials (a kind of NFL ladies’ night if you will), but the state of Pennsylvania forbids it.

"It's illegal in the state of Pennsylvania to offer something to women that you don't also offer to men," Weimar told NBC News. "I could get fined for doing a ladies’ night, or a happy hour special just for women. Some bars do it even though it's illegal, but I used to be a president of the Bucks and Montgomery County Tavern Association, so I know the laws and I stick to them."

Sports Bars Tackled by High Costs

Weimar has noticed a general decline in patrons for NFL games over the past few years, and it's a pain point that is becoming more acutely felt as the costs on his end continue to rise.

"The cable market is killing us," said Weimar. "The DirectTV NFL Sunday Ticket is very expensive for bars to buy. It depends on how many seats you have, but for us it would be something like $2800 for the season, which is outrageous."

Another outrageous cost: poultry, aka, Buffalo wings, a staple food in the typical football watcher's diet. Costs of meat have risen, and to absorb them, bars may be forced to pass some of the costs on to consumers, or give consumers smaller servings than they got seasons past.

"Seven years ago wing prices were about $64 a case, and they would go up during football season and then go back down — but this year they never went down," said Weimar. "Now it's about $96 to $98 for a box of wings, so we had to start cutting down. We were going through six cases a week, but now we only order one."

Hattrick's still offers wing specials and other deals during NFL games, but Weimar suggests that patrons desire deeper discounts — especially the younger patrons, many of whom are still living at home.

“Younger people are living with their parents longer, and many of them are still in school or going back to school,” said Weimar. “They don’t have the money to spend, and if they do, they’re not going to blow it in a bar on Sunday.”

Weimar is hopeful that 2017 will be an improvement on 2016, adding that he’s considering investing in the DirectTV NFL Sunday Ticket. also, the bar will also be extending its van service (open to anyone but aimed at preventing DUIs), to include Sundays. He used to charge $5 per passenger “just to cover the cost of gas,” but nobody wanted to pay, so now it’s free.