Smile Politely

The untapped market: Where’s C-U’s spot to watch soccer?

Champaign-Urbana, when it comes down to it, is a pretty good drinkin’ town. Without trying to name them or wasting time typing their names, let’s just say there are a ton of bars between Mattis Avenue and St. Joseph to the east. If you’re someone who likes to imbibe around here, on any given evening you can pretty much find a bar that fits your personality and the crowd you’re seeking.

Unfortunately, despite all of these bars in town, there’s not a single place in Champaign-Urbana that one can go and enjoy a morning’s worth of European soccer matches. I realize that sounds like quite the trivial thing to complain about around here, but honestly, this IS about the community. Hear me out.

I’m not a bar expert. I worked in one for like five months and realized that I was not cutout for ANY of that type of lifestyle. I have a ton of respect for the folks that do. However, I watch an obscene amount of Bar Rescue on Spike TV.  If you’re unfamiliar, Bar Rescue is basically a goofy reality show where Jon Taffer walks in and yells for an hour and everything gets fixed like magic. Despite the hokeyness, there is one element of the show that rings true and it’s the idea that running a bar is also a science. Not science in a way that bartenders can participate in social darwinism or anything like that, just that bars need to be aware of their market and continuously research where they operate and who the customers are.

This science is where I think local bars might not be up to par. It’s easy to just say “Hey! Someone open up for soccer in the morning so I can drink!” But the reality is that there actually might be something to opening up early on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

Popularity in the former fringe sport has skyrocketed. This past summer, World Cup ratings were off the charts in the United States. The USA-Belgium match drew more viewers than the NBA Finals — and it was during work hours. More folks in the United States streamed the World Cup match than people streamed the Super Bowl.

The sport has become so popular that NBC has paid $250 million for the broadcast rights for television slots on Saturday and Sunday mornings. That’s usually where cartoons and terrible infomercials are. Instead, there’s crazy value for a growing sport.

Every couple of months a think-piece gets written about young professionals and creative-types rabidly supporting their squads at bars around the country. C-U boasts young professionals and we pride ourselves on having creative-types! Being in this demographic myself, and knowing the friends that I have, I can guarantee that I’d be the first one in the door to watch an English Premier League match at a bar.

But aside from my demographic, C-U has another built-in, soccer hungry group that is a seemingly untapped market — international students and foreign-born residents. There are 9,208 international students at the University of Illinois. The majority are from Asia, where the popularity of the English Premier League is skyrocketing. But there are many students still from Europe and Latin America, where soccer is part of their cultural fabric. 9,208 isn’t a gigantic number to pull bar patrons from, but it’s a good jumping off point. If you can reach 1% of that group, you have a full bar. But it’s not just international students that bars should be targeting here, either. C-U is home to over 23,000 foreign-born residents. That’s a lot of potential soccer supporters to cull from.

This is all completely overlooking the popularity of the beer-drinking, FIFA 15 soccer video game-playing, Manchester United jersey-wearing college student. These folks existed when I was a freshman in college almost ten years ago, and the access to and popularity of the sport has grown exponentially since. You can’t go a fall or spring day on campus without seeing soccer jerseys on the quad. They watch these matches too. It takes them very little effort to get to the bar for a morning of cold ones before Illini games. I’d be willing to bet that it would take even less of an effort for them to come watch Manchester United vs. Chelsea at 8 a.m. They’re probably going to watch it anyway.

Of course, not all 32,000+ people mentioned above are bar-going soccer fans. But it seems reasonable enough to assume that you could fill a bar in the morning to watch the mainstream matches on NBC and NBC Sports Network.

As I’ve meandered through demographics of the area, and the popularity of soccer amongst young people, the question comes to this: how?

Hypothetically, how would a bar function for matches that begin between 6 and 7 a.m.? Speaking from experience and watching matches at bars in other cities, it’s imperative that there’s breakfast available. Ideally, full English breakfast would be on the menu with an ice cold Magners to wash it down. The best breakfast menu that I’ve seen for European soccer matches is so simple. It has the English breakfast, steak and eggs, two breakfast sandwiches, and a breakfast burrito. That’s it. Simple and delicious fare that gives me just enough of a base to have a few cold ones.

Understandably, this is where some local establishments may not want to take any risks. Creating a breakfast menu, training staff, and making sure that your staff is available at 5 a.m. seems tough. But maybe that’s also unnecessary?

There’s a certain food truck that does breakfast in town that could park in front of the establishment and make an absolute killing on hungry Premier League fanatics. There’s a pretty hip donut place that could make some creative themed donuts each weekend. There are plenty of options and ways to make this work while incorporating the many local businesses that make this town great. I’m sure of it.

So, bar owners: think about this suggestion from a local patron. We just want a nice place to watch some European football, eat a warm breakfast, and sip on cold beers. Give us that and we’ll give you our love. And our money.

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