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Bloomington-Normal Sports Bars Struggle With Less Sports On TV

Elroy's bar entrance
Eric Stock
Elroy's in downtown Bloomington is a popular hangout to watch college sports, but not this year.

Sports bars in Bloomington already face two strikes as fall approaches.
Part of their customer and employee base won't be in town this school year and many of the games that bring fans out to their favorite watering hole have been canceled.

Several sports bar managers said they are struggling to manage the pandemic.

College football is huge at Elroy's in downtown Bloomington. Owner Butch Thompson said a lot of his customers fill the sports pub on Saturdays every fall to watch their favorite schools compete.

“College football, over the years has become, in my opinion, I think it’s in the top two of what people want to watch now,” Thompson said.

Several major conferences, including the Big Ten, have canceled plans for a fall football season. Thompson expects the lack of college sports will keep more people home.

“No college football will hurt a lot,” he said, adding the other big draw at Elroy's is college basketball that also faces an uncertain future this school year.

Other sports might fill part of the void. Pro basketball and hockey are playing when they typically don't. Baseball recently started an abbreviated season, though Thompson said baseball and hockey don't have the same draw college sports do. He said even NFL Sundays aren't as big as they used to be.

Pub II in Uptown Normal also relies on college football traffic, not just on television, but on the games a half-mile away at Hancock Stadium. General Manager Luke Rokos saidIllinois State sports like football and basketballare important to his bar. Fans come before, during and after games.

“The big impact for us will be the people before and after the games, if they are local and anytime we have ISU games that we are able to stream online on your big screens, that always brought in a decent crowd,” Rokos said.

For Legends Sports Bar in Bloomington, big crowds used to come on Sundays to watch pro football. Every fall, owner Craig O'Dell would order a satellite TV subscription so his patrons can watch all the NFL games.

Not this year. Even if the NFL plays this fall, O'Dell said it won't be the same.

“The NFL with no fans in the stands, the interest is just not there,” O’Dell lamented.

O'Dell said it's tough owning a sports bar when there are few games to watch. He said businesses like his have had to find other ways to bring patrons back through price specials and promotions. Some of these are not obvious. Legends hosted a couple painting nights. O'Dell said that picture was bright at first, but the colors faded.

“I think people are afraid to come out and do that sort of thing, plus with the social distancing, we really are not set up to take on that many people because every other table has to be vacant or it’s been taken out,” O’Dell explained.

Seating capacities are limited everywhere to comply with the state's reopening plan. Rokos at Pub II said he's fine keeping big crowds away at least for now.

“That will definitely impact us, but it’s all in the guise of safety and you can’t put a price on that,” he said.

Sports bars and college hangouts also are bracing for the impact from remote learning at ISU this year.  Thompson at Elroy's said he won't know until after the school year is under way how many college students are really back in town, or how many will be eager to go to bars and restaurants with the coronavirus present in the community.

Rokos is optimistic he won't lose too many patrons or employees.

“I’ve had maybe a couple staffers that have said they won’t be coming back, but I find a vast majority of (students) already signed leases and are still around,” he said.

At the same time, a risk remains that more restrictions could come and force establishments to close again.

O'Dell said if that happens, a lot of businesses will never reopen. He already has cut staff and expenses just to keep the business running.

“So far we are hanging in there,” he said. “Are things good? No, but just pull back, cut back. Personally, I don’t spend the money I used to because I don’t have it.”

O'Dell said until there's a COVID-19 vaccine or effective treatment, bars like his will struggle, no matter how many games are on television.

Several McLean County bars received business interruption grants from the state after they were forced to close their dining rooms for several months. Joe's Pub and Jazz Upfront in Bloomington, Joe's Station House Pizza in Normal, the Finish Line in Chenoa and Fat Albert's in Gridley each got $20,000.

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Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.