S.A. sports bars especially fearful of losing Spurs games

By Tim Griffin

The NBA and NFL lockouts stretch on, potentially costing players and owners millions of dollars in lost revenue and wages during an extended work stoppage.

But the lockouts also have a human side that concerns local sports bar owner Steve Wilkinson about the very foundation of his business.

Wilkinson and other San Antonio bar owners are fearful of economic ramifications if games are missed as either or both lockouts endure.

“I’m sitting back wondering what I will do,” said Wilkinson, whose Fatso’s Sports Garden on Bandera Road is the oldest existing sports bar in the city after opening in 1986. “I will have to lay off people and maybe even close on Sundays. I’m just hoping these rich crybabies will figure something out.

“It’s beyond millionaires and billionaires in the leagues here. It’s my cooks and waitresses who will end up paying the biggest cost if this thing stretches on.”

Recent news about a potential settlement in the NFL lockout has heartened local bar owner Joey Villarreal. But both he and Wilkinson are worried about an extended NBA lockout that would cause them to miss Spurs games.

“Basketball will definitely affect us because in this city, everybody is a Spurs fan,” Villarreal said. “This isn’t like a lot of other big cities. ? Even people who make up my non-sports crowds are aware of the team and their games.”

Villarreal owns and operates three bars in town: Joey’s on North St. Mary’s and the Blue Star Brewing Co. and Joe Blue’s Lounge in the Blue Star Arts District on South Alamo. He said he would see an estimated drop in revenue of up to 25 percent for a big NFL “Monday Night Football” game.

But because of the diversity in his businesses and clientele, he hopes he will be able to withstand a business slump caused by a sports lockout.

“I’ve never been one who believed you should base your business on other people’s business, like a sports team or a league, because it’s not healthy,” Villarreal said. “We have to move on and find other ways to find customers.”

Villarreal even sees a potential for business growth if the lockouts linger.

“Let’s face it, maybe when fans won’t be spending a hundred bucks on a game, they will have a little extra money and want to do something else,” he said. “I don’t know.”

But local sports bars, which traditionally attract their largest crowds on NFL Sundays and nights of Spurs games, are dreading what could happen without live action during the next few months.

“You just cut back where you have to and become a chameleon,” Wilkinson said. “If I have to cut back on my labor or staying open for lunch or staying open on Sundays, I will. You know they are eventually settling. And after it happens, you just move on.”

An extended NFL lockout would be expensive for Wilkinson, but he’s confident of a quick settlement before the start of the season and knows he would have college football Saturdays in the fall.

But the loss of Spurs games and the NBA would be particularly devastating during winter months when pro basketball games are the backbone of his business.

“Basketball is steady and brings people in on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights during January and February,” Wilkinson said. “If the Lakers are playing a 9:30 p.m. game on Sunday, I know there will 20 or 30 people in here who will be watching and giving me a reason to stay open.”

Wilkinson and Villarreal endured the 1998-99 NBA lockout, which cost the Spurs 32 regular-season games. Their business losses were noticeable, although both said the Spurs’ first NBA championship later that season made up for any hardship they might have incurred earlier.

Economics have changed for Wilkinson since then. More sports bars across the city have provided a more competitive market with more entertainment options for his customers.

“I know the playoff run (in 1999) more than made up for the earlier losses. But this time, I’m a lot more worried,” Wilkinson said. “I’m not worried about the football (lockout) after reading and hearing the news the last week or so. But the NBA is different.”

As he braces for an extended NBA lockout, he fears his potential financial losses could be staggering.

“Not having the Spurs would be the difference in me scheduling one waitress or three for a game night,” Wilkinson said. “Having no Spurs will hurt us worse than pro football. Without that steady group of people coming in for every game, it’s gonna be tough.”

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