Soccer kicks up bar tabs

World Cup coverage credited with boosting crowds, sales at Baltimore pubs, stores


When the World Cup final is decided between France and Italy on Sunday, Patrick Russell of Slainte Irish Pub in Fells Point will be sorry to see it.

"There is nothing like this," said Russell, who has owned bars in Baltimore for nine years and has enjoyed free-spending crowds since the soccer tournament started last month. "This is the best month I've ever had."

Bar owners and other merchants around the Baltimore area have spent the past few weeks capitalizing on the world soccer championship despite claims that Americans could care less about the sport. Through marketing, promotions and expanded hours, area business owners have used the soccer hype to sell beer, food, jerseys and anything else consumers are willing to buy.

At Slainte, Russell took advantage of the time difference in Germany, where the matches are being played, to open the bar during the morning hours. He hired more workers to handle the crowd that has been watching the games on televisions throughout the bar. And though the pub traditionally caters to the soccer crowd year round, new fans have visited to take in the scene.

"The bar business picked up a tremendous amount," said Slainte manager Paul O'Callaghan. "There's a better buzz around the place than in years past, with more Americans getting interested."

The Cup pits countries against one another for the soccer championship every four years.

This summer, other nations have practically shut down to watch their national heroes. That's not the case in the United States, where sports such as football, baseball and basketball dominate.

But there is interest. ESPN, which is showing many of the games, reported the highest men's World Cup television ratings since 1998 for the United States/Italy match that ended in a draw June 17. The network said more than 4.8 million households were tuned in to the game.

Overall ratings this year are higher than in 2002, when the Cup was played in Korea and Japan. Those matches were shown overnight in the United States because of the time difference.

The demand for soccer has not been lost at Claddagh Pub in Canton.

The past few weeks, the bar has refused to show Orioles games or play music during soccer matches. During one match, Claddagh owner Michael Clarke said he had lines of people waiting to get in the door.

"We were turning people away, not by choice, but because we couldn't fit them," Clarke said. "Now you're seeing the true soccer fans come out."

Since the United States was eliminated from the competition in a loss to Ghana on June 22, Clarke says the bar has seen more of an international crowd. "We're getting a lot of people that were not necessarily born in the United States that have allegiances toward other teams."

Some customers said they couldn't get enough of the sport and wanted to watch it with a crowd of fellow soccer lovers.

"I've avoided all the creditors this month," joked Scooter Burton of Baltimore, who said he has visited Slainte for as many games as possible and spent plenty of money there. "This happens once every four years. So you've got to do that."

But not all bars and restaurants highlighted the Cup.

Staff at the Greene Turtle in Fells Point didn't do anything special to market the soccer tournament. While soccer made appearances on the bar's televisions, workers made sure to tune in baseball as well. "We have about 15 TVs, so we certainly always have to have our Orioles on," said co-owner Jill Packo.

Retail shops also have worked to showcase soccer paraphernalia.

Brent Shoemaker, owner of Soccertowne in Hunt Valley, says soccer specialty stores have their highest revenue during Cup years. He said demand for soccer jerseys has been strong. The store increased its soccer inventory threefold over that of the 2002 World Cup.

"The World Cup means more fans and more interest in the sport," Shoemaker said. "Most people root for the U.S., but everybody is going to have a backup team ... that they'll follow and support."

The Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association projects sales of soccer equipment in the United States will be $291 million this year, an increase of almost 24 percent or $56 million from 2002. By comparison, sales of basketball equipment totaled $370 million last year.

Merchants hope the enthusiasm for soccer is something that continues, even when the tournament is over. That's the case at Slainte, where Russell wants customers to keep coming back to watch other soccer games.

"We've had to hire people," Russell said of his bar operation. "We have to hope that everybody keeps coming in to keep those guys employed."

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