When The Park, a small sports bar chain, began looking to expand beyond its Austin birthplace, it bypassed Houston and headed straight for Big D.
With its confluence of marquee sports teams across every major league and its never-say-die fans, North Texas has become a magnet for game-focused restaurant chains and independents.
All are hoping to score.
“I don’t think there’s a better sports town anywhere in the country than the Dallas-Fort Worth area,” said Eric Dunahoe, director of operations for The Park, which hopes to open a North Texas location — its first outside of Austin — by late 2017. “If we’re going to be the Texas-owned-and-operated sports bar, we need to be in the city within the state of Texas that’s the best sports town and that’s Dallas.”
The sports bar occupies a unique, if amorphous, niche within the casual dining segment.
There’s no strict definition of what makes sports bars. Generally, they include TV-festooned venues where more than 40 percent of sales come from alcohol and the draw is the love of the game. (Think Buffalo Wild Wings, Dave & Buster’s and Twin Peaks.)
The growth of sports bars — both in number and in sales might — comes as the broader casual dining segment has struggled.
Chicago-based Technomic tracks sales at the Top 500 U.S. restaurant chains. In the 2015 list, about 13 percent of casual dining sales were at “sports bar” concepts.
Sales at sports bars on the Top 500 list grew 7.7 percent in 2015 to $7.3 billion, compared with 2.9 percent sales growth for the broader “varied menu” category, Technomic said.
The top sports bar chains grew their location count by 4.6 percent in 2015 while major full-service chains overall grew at a rate of 0.9 percent.
“I would say this is a fast-growing niche in the full-service industry,” said Technomic president Darren Tristano. “Although independents place higher emphasis on food quality, the chains tend to have the largest consumer attraction due to the size of the locations, variety of adult beverages, affordability of shareable food, comfortable seating and availability of televisions to view a variety of sports.”
North Texas is one of about a dozen U.S. markets with all four major sports leagues — NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB — along with soccer and numerous alums from powerhouse college programs.
And it’s increasingly a draw for migrants from other major sports towns, who bring their viewing loyalties with them.
That makes North Texas fertile ground for expansion-minded sports bar operators.
It’s also home base for several of the major chains including Twin Peaks, Boston’s and Dave & Buster’s.
Dave & Buster’s was born in Dallas in 1982 as a hybrid restaurant/playground that enticed guests to “Eat. Drink. Play,” with a focus on food and electronic games. In 2011, the Dallas-based chain added “Watch,” as part of a full-court-press designed to include a branded “D&B Sports” area near the restaurant bar.
Today, all 86 U.S. Dave & Buster’s locations include amped-up “sports viewing packages.” About 80 percent are officially branded with D&B Sports sections that bring the restaurant TV screen count up to about 40 (compared with 20 pre-sports push).
That includes two or three 180-inch screens, according to Sean Gleason, chief marketing officer for Dave & Buster’s.
The sports theme has helped Dave & Buster’s appeal to millennials, who gravitate to the communal dining spaces and party-like atmosphere.
On a recent football Sunday, manager Don McDougall presided over the dimly lit but highly animated scene at the Dave & Buster’s on Central Expressway — a restaurant that promises the “ultimate sports watching experience.”
The bar shows every NFL game on Sunday.
As the Cowboys battled the New York Giants, the chatter among the sports fans was constant. A taunt here, a high-five-punctuated boast there. Cheers and groans were interrupted by the occasional “Over here” as patrons vied for attention from a worker lobbing Dave & Buster’s T-shirts into the crowd.
“We try to make it just like tailgating, with prizes, a T-shirt cannon,” said McDougall of the 4-year-old location. “We try to make it as close to being at an actual game as possible.”
Near the center of the bar area, Brad Cotton, 33, and his wife Donna, 42, of DeSoto said they can be found at a sports bar any given Sunday, unless family members are hosting a watch party.
“Going to the game is a little expensive,” said Brad, who was wearing a No. 82 Jason Witten jersey. “So that’s once a year if we do that. This is affordable, but you’re still around die-hard fans. You want to be in the atmosphere with other fans, that’s going to turn up like you turn up.”
Donna noted that the uniform of the day was predominantly blue and white.
“When we walk through the door, just because we have Cowboys gear on, everybody becomes friends,” she said. “That’s pretty cool.”
None of the sports fans interviewed were surprised that North Texas is home to a growing sports bar scene.
“Sports are big in North Texas, whether it’s NASCAR [or] football,” said Daryl Hope, 47, who is moving soon from Forest Hill to Rockwall.
Hope prefers his perch at Dave & Buster’s to stadium seating because it allows him to watch multiple games at once.
That’s important, he said, since he’s big into fantasy football. Try 14 leagues big.
The introduction of fantasy football to younger consumers and mainstream consumers, including women, has given the sports bar segment a nice lift, Tristano said.
Despite the fan enthusiasm, North Texas remains a challenging market as operators compete for both consumers and investors.
In 2000, when the Canadian-based pizza and sports bar chain Boston Pizza began investing in a U.S. expansion, it headed straight for North Texas. The U.S. headquarters is in Dallas and a corporate restaurant that doubles as a training center is in Irving along busy Interstate 635.
Three more franchised locations were added locally through 2007. Then the company was hit with a blitz known as the great recession. From about 60 U.S. locations, the brand dropped to about 25. No additional locations have opened in North Texas in the past 9 years.
Nationally, the brand gained some yardage and is now back up to 29 locations. And while the company has found a franchisee to grow in West Texas — two locations will open in El Paso next year — the company has yet to find the right local combination of investor and real estate for North Texas.
“There’s lots of competition,” said Ken Phipps, director of franchise development for Boston’s Restaurant & Sports Bar, the U.S. arm, as the lunch bunch watched highlights from the weekend’s sports matchups.
North Texas “is and will remain one of our target markets to find the right franchise partners to help us grow.”
“It’s a very expensive market as far as real estate,” he added. “It retained its real estate value post-2008, and it’s gone nothing but skyward. Especially locations like Frisco, Plano, Arlington, with all of the new big developments like the Cowboys’ The Star.”
Three different franchisees own the three noncorporate D-FW locations. Now the company, like many major chains, is looking for large investors who can open more than one location.
“It’s a big investment,” he said, “We look for a net worth of $1.5 to $2 million and liquidity of $500,000.”
“We really want to grow our D-FW market,” said the North Texas native. “It’s our home. It’s our backyard for the U.S., and if we find the right partners we could easily add 15 restaurants in the next five years. This market can easily handle that.
“I’m grinning about the opportunities here in Texas,” he added, after showing off the restaurant’s 160-inch drop-down screen. “It’s very exciting.”