Aid through ale: Local bars brace for March Madness after winter lull

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This story originally appeared in the March 10 edition of the weekly LINK Reader. To see these stories first, subscribe here.

Spring is a natural and recurring economic stimulant, as revelers shake off the winter blues and come out in droves for holidays and events like St. Patrick’s Day and March basketball tournaments. Pockets lined with income tax returns, imbibers have plenty to drink about up and down the sidewalks of Covington’s main drag. Meanwhile, local businesses look forward to the boost in downtown activity.

Beer sales grew 174% on St. Patrick’s Day and spirits sales rose more than 150% compared to an average day, according to a 2018 Nielsen Media Research study. In fact, one-third of the 15,000 U.S. consumers surveyed through the data collection company said they visit a bar or restaurant on St. Patrick’s Day, marking this as a major food holiday that comes in just behind New Year’s Eve, the Super Bowl and Valentine’s Day.

Most bars view the holiday as an opportunity to get back into the black after a slow winter and a lull between football and baseball seasons. The promise of spring hiding just around the corner gives local residents hope and drinking establishments a series of events to capitalize on following a dip in sales. 

At Covington’s Keystone Bar and Grill, there aren’t any shamrocks on display yet, no Mardi Gras masks or beads left behind, nor any March Madness schedules or specials awaiting hoops fans at the bar. NCAA college basketball final-round tournament play is still almost a month away, and only in the last few weeks has there been a glimmer of hope for a Kentucky team making the playoffs. 

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Keystone’s bartender Sean Neuspickel sees the spring sports and drinking holiday season as an opportunity to bounce back from the winter blues. 

“Once March Madness hits, it sort of helps the bar recuperate. We get the sports crowds coming back to bars, after a gap where sports just aren’t on TV to watch while hanging out, eating and drinking,” Neuspickel said. 

This begs the question: If no Kentucky-based colleges make the playoffs, will fewer fans turn out to watch the NCAA tournaments at their favorite watering holes?

The seasoned bartender sees a potential lack of Kentucky teams in contention to make the Final Four as a roadblock for sales. 

“With no home team to root for, it will definitely impact alcohol sales (compared to previous NCAA tournaments where a Kentucky team participated from the onset),” Neuspickel said. 

Chris McLaughlin, an assistant general manager at Barleycorn’s in Cold Spring, said tournament time was a busy period in sales for them as well, and one they look forward to. 

The impact of a hometown team in the playoffs can be huge for a bar or restaurant hosting Selection Sunday events and game-time watch parties. With multiple televisions on at once beaming 40 minutes of various college hoops action down upon the upturned faces of guests, they’re creating an environment for them to stay awhile, drink a bit, and spend a lot. 

A 2019 study of customer transactions by payment processing software company Womply stated that nationally, the NCAA basketball tourney brings and average sales bump of 2.4% to independent and chain restaurants, regardless of location. If an operation has a hometown team in the mix, that figure climbs by another 9.4% over the course of the tournament.

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Every swish of the net could mean profits. But only if the right teams are playing. 

A 2022 Womply study found that Cincinnati-area restaurants only saw a revenue boost of 1% during the tournament. 

The exception to this was when the University of Cincinnati Bearcats hit the hardwood. During Bearcats games, restaurants saw an 8.29% boost in sales. While higher-than-average sales increases were seen during the entire tournament, the bump in sales was far lower than in cities with teams that made the later rounds of the tournament. 

Championship winners Kansas Jayhawks beat out the North Carolina Tar Heels in the final game, giving bars and restaurants in the city of Lawrence, Kansas a 48% boost to business. Even when number two seed University of Kentucky got edged out in the very first round of tournament play, the appearance brought Lexington-based bars and restaurants a 29% boost to sales. 

Only time will tell if the double whammy of St. Patrick’s Day and March Madness will send a springtime injection of sales into the bottom lines of Northern Kentucky businesses. The optimistic air of fresh starts, green clover, and longer days pull customers out from their winter doldrums, allowing them to shrug off another Bengals season over too soon and turn their faces to the glowing screens at their local pub, where a seat is always waiting for them; hometown team be damned.

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