The NCAA Tournament is a money-making machine.
Cities bid millions to host the tournament and bring millions back to their local economies.
But all across the country, local sports bars are some of the biggest beneficiaries, and Gainesville is no different.
According to Gainesville sports bars, March brings a significant spike in sales each year for those bars filled with Gator fans. But with this year’s Florida team failing to qualify for the tournament, evidence suggests businesses that ordinarily boom during this time are struggling to generate the same level of revenue.
Joe Wise, the manager at Miller’s Gainesville Ale House at 3950 SW Archer Road, is concerned about the lack of an increase in sales. Last year, as No. 1-seed Florida advanced through all three weekends of the 2014 NCAA Tournament — all the way to the Final Four — the Ale House was booming for every game, Wise said.
Even the opening Thursday of the tournament was packed. But Wise said this year, the restaurant was down $2,500 on the opening Thursday alone compared with when Florida played on 2014’s opening day of the tournament.
The rest of the tournament has seen a continued trend of fewer customers.
“Without the Gators, people just aren’t as interested,” he said. “I’m really worried about it, quite honestly.”
Other bars are experiencing the same problem. At Gator’s Dockside, located at 3842 W. Newberry Road, sales are down significantly from last year.
Brian Brock, one of the restaurant’s assistant general managers, said Dockside was down $15,000 over the second weekend of the tournament compared to last year when Florida was involved.
Rich Purser, another assistant general manager, said last year’s sales went up by 50 percent while Florida made its Final Four run. This year, sales only increased by 20 percent.
“Last year we did very well when the Gators were in,” Purser said. “The place was full. We were on a wait where you couldn’t even get into the place an hour before the game started. There’s a lot less enthusiasm about college basketball when the Gators don’t do well. It has been busy, but our numbers are not where we had hoped that they would be.”
At the Gainesville House of Beer, located at 19 W. University Ave., sales were cut in half from March through Saturday night — when the tournament’s semifinals were held — compared to last year. Alex Whelpton, the bar’s manager, said on days when the Gators played last year, the bar averaged roughly $4,000 a day. But this year, the bar has only made between $1,500-$2,000 each day.
Chomps Sports Grill, located at 5109 NW 39th Ave., also had sales cut in half through the tournament. Travis Kantor, the restaurant’s general manager said sales went from $5,000 a day in 2014 when Florida played to $2,500 a day this year.
Of the 15 bars and restaurants interviewed for this story, 10 reported a decrease in sales from last season while the other five declined to comment. All 10 said Florida’s absence from the tournament was the primary reason for the drop in business.
One fan who was in the sports bars to watch Florida last season was Miguel Aguirre, a 23-year-old graduate student at the University of Florida. Aguirre goes to nearly every home basketball game, and when the team is on the road, he goes to a nearby sports bar to watch the game with friends about 60 percent of the time.
Last year, he watched most of the team’s NCAA Tournament games in a sports bar, but since Florida isn’t involved this season, he hasn’t watched a single tournament game in a bar this time around.
“I just don’t care like I did,” Aguirre said.
Across the street from the Ale House, Ker’s WingHouse Bar and Grill saw a similar trend among college students and young adults. Patrick Osburne, the bar’s assistant manager, said the majority of customers who came in were more hard-core basketball fans, while most of the casual fans from years past stayed home, he said.
The restaurant offered different deals to try to attract more customers during the tournament, but he said there is only so much he could do given the circumstances.
“It’s the product of being in a college town,” Osburne said. “You just have to live with it.”