The NextGen Casual uses scheduled events, hundreds of televisions, and partnerships with professional teams to draw in customers, and leverages an elevated food and beverage program to create frequency.
Tom’s Watch Bar builds around the pitfalls of other sports bars, said cofounder Tom Ryan.
It strives to be the ultimate sports-watching entertainment experience. The restaurant is known for its 360-degree viewing rooms, meaning dozens of television screens at every turn. Central to all of those options is an oversized stadium screen, which is “first and foremost the feature of how we bring sports to life for this next generation of sports enthusiasts,” Ryan said at this year's ICR Conference. Tom’s Watch Bar also allows guests to customize their sound. If they’re not interested in the broadcasted play-by-play, there’s a personalized app letting customers hear a particular game on their phone.
On top of those features, the brand does something most sports bars don’t—forecast its programming two weeks ahead of time. The company chooses games through an artificial intelligence program that takes into account the demographics and popularity of local sports teams. When a customer visits a specific location's website, they will find highlighted events and a full-blown calendar from Sunday to Saturday.
“This emerging new sports enthusiast customer is really looking for an experience and ability to plan that experience,” said Ryan, who started the chain in 2014 and is also one of the founding members of Smashburger. “If you go to our website, which you can do right now, you can see what's going to be on all of our screens over the next few weeks and also what's going to be on our central screen. So that whole approach—having highly curated screenplay—that allows us to forecast and lets our customer bases and families really engage us on their terms. A really important part of the process.”
Tom’s Watch Bar has grown to seven locations in six states and Washington, D.C., and most are nearby a major stadium or arena. For instance, the restaurant in Denver is adjacent to Coor’s Field, home of the Colorado Rockies. In Los Angeles, the concept is across the street from Crypto.com Arena (formerly known as the Staples Center), which houses the L.A. Lakers, L.A. Clippers, L.A. Sparks, and L.A. Kings. Others are based in casinos, like Ilani Casino in Washington State and Mohegan Sun in Connecticut.
The proximity to sports facilities has created strong partnerships with professional teams. Tom’s Watch Bar is the Official Game Day Headquarters for the Denver Nuggets, Colorado Rockies, and Colorado Avalanche, and the Minnesota Timberwolves, Minnesota Lynx, and Minnesota Wild.
“We build these partnerships, which really allows us to market directly to their fan bases, and it's that kind of target marketing and that kind of fan experience extension for the team brands that makes us really great partners for them,” Ryan said. “Actually, as we go across the country now, they’re seeking us out.”
Stores range from 4,000 to 11,000 square feet. Ryan said there’s no formulaic approach, but the brand going forward will try to keep it between 6,000 and 8,000 square feet. The average buildout costs are $3 million to $3.5 million.
The brand caters to a customer base that’s changed dramatically in recent years, Ryan said. Previously, the split was typically 75:25 male to female, but that’s shifted to roughly 50/50. Tom’s Watch Bar opts for 25 to 40-year-olds with household incomes between $80,000 and $100,000. Viewing interests are more diverse too. Guests are attentive to sports beyond the big four (NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL); they seek soccer, UFC, cricket, and rugby. Ryan said there are usually eight to 12 sports on at the same time, and sometimes as many as 15.
“The ability to broadcast multiple sports elements at the same time becomes a really competitive edge in the category,” Ryan said.
In terms of food and beverage, Tom’s Watch Bar features a big bar presence both indoors and outdoors. On the low side, the bar mixes 40 percent, but in most cases, the channel hovers at 50-60 percent. The chain offers 40-ounce beers, cocktails, beers on tap, and an approachable wine list. For food, Tom’s Watch Bar tries to go beyond the routine burgers, pizza, and wings. There’s an Ahi Tuna Tower (ponzu marinated ahi tuna, jasmine rice, avocado, true oil, sesame seeds, crispy onions) and Butter-Poached Lobster & Shrimp (rich, creamy mac & cheese topped with butter-poached lobster and shrimp).
“When you put it all together, we really present these new modern sports fans, much more gender neutral, with the full experience that makes coming to us to watch a game much more attractive than any other bar,” Ryan said.
The menu is used to keep customers coming back, but it’s not what the brand highlights to attract new guests. Instead, all marketing revolves around events. Restaurants host watch parties for UFC fights and private gatherings for alumni associations if there’s a big game. Ahead of the college football national title game, TCU fans bought out Tom’s Watch Bar in Los Angeles. Ryan said these are "high energy" events; there’s an emcee playing music and interacting with the crowd during commercial breaks.
And engagement isn’t simply a guest coming to watch TV. There’s now fantasy football and sports betting (two-thirds of Tom’s Watch Bar customers engage in sports gambling). The market is huge and keeps growing. ESPN noted in a 2021 article that about 40 million people in the U.S. play fantasy football every year. Additionally, the regulated U.S. sports betting market earned a record $4.33 billion in 2021, according to the American Gaming Association, or a 179.7 percent increase year-over-year.
In addition to sports watching, some locations have Topgolf Swing Suites with multiple virtual games, like Topgolf’s target game, Zombie DodgeBall, Hockey Shots, and Baseball Pitching. The simulator bay includes lounge seating, HD televisions, and food and beverage service.
For Tom’s Watch Bar, that means customers are spending more time in chairs and adding to the check.
“I usually tell people that at the old sports bars, you eat once and drink twice,” Ryan says. “At our place, you eat and drink five or six times.”
In the first half of 2023, Tom’s Watch Bar plans to open six locations: Houston (March), two in Washington, D.C. (March and April), Orlando (May), Pittsburgh (May), and Sacramento (July). When all these stores are operational, the company’s systemwide sales run rate should rise to more than $100 million.
The new units come after a “significant” investment from Pro Football Hall-of-Famer John Elway, who joined the chain’s board of advisors. In September, Tom’s Watch Bar announced $30 million in investments from Sagard Credit Partners, which followed $24 million in founders’ equity.
“We made the decision that there is such a huge demand for premium watching,” Ryan said. “We basically typically just market the events for people to come. Once they're there, when they're hit with this array of screenplay, it takes your breath away. I mean it really does.”