A Vancouver sports bar has reinvented itself as a drinking hole for niche sports fans in an effort to drum up new business.
The bar has quickly become a hub for rugby fans in Vancouver to support their national teams since the tournament began on September 9.
Chris Hall, 29, owner of the Sin Bin on West 2nd Ave, started showing international sporting events to attract new customers when Southeast False Creek became “like a ghost town” following the 2010 Olympic Winter Games.
He was confident that the Rugby World Cup provided an opportunity to bring rugby fans and new patrons to his bar.
Hall advertised the Sin Bin as a place to watch matches live with posters featuring international rugby stars in the front windows of the bar.
“This is such a hard business to make it in,” he said. “You have to be creative in your ways to draw in customers.”
Draped in national flags
Fans of the All Blacks and Wallabies, the national men’s rugby teams from New Zealand and Australia respectively, filled the bar to capacity on one Saturday night.
They came to watch their beloved teams face off in the semi-final match on October 15 to decide who will meet France in the championship game on October 23.
Clad in jerseys, some with painted faces and draped in national flags, most of the patrons on Saturday night were expats from countries where rugby is a mainstream sport.
“It’s a big part of our culture. It’s what we grow up with,” said Cameron McConnichie, a native New Zealander who has been living in Vancouver for two and a half years.
He came to the Sin Bin from the downtown West End to watch the match. “We follow it wherever we go. To be able to watch matches in a pub atmosphere with a good Kiwi crowd is what brings us back.”
Rugby is New Zealand’s official national sport. The International Rugby Board, the governing body for international rugby tournaments, ranks its men’s national team as number one in the world.
Word spread quickly once fans discovered the Sin Bin would be airing live matches.
Dan Atkins, a New Zealander who moved to Vancouver only four weeks ago, said that he discovered the growing rugby following at the Sin Bin from a Facebook group used by Kiwis in the city to coordinate where to meet on match day.
Cornering a niche market
A former amateur rugby player himself, Hall recognized the demand for a place to watch live Rugby World Cup matches among fans in Vancouver.
Rugby’s profile is on the rise in Canada. This year was the first that TSN, Canada’s most popular sports television channel, aired games in real time. The Rugby World Cup is the third most watched international sporting event in the world.
“You want a place that is not overly pretentious,” Hall said. “You can blow a horn in here, and we play the games with sound on … I think we do the sports thing really well.”
A twenty-hour time difference between Auckland and Vancouver means games broadcast from New Zealand begin in the early morning hours here. Hall has extended business hours to accommodate customers who want to watch the games live, often staying open until 3 a.m.
“We thought it would be busy, but not this busy. Especially with times being outside regular sports hours, but the response has been big,” said Hall.
Staff began taking reservations for the semi-final matches a week in advance, and every playoff game has sold out.
Andrea Cyn, a hostess and bartender, says that it has been “insane” since the Rugby World Cup began. She emphasizes that it is not just Kiwis and Aussies. Fans from Ireland, Scotland and France have come to the bar to watch matches as well.
The Sin Bin will be open late to show the Rugby World Cup final between New Zealand and France on October 23 beginning at 12.30 a.m. PST.
Bringing new business
Hall opened the Sin Bin just one block south of the Olympic Village in June 2009.
“We knew being so close to the Olympic Village was a huge jump start for us,” he said. “But we also saw that this was an up and coming neighbourhood, and it wasn’t going to be just the Olympics and that’s it.”
The Sin Bin was open 24 hours a day for 17 consecutive days during the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. It was regularly packed with athletes, coaches and volunteers looking for a place to celebrate victory or lament defeat.
Like other businesses in the area, patronage took a steep decline when the Games ended and the new developments in South False Creek were slow to sell.
“Reality hit pretty quickly,” said Hall of the months following the games. “We assumed the units in the Village would fill up right away, and we’d have 5,000 new people moving in within a year. It’s taken a lot longer than we thought.”
By January 2011, only 263 of 737 units in the Olympic Village had been sold.
In February, city council renamed the development “The Village on False Creek” as part of an aggressive marketing campaign that included price reductions of up to 50% on the remaining units.
By September of this year, the Village was 60% full, with a total of 427 units sold.
In response to the decline in business, Hall diversified the sporting events he chose to show to attract customers that may grab a pint elsewhere otherwise.
Danny Paradis, a construction worker originally from Drummondville, Que., brings his construction crew of Quebec transplants to watch every Montreal Canadiens game after work.
The Sin Bin airs the games from TSN’s French-language channel, RDS. Paradis said there is no other bar in Vancouver that showed Canadiens games, and his crew appreciates a chance to watch the games in French.
With real estate sales on the up in Southeast False Creek, Hall is hopeful for the future of the Sin Bin as a fixture for sports entertainment in the neighbourhood.
“With the village filling up and … new condo developments set to open in the next year and half, there is no doubt it’s becoming a hub,” he said.