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Don and Lori Stephens answer the same question at about the same time. They do so between bites of food on the Foxboro Sports Tavern menu, which includes both typical and atypical sports bar fare. Chicken wings are called “Thom and Brian wings,” and they’re fried and tossed in a blend of barbecue, Thai chili and teriyaki sauce. The menu’s New England flavors are unmistakable: Shepherd’s pie, pot roast and lobster rolls abound.

The Stephenses are asked, with food in front of them and dozens of TVs surrounding them: What makes for a great sports bar?

“A lot of TVs,” Don Stephens says.

“Great food,” Lori Stephens says.

The married Green Bay Packers fans—from Naples by way of their hometown of Hudson, Wisconsin—express no concerns about being surrounded not by fellow Cheeseheads, the nickname for Packers fans, but by New England sports paraphernalia.

Boston Bruins, Celtics and Red Sox and New England Patriots posters, memorabilia and jerseys hang on the walls and from the rafters of the bar at 4420 Thomasson Drive in East Naples.

“It’s because it’s a great sports bar,” Don Stephens, a Packers season ticket holder, says of why they keep returning to Foxboro.

In Southwest Florida, creating a sustainable and long-lasting sports bar can be more challenging than in other regions, various owners said. But it’s also becoming less challenging as time marches onward.

Southwest Florida sports bars serve a potpourri of fans. Some migrated to the area and brought their hometown team loyalties along with them. Whether they’re from New York, New Jersey, New England or, like Don and Lori Stephens, the Midwest, they’re all looking for a place to get out and dine while watching their favorite teams compete.

The native Floridian fans might root for the Tampa Bay or Miami teams, or for one of the state’s big three for college football: Florida, Florida State and Miami.

That means devoting a bar to one specific city or team, as Foxboro owner Thom Popoli did, isn’t so common. “We’ve been blessed and very lucky,” Popoli says. Since opening in 2003, the Patriots won five Super Bowls with Tom Brady as the starting quarterback. The Boston Red Sox won three World Series with David Ortiz as the designated hitter. The Boston Celtics won an NBA championship in 2008, and the Boston Bruins won hockey’s Stanley Cup in 2011.

“We can compete with any national chain, with where we are today,” Popoli says, with those early-year, New England team titles boosting Foxboro’s popularity. “And that’s not where we were 18 years ago. We financed the place with our credit cards. I was $192,000 in credit debt. We built that spot with our bare hands. We were going to Home Depot getting the 10% discount. If it didn’t need a permit, we did it ourselves.”

Popoli graduated from Cape Coral High School in 1985 but spent his childhood in suburban Boston. His young adult work experiences included tending bar at places that were iconic during their heydays, but all gone now: Bennigan’s and Norma Jean’s in Fort Myers and Club Oasis in Naples.

“We always watched ‘Cheers’ every week,” Popoli says. “Happens to be a Boston place. But every community has a Cheers: the neighborhood bar. That, to me, was very appealing. ‘Norm!’ He walked in, and everybody knows his name. We wanted to always be a welcoming place for folks to have happy hour and a fellowship.”

That’s why, in addition to raising more than $200,000 for nearby Lely High School’s athletic programs over the past 18 years, Popoli also created a “ring of honor” for the bar. Just as professional football teams induct players into their Halls of Fame, Popoli created one for his bar patrons.

The bar, like the fictional Cheers, has its own cast of characters. Ramona Ritter manages the staff, which includes bartenders Joe Carkin, better known as “Handsome Joe,” and Vicki Howard, who has been serving customers for nine years.

“It’s very friendly,” says Paula Keaton, who along with her friends Kathy Tatman and Bud Davis are in that ring of honor. “Everyone here knows you.”

“And they have cold beer,” Davis says.

The COVID factor

When the COVID-19 pandemic spread to the U.S. in March 2020, it did so first by shutting down the NBA. The rest of the sports world followed. That meant big trouble for sports bars.

Popoli had to end his dream of having a second Foxboro location in Bonita Springs. He temporarily transformed the Naples bar into a takeout-only business. He also remodeled the bar. He and his crew took down every piece of memorabilia. He enlisted the help of Gulf Coast High School art teacher Vincent Turner, and they redesigned the bar with the goal of creating a better experience for when it reopened.

Foxboro has plenty of competition, including from a regional behemoth.

A chain sees changes

Long before the pandemic forced the restaurant industry to adapt, Duffy’s Sports Bar and Grill followed its campaign of providing a venue to share unique experiences while watching games. The Lake Worth-based company has 33 locations in Florida, including Cape Coral, Estero and Fort Myers. It’s the Southeast’s largest family-owned and operated restaurant group.

Duffy’s president Joe Webb said his guests’ experiences boil down to a lot more than watching a sporting event. Reliance on the sporting calendar, which heats up during tourist season in Southwest Florida with the NFL and college football seasons in full swing followed by March Madness, isn’t necessary.

Webb prioritized full-time residents even before seeing an uptick in transplants who were once considered snowbirds but are now staying permanently. “This migration isn’t limited to retirees,” Webb says. “We have also seen an influx in varying demographics from northeast cities choosing Florida as a home base. We have anticipated this and have many initiatives to reach and welcome these new customers to the Duffy’s family while catering to our loyal MVPs.”

To ensure year-round residents remain the cornerstone, Duffy’s emphasizes its MVP loyalty program, which offers an average of 10% off every visit by earning points for free meals, free birthday meals, special giveaways and perks such as Kids Eat Free every Wednesday. Other promotions including 2-for-1 drinks every day have boosted the company through the pandemic. “Since the pandemic started almost two years ago, we have rebounded in sales slowly but consistently, and today Duffy’s is operating stronger and better than ever before,” Webb says.

Overtime over time

At Overtime Pizzeria & Sports Pub in southwest Cape Coral, owners Kristina and Michael Amato do not have the advantage of a large-scale company backing them. They do things their way, and they try to split the difference in attracting fans.

Being natives of Philadelphia, they want to be a haven for area Eagles football fans. Operating an Eagles-themed bar in Philadelphia, Kristina Amato said, could be more problematic than doing so in Cape Coral while also catering to other fans.

“If you own a sports bar in Philadelphia, people are less likely to go out to watch the games,” Amato says. “If the local team plays on Monday, and that’s the only fan club that you have, you’re going to be dead on Sunday. So, it’s really turned out to be a blessing. We have quite the Eagles crowd that gathers at Overtime. We have nine TV screens. But we do show every game. We have the entire NFL package. We host the Kansas City Chiefs fan club. We have a lot of Giants fans, Jets fans, Steelers fans. We love them. We love every fan of every football team.”

Smaller chain adapts

Albert Aiello bought the Stevie Tomato’s Sports Page brand of restaurants in 2017-18 in Naples, Fort Myers and Cape Coral. He did so knowing the busy tourist and snowbird seasonal months of February and March were the key to surviving the slower doldrums of the summertime.

Not as much anymore.

“This is still a seasonal business,” Aiello says. “Naples and Fort Myers and Cape Coral, it’s not there yet, but it’s moving toward becoming less seasonal. More people are moving down here every year. That’s a fact. But it’s still a seasonal business.”

The snowbirds seem to be staying longer, Aiello said, and the locals seem to be growing in number. That’s why Aiello is moving his Fort Myers location from off Daniels Parkway to off Colonial Boulevard in what had been a Fuzzy’s Taco Shop. The former location attracted mostly out-of-town patrons from an adjacent hotel. The new location sits near hundreds of homes and apartment units.

“The locals, who we love dearly, we try to cater to them, too,” Aiello says. “They come in all the time: summer, fall, winter, spring. We have entertainment, live music.”

Stevie Tomato’s has trivia night on Mondays in Naples and kids’ night on Wednesdays at all three restaurants: free kid’s meals with the purchase of an adult entrée.

When it comes to the wide world of sports, the bar welcomes fans of all teams. “I think it has pluses as well as minuses,” Aiello says of not being themed around one city or team. “The pluses are, we are a group of folks from all over the country. As a consequence, we don’t have one-team following. We can appeal to people who we want to appeal to. The Pittsburgh Steelers or the Philadelphia Eagles fans, they come in and co-exist, and they all root for their teams. In many ways, it’s a positive. It’s a positive punch.”

Logistical challenges

The bar owners all discussed the challenges of attracting restaurant workers and getting all of the right food in stock. “Some weeks, I can’t get chocolate cakes,” Aiello says. “Some weeks I can’t get onion rings. Some weeks I can’t get carrot cakes. There are supply chain disruptions. That’s real. It’s sometimes problematic. There’s nothing we can do about that.

“We get our food from a major distributor. Some weeks, we don’t get all the chicken wings we want. Some weeks we don’t get all the ribs we want. The next part of the shortage is staffing. We make it work. But we constantly have ads out. We’re looking for servers, for managers, bartenders.”

The community of fans

As COVID-19 vaccination rates rose and infection rates fell, sports fans began re-emerging from their homes, repopulating sports bars again. They included Adam Schonberg, one of some 350-plus members of the Naples Buckeyes—the largest alumni club of Ohio State fans outside Ohio. It has a $1.4 million annual endowment, with scholarships going to Collier County Ohio State students. They also love watching football together Saturday afternoons. They do so at Harold’s Place, Stevie Tomato’s and sometimes Bokamper’s, all in Naples.

“The game watch is a revenue generator for us,” Schonberg says. “We do 50/50 raffles. It goes toward our scholarship endowment fund. We try to pay the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition.”

The camaraderie of watching games together makes it a win-win, Schonberg said, especially when the Buckeyes also win.

“Our fans are very spirited,” Schonberg says. “They’re very loyal to their team. They like to gather in large groups. It’s pretty interesting when people walk into the bar, wearing scarlet and gray, and making more noise. It kind of has the feeling that you’re in Columbus on game day. I’ve frequently said to people that this is like Columbus South. It certainly feels that way.”

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