They think it's all over for soccer bars

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The Independent Online
THE BEAUTIFUL game has turned ugly for one of London's most hyped theme bars. Football Football, which opened amid the euphoria of Euro 96 and was backed by the Professional Footballers' Association (PFA) and brewing giants, Allied Domecq, is to close next month.

As a business venture, it sounded perfect: the first in a chain of themed restaurants throughout Britain and abroad, stuffed with football memorabilia and showing replays of classic games.

It was even endorsed by stars past and present, with half the England team, Geoff Hurst, Martin Peters and George Weah all turning up for the glamorous launch.

An early blow was struck by the death, on the eve of the Euro 96 final, of the restaurant's founder, the former Fulham and QPR player, Bobby Keetch.

Then in July, the PFA withdrew their memorabilia and promotional help from the bar in London's Haymarket.

But there were more serious difficulties. Like The Fashion Cafe, also recently sold to new owners, Football Football suffered by being identified with stars who would never turn up by choice.

"We thought we would have soccer stars in every week," says Bobby Keetch's nephew, Karl Thomas, who still works for the restaurant. "But we had to pay for personal appearances, which wasn't the idea at the start at all. Those players would expect anything from pounds 200 to pounds 10,000."

"Celebrity endorsement just doesn't work," says restaurant consultant Alan Crompton-Batt. "Unlike America, a lot of people here are very cynical, and just don't care about the big names. They care even less when they know someone's been paid to roll up.

"There's also a conceptual problem with sports bars in this country, in that they alienate half the population. British women just don't go inside, as they would in the States, so it's blokes standing around, swearing and drinking, and it's not conducive to a nice evening."

There have been successful sports bars in recent years, but none of them have, like Football Football, restricted themselves to one sport. Kevin Bone is the marketing manager of Shoeless Joe's, the chain of sports bars partly owned by England rugby player, Victor Ubogu: "We're open 364 days of the year, and there simply isn't enough televised sport for all those days. So you've got to have more ... like nice waitresses, decent food and so on."

Terry Neil, the former Arsenal and Spurs manager, has two sports bars in London. "You've got to cater to everything," he says. "We've got 16 screens, and each can show a different sport. We get people in for ice hockey, darts, even bowls. The concept of a sports bar works, there's no doubt about it."

Meanwhile Allied Domecq has announced that the sports bar "no longer complements our long-term vision". Instead it is selling the property, and the site is now expected to become part of the American chain Hooters.

"Allied Domecq felt we didn't fit into their portfolio," says Karl Thomas. "But they never gave us as much support as I would have liked."