RICHMOND, Va - The last time the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament happened, the University of Virginia was crowned champions and Home Team Grill in the Fan saw the best weekend the restaurant had ever experienced, according to its owner Mark Overby.
That was March 2019, a full year before the early days of the COVID-19 health emergency would outright cancel March Madness 2020.
“It was just a full day. We had a line when we got ready to open,” Overby said of that Friday in 2019. “We had to shut people out at 2 a.m. We all just kind of stood here and stared at each other in an empty restaurant at three in the morning just wondering what the heck happened to us.”
Traditionally, sports bars across the country do big business during March Madness, with college basketball fans wanting to watch multiple games, all happening at the same time, with fellow hoop fans.
A Nielsen survey conducted prior to the pandemic found that 89% of college basketball fans had gone to a sports bar in the month prior to the tournament and “social viewing” away from the home was a major factor in tournament viewership.
The 2021 tournament begins Friday in Indianapolis, and Overby said Home Team was looking forward to the coming weeks, although they will look much different than usual with COVID-19 restrictions still a reality.
“As far as protocols, we’re doing the exact same thing we’ve been doing for the last eight months. We’re not expecting any more people in here for March than we’ve had on any of the busiest days we’ve had for the last six to eight months,” he said. “ I think it’s going to be a good week. I think folks are excited about it. I think they’ll come out and have a good time. Of course, with the requirements, we’re very limited on the amount of seating we have, so we’re hoping to have 40-50 people instead of 200.”
Home Team Grill plans to have 16 tables available by reservation and then open to call/walk-up customers if those are not filled.
Teams are hoping to get two wins and make it to the second weekend of the tournament known as the “Sweet 16,” but Overby said their space dictated the number of tables, not symbolism.
Customers can also order “to-go” or delivery via various third-party options.
“Please stay ahead of it and be patient with us. We’re all working through this and trying to figure it out together,” Overby said. “The to-go model has been amazing for us. Our to-go sales are considerably higher than they were in 2019, and the community has been really, really supportive. Even if they weren’t comfortable coming in, they were very happy coming in to get our food, and we really appreciate that. That’s huge.”
No matter how you take in March Madness this year in the middle of the pandemic, Overby said it’s just good to see it back.
“This is a big time for sports, but it’s also a big time for restaurants in general. March and April begin when people start coming out again and patio season starts. It’s just kind of the beginning of all new things in the city. Richmonders tend to hibernate in December, January, February. I think all restaurants, regardless of what your model is or what your food is, are ready to see some sunny days,” he said.
The NCAA Men’s tournament tips off Friday at 12:15 p.m. with Virginia Tech facing Florida on CBS 6.