Coronavirus, Football and the Death of British Pubs?
Updated: Apr 29
For more than a month, The Tollington pub has been empty. It's an unfamiliar sight for anyone whose passed the pub since 2006 when it opened. Normally, on a gameday, the pub is swarming with around 2,000 Arsenal fans singing, talking and drinking.
However, like thousands of pubs around the UK, The Tollington is closed due to the coronavirus. For owner Martin Whelan, it almost feels like he's been made redundant the past month.
On March 20th, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that all pubs, bars and restaurants would be closed while the country was in lockdown. What pub owners couldn't anticipate at the time was the lack of support they'd receive in the crisis.
In 2004, Arsenal was in the midst of moving it's home pitch from Highbury Stadium to the new Emirates Stadium. At the time, Whelan was working at the Gunners pub by Highbury Stadium. At the end of year he was approached to renovate and operate a new pub, "a boarded up shack on Hornsby Road. It was a real shithole to be honest."
By the summer of 2006, that 'shithole' would become The Tollington pub. Over the next 14+ years, the Tollington would become a fan favorite and would host countless events for Arsenal fans. It was even named Social Media Awards Sports Pub / Bar of the Year in 2019.
But starting in January of this year, things began to change. Whelan, who had just opened a new bar five minutes away from the Tollington in December, noticed foreign students weren't coming back to London. The accommodation above his new pub wasn't filling up. "I'm thinking, hang on a minute, this [coronavirus] is actually affecting central London," says Whelan. As January and February went by, it began to noticeably affect the revenue for his pub business. "I was thinking, hang on, I'm a few grand down on these pubs for no particular reason."
By the beginning of March, public events began to get cancelled in the United States in Europe. St.Patrick's Day, one of the biggest holidays in Ireland, was cancelled, which was noteworthy to Whelan, who has lots of family in the country. On March 10, Whelan watched the Cheltenham festival which had made him uneasy. So before Boris Johnson made his announcement on March 20th, Whelan had already concluded he's be shutting the pub due to safety concerns. That night was the last night The Tollington would be open.
In the days following, the government told big banks that they ought to freeze the rent on properties like pubs for three months. It was a three month deferral of rent. However, what the government didn't do, was to force the landlords to give reprieve to their tenants.
In the UK, pubs are normally owned by either private landlords or pubcos. These individuals or companies then lease the pub to a tenant who will then operate the pub. This is the case for Martin Whelan at The Tollington, who leases the pub from a private landlord.
Despite getting their rent deferred for three months, many private landlords and pubcos have still asked for rent from their tenants. Certain pubs have benefited from small business loans from the government. If your business rates were below £51,000 then you were eligible for a £25,000 loan. But many pubs, including The Tollington, don't fall under the £51,000 cutoff.
Therefore, bigger pubs like The Tollington, have received little help from the government. Whelan asked his commercial landlord for a three-month deferral on his rent but was met with resistance.
"He wrote back to me and said, 'No, that's an unacceptable proposal.'" "And I said, 'well, what do you expect me to do? If you can't trade a pub, how do you expect this money to be taken in?'
And he basically said, 'well, you know, you dip into your savings'. I said, 'why should I dip into my savings when you as a commercial landlord have just been- you've had the three month waiver'." Whelan acknowledged that currently, "we're with lawyers."
Whelan is not alone though. Giant pubcos like Greene King, Marstons, and Star Pubs and Bars are still asking for rent from their tenants. Star Pubs and Bars is the largest pubco in the UK and is owned by Heineken.
Says Greg Mulholland, the chair of the British Pub Confederation, a group representing publicans across the UK, "they [Heineken] make annual profits of around £4 billion worldwide and yet they are demanding that their tenants carry on paying rent to them and that's scandalous. That shows, I'm afraid what is wrong with the values of some of these companies."
Mulholland is behind the #nopubnorent campaign which supports a cancellation of rent while pubs are closed. He adds that many of these pubcos are owned by people outside the UK and therefore when the government assists pubcos, they're not helping people in these local communities. "The government are giving money thinking they're helping pubs that's just being siphoned off to the Cayman Islands, to Hong Kong, to creditors in other parts of the world. That's not where that money is intended."
So what might happen if more support isn't given to publicans around the UK? What if pubs like the Tollington are still expected to pay rent when they're closed. "I think it's impossible to think that it won't lead to some [pub closures], particularly if the large companies continue to behave as they are," says Mulholland. "Then I think pub closures are inevitable."
What does that mean for football? What is football without pubs? "It is still hugely important. It's still a pleasure watching a game of football in the pub with your mates, with your family, far more so than doing so at home, however big your television is," says Mulholland.
While millions of football fans may get their sport back in June, they might not be able to watch it in their local pub.