Photo courtesy of The Buffalo News
Running a live music venue ain’t easy.
Most aspire to simply make ends meet, booking local bands to soundtrack our drunken sing-alongs and bleary nights out on the town.
But every once in a while, a venue takes off like a Bills meme on Monday morning. You notice a show that – ooh – you’d like to see. Then, you start hearing about it – hey, there’s this new place – from friends. Weeknight shows begin to look like actual events. Every time you go, you see familiar faces. Owners reinvest, and the venue actually gets bigger.
That’s the story behind Sportsmens Tavern, a little-known, but well-known live music venue in Black Rock that features classic American music.
The Power of Community & Adaptation
Like a lot of good music venues, the success of Sportsmens is a case study in building a community around a business. It’s always been a smart idea to build a brand community, but social media and the internet have made it both easier and more vital. New businesses in any industry could learn a lot from the success of Sportsmens.
The Sportsmens community started out modestly. Dwane and Denise Hall took over what was a corner bar in 1985. For many years after, it did a lot of business serving daytime and evening bar crowds, with live music mostly reserved for a few nights each week. In 2003, the smoking ban hit corner bars especially hard, decimating places like Sportsmens.
“When the smoking ban went into effect, we lost 70 percent of our daytime business,” says Jason Hall, son of Dwane and Denise, who helps run Sportsmens. “So we had to adapt and we focused more on scheduling music.”
In addition to owning a bar, Dwane Hall has also been an established local musician. From 1985 to 2003, he built up both a clientele for his neighborhood bar and expanded his network of local musicians. The result was a burgeoning community of like-minded people.
When customers feel like part of a community, they feel seen and heard. They feel like a part of something bigger. Owners, employees and customers have shared experiences that bring them together.
Establishing A Reputation For The Family Business
Jason Hall says a combination of factors led to Sportsmens growing its community, creating something special in the process.
“If you put quality music on your stage on a nightly basis, some people will come in knowing that they’re gonna hear something good, regardless of if it’s something that’s in their usual listening wheelhouse,” he says. “I think being a family business allows us to spend a little bit more time on the customer service. We know a lot of our customers. We know their families. We shake everybody’s hands when they come in. We do fundraising events for them.”
“Over time, we started booking really big shows that packed the room,” Jason Hall says. “There were people lined up outside trying to get in for some shows, so we wanted to get bigger.”
That drive to grow their community even more led to a number of developments. In 2011, flooring of apartments above the stage was removed to create a second-story balcony above the bar. A few years back, the Halls were able to buy the large property lot on Amherst Street next doors to Sportsmens and turn it into a space for outdoor music. Sportsmens Park opened in 2019. Later that year, the Hall family purchased a large building behind Sportsmens Park on Military Road and converted it into a live music venue called The Cave. That opened in early 2020, just before COVID hit.
Pushing Through The Pandemic
Ah, COVID. The bane of bars and restaurants. Whether you were on the side of keeping everything locked down, or on the side of opening everything back up, you had to feel for these small business owners.
Early on in the pandemic, live music venues were shut down. Having just accrued around $1 million in debt, the Hall family had to ask for concessions from their private lenders, which were granted. In the fall of 2020, the New York State liquor authority also told Dwane Hall that he could not advertise live music until state COVID restrictions were lifted. Based on First Amendment right, the Halls sued the liquor authority and won. But maybe more important, the community around Sportsmens rose up to offer support by creating a GoFundMe page that ultimately met and surpassed it $25,000 goal.
“It was a very stressful time, but it was a stressful time for everybody in our industry,” Jason Hall says. “Fortunately, we have a lot of people that supported us and a lot of people that wanted to see us succeed. We had tremendous support, with the lawsuit and a GoFundMe page. People that would come up when we doing some work on the bar, give us money and say, ‘Hey, if you guys were open, this is what I would have spent today.’”
Back on track with the pandemic receding, the Sportsmens complex is posed to become fully operational again. Jason Hall says there are big plans, for 2022 and beyond.
“We don’t get complacent around here,” he says. “My dad instilled in us this idea of, if you’re not growing as a business, you’re dying. I think we’re good at what we do and what we provide for people. If we can expand on that, and provide to more people, we’re gonna benefit obviously, but the people are gonna benefit from what we can give them as well.”