Fans Show Up Big for World Cup

Photos by Mary O’KEEFE Local businesses, like Straw Hat Pizza (above) and Leo’s All-Star Bar & Grill, were packed with soccer fans eager to cheer on the World Cup.
Photos by Mary O’KEEFE
Local businesses, like Straw Hat Pizza (above) and Leo’s All-Star Bar & Grill, were packed with soccer fans eager to cheer on the World Cup.

By Brandon HENSLEY

The dog days of summer might be upon local restaurants and sports bars now that the U.S. men’s’ soccer team has been eliminated from the World Cup. The team advanced to the round of 16, but despite the brilliance of goalkeeper Tim Howard, who made a World Cup record 16 saves against Belgium on Tuesday, the U.S. still lost 2-1, sending the players home from Brazil.

Home is also where patrons from places like Straw Hat Pizza and Leo’s All-Star Bar & Grill may be staying now. It was good while it lasted, though.

Both Straw Hat and Leo’s were packed on Tuesday with soccer fans ready to eat, drink and cheer. Outside, there were no parking spaces available, and inside staff was busy.

“Maybe the best buffet day we’ve ever had,” said Chris McReynolds, who runs Straw Hat with his wife Stephanie at 3463 Foothill Blvd. McReynolds said he sold about 110 buffet lunches during Tuesday’s match.

Down on Honolulu Avenue, Leo Lesh doubled his regular staff in the kitchen and on the floor. During the U.S.A.’s run in the World Cup, which included a 9 a.m. game last week, Leo’s has been open for breakfast at 8 a.m., something it will close next week. The past few weeks have been a boon to the bar.

A patron takes a break from watching the World Cup action to load up a plate from the Straw Hat buffet.
A patron takes a break from watching the World Cup action to load up a plate from the Straw Hat buffet.

“It’s the only time that football, or what we call soccer, really does well for us. We don’t get that many people for the Galaxy,” said Lesh, who recently sold the business to Vahan Aladadi, but will still help out for the foreseeable future. “We were as busy today as we would be for NFL football.”

“People are finally getting behind the sport,” Lesh continued. “The better we do the more people will support it. I think there’s this attitude when the U.S. doesn’t do well people don’t care because they say, well we’re not that good at it anyway.”

TV ratings in America were excellent for the World Cup. Neilson ratings showed an average of 16.49 million people watched USA-Belgium on ESPN. It was the second highest rated men’s WC match in this country’s history. The most-watched was USA-Portugal, last month (18.2 million).

Straw Hat and Leo’s both get business from AYSO Region 88 and its commissioner Aldo Mascheroni, either through viewing parties or fundraisers.

“We try to help out both places because both places are supporters of our program,” Mascheroni said.

While the U.S. soccer team was good, the Los Angeles Kings were even better this year. The Kings’ run to their Stanley Cup championship – their second in three seasons – brought in the crowds this spring.

McReynolds said the Alec Martinez’s overtime goal against the Chicago Blackhawks on June 1, which sent the Kings to the Stanley Cup Final, garnered the loudest noise he’s heard in the building since opening last May. Someone even hugged him when the Kings won the Cup a couple weeks later against the New York Rangers. Being recognized as a sports place wasn’t something the McReynoldses necessarily counted on in the early going.
“I’m just wishing that I had a couple of parties every night and families would get up here in bigger numbers,” he said.

McReynolds has counted on fundraisers from all of the local schools for business, as well as parties from AYSO and Little League baseball. The staff has been downsized from about 35 to 11 since Straw Hat opened, but that’s not a bad thing, and McReynolds said they’ve made sufficient progress in a year.

“We got it right, and I really feel like we’re turning a corner. We’re more efficient now and we’re providing a better product,” he said.

While soccer and the Kings have been a hot spot for customers to watch the games, there’s trouble in other areas. Straw Hat had DirecTV’s NFL package last year, but crowds were sparse.

“We lost out there,” McReynolds said, though he added he would most likely try it again this fall. The Dodgers, meanwhile, have played their way back to near the top of the standings in the National League West, and many expect them to make the playoffs for the second straight year.

Of course, no business around here can actually show the games, because the Dodgers have a deal with Time Warner Cable, whose territory does not include La Crescenta (it does include Tujunga, though, which is where Crow’s Nest Grille is located).

“Legally, we can’t get [the Dodgers] here. Time Warner is not allowed to distribute in this area,” Lesh said. “I’d get it. I’d pay the extra money. We just can’t do it.”

Is Lesh hoping the Dodgers make the playoffs?

“Oh hell yeah. Because then it’ll be televised,” he answered.

McReynolds said Straw Hat has received many phone calls asking if they carry the Dodgers. Leo’s has DirecTV, Charter and Dish Network, and the latter carries the PAC-12 Network so fans can watch collegiate games. But those won’t come again until the fall.

“We’re a sports bar, so our numbers fluctuate with the type of game that’s on,” Lesh said.

Straw Hat also carries the PAC-12 Network, and McReynolds said business has been good on those game days.

As for the World Cup, Mascheroni doesn’t think interest will wane too much now that U.S. is done. France, Germany, Brazil and Mascheroni’s native Argentina are all still alive.

“I really don’t think [interest will fade]. I hope not. The eight teams that are left are interesting to a lot of people … these are really good teams,” he said.

AYSO is likely to reserve every seat at Straw Hat for the final game on July 13. Mascheroni said he will try to get 200 people through the door.

Going forward, interest in soccer, at least for the men’s national team, could steadily increase and by the time the 2018 World Cup arrives, local businesses could again be thriving in the sparse summer months.

“Because we had a good run and it wasn’t embarrassing, I think next World Cup will be legit,” Lesh said. “I think we’ll just keep getting better … we have real players now.”

“There’s going to be more interest than there is now,” Mascheroni said. “Kids haven’t really grasped the sports since maybe 25 years ago, so we’re still growing as a soccer nation. I think we still have a lot of growth to [achieve].”