Packing auditoriums with sports fans for a live game on-screen has been a long-standing wish for exhibitors in the United States. Untangling the broadcasting rights, however, has remained an obstacle to untapping the potential of sports programming at the movies. The major difference between a cinema and a sports bar in publicly broadcasting a sporting event? An admission price. Sports bars aren’t in the business of charging patrons for entry; instead, they base their model on offering a multitude of live games and making money on food and beverage orders. As recently as five years ago, cinemas would struggle to compete against the beer, wings, and burgers of a sports bar with their own popcorn, soda, and candy. The recent evolution of F&B in cinemas—with expanded hot food menus and alcohol service—has created a new opportunity to entice sports fans to theaters to watch their favorite teams on the big screen, without the need of an admission ticket.
While pay-per-view sporting events like boxing and mixed martial arts (MMA) have been a fixture of event cinema screenings and closed-circuit broadcasts at movie theaters for decades, major American sports leagues like the NFL, NBA, and MLB have been largely absent from cinemas. A major change came about last year, when AMC Theatres announced a pilot program where it would show a live broadcast of one out-of-market NFL game in 40 of its U.S. locations. The circuit did not charge admission, but instead required attendees to join the free tier of its AMC Stubs loyalty program and purchase a $10 food and beverage card. In December, Cinemark partnered with sports cable network ESPN to bring the NCAA College Football Playoffs to select cinemas in 27 cities across the United States under a similar model. Once again, Cinemark did not charge admission to see the games on the big screen but required attendees to purchase a $10 food and beverage voucher.
These early incursions in bringing highly anticipated games to movie theaters are examples of exhibition’s current efforts to expand programming beyond Hollywood offerings. The most notable development in this campaign is a pair of projects launched by two midwestern circuits, Marcus Theatres and Emagine Entertainment, in repurposing an auditorium in one of their respective locations to exclusively program sports games.
“I’ve seen sports projected on a big screen; I knew how good the experience was. With all the sports-betting laws loosening up across the country, we saw an opening for us to work in this space,” says Greg Marcus, president and CEO of The Marcus Corporation, the parent company of Marcus Theatres. “We looked at the sports bar model and reimagined it in our own way; that’s what led to the creation of the Wall in our Gurnee, Illinois location.”
The Wall dedicates a 45-foot screen, powered by a laser projector, to serve as the visual anchor of the auditorium. Eight HDTV displays surround the screen in an auditorium that offers the circuit’s custom DreamLounger recliner seats. Audio from each of the screens can be synced through a special mobile app on the patron’s phone, allowing viewers to alternate between audio feeds of the different games in the auditorium.
Emagine’s concept draws as much inspiration from the sports bar model as the sportsbooks in Las Vegas casinos. The chain converted one of the auditoriums in its Royal Oak, Michigan location into a Las Vegas–style sportsbook in partnership with Caesars Sportsbook, the online sports betting entity of Caesars Palace. Admission to Emagine’s Caesars Sportsbook Lounge is free, and guests can enjoy a variety of games simultaneously broadcast on a movie screen while seated on heated recliners. Emagine allows patrons to use their own cellphones and laptops inside the Sports Lounge auditorium with complimentary Wi-Fi. Inside the auditorium, a dedicated display showcasing a variety of betting odds is available using guests’ own personal online sports-betting account through Caesars Sportsbook. The business model behind Emagine’s plan? An expanded concessions menu that includes alcoholic beverages, executed by the theater’s existing dine-in wait staff.
Emagine CEO Anthony LaVerde says the circuit began building the concept before the Covid-19 pandemic and cites the growth of online sports betting as a driving factor in its launch. the The Emagine Sports Lounge is a departure from the circuit’s regular operations, but LaVerde considers it to be an organic extension of what a cinema can offer its community. “We’re providing an exemplary guest experience in a communal setting,” he says. “There’s nothing like sitting at a sportsbook in Las Vegas during the NCAA Tournament and hearing the roar of the crowd and cheering on your favorite team with other folks. That’s something we felt we could re-create in our theaters as another communal use of our world-class facilities.”
As at other circuits, Emagine’s sports lounge will rely on its F&B operations to drive revenue. Rather than having patrons buy a concessions voucher, however, its partnership with Caesars Sportsbook will give patrons an Emagine concessions voucher whenever they open a betting account in the Caesars Sportsbook app. “We do themed drinks for new movies that come out, and I envision a scenario where we’re doing themed drinks based on the big game that weekend. It’s all part of getting folks out of their home when they want to have a communal experience. It’s on us to provide the best experience possible and become that out-of-home destination for our audience,” says LaVerde.
Greg Marcus cites the expanded menu and alcohol service of Marcus’s Gurnee, Illinois location as one of the main reasons his chain launched its version of the concept. “It probably wouldn’t work if we were just selling popcorn; you need to have a broader offering,” he says. “We need to see our results in Gurnee before determining how to expand it. Not every location has such robust food and beverage options; that’s something we need to have in place. It also depends on the number of screens we have in certain locations. In some locations, we have more than enough screens to accommodate the concept—but that’s not the case across the board.”
Emagine’s LaVerde is equally bullish on potential expansion, provided the first location delivers the expected results. “Right now, the plan is for three sites. If not by the end of this year, then early next year,” he says. “We’ll see [how to expand] after that. We’ll determine the next steps based on the popularity of those first three sites.”
Based on their statements, neither Emagine nor Marcus seem to be preparing for a sudden to pivot to the sports bar business. The emergence of their respective concepts is nevertheless an example of the innovations exhibition is currently pioneering in the face of an inconsistent—and often unpredictable—theatrical slate from major studios. As long as the number of films made available to theaters continues to dwindle, circuits with multiplex locations will continue finding new ways to utilize screens so they don’t remain idle.
“I think we all, as an industry, need to be trying new things right now,” says Greg Marcus. “We need to think more broadly about what a theater is. First and foremost, we’re a destination for movies—that won’t change. But what else could it be? It’s a pleasure when people get together in a local community, and we are a top out-of-home entertainment all over the world. Once you start thinking about our mission more broadly, that’s when you start coming up with ideas like the Wall.