Is Arsenal’s winning spree a tonic for Ugandan pubs?

Football fans watch a game in a pub in Kampala last month. PHOTO/ MICHAEL KAKUMIRIZI

What you need to know:

  • When log leaders Arsenal play host to Manchester United in the English Premier League later this evening, chances are that your favourite watering hole will be jam-packed with fans of the former. As Patrick Ssentongo writes, the renaissance of the London-based calub could be positively impacting the ledgers of Ugandan pubs.

If you are alive to Ugandan’s love for European Football, especially the English Premier League (EPL), then it must be quite apparent that Arsenal Football Club has one of the biggest fan bases in the country.
It is, however, been ages since the Gunners were in the frame for an English league title. Hannington Bugingo, an artiste and staunch Arsenal fan, says, the club’s fanbase surpassed that of its peers after the famous invincibles came through the 2003/2004 league season. This incidentally was the last time Arsenal won the EPL title.

Because not so many people could afford Pay TV to catch live games every weekend, from the 1990s and early 2000s, many of the club’s faithful here in Uganda grew accustomed to thronging pubs to catch their favourite players from Thierry Henry to Patrick Vieira in action.
From then, the trend of pubs making a killing off foreign football grew enormously. In fact, some pub owners made their identity rather immaculate by christening their watering holes sports pubs.
Despite never hitting the heady heights of the season of the invincibles, Arsenal continued to attract and hold the attention of legions of fans in Uganda. But when the club appeared to lose its mojo following the departure of its legendary manager, Arsène Wenger, fans in Uganda frequently stopped by pubs to watch their favourite club.

“To be honest, Arsenal fans are a ‘crazy’ lot when it comes to supporting football. I remember from the mid-2000s, many would flock the bar in groups and whenever their club enthralled them, tables would get ‘dirty’, as the adage goes,” said Emmanuel Bunanukye, proprietor of the now defunct Heights Bar and Restaurant at Centenary Park.
Bunanukye senses that the ‘crazy’ support has finally returned this season. With the advent of social media, the multiplier effect of the support has even been more powerful than it was in the early 2000s.
There are still question marks—at least in the book of Bunanukye—as to whether Ugandan watering holes have positioned themselves to benefit from the renaissance of Arsenal. Bunanukye believes that pubs should make it a point to offer conducive facilities to their patrons such as mounting large HD screens in their premises. 

All hail Arterta
At a watering hole in Namugongo, a suburb in Wakiso District, an Arsenal fan sporting the club’s 2022/2023 away kit gesticulates frantically as Mikel Arteta hails a North London derby win on the turf of cross-city adversaries, Tottenham. Arteta took over the coaching reins from fellow Spaniard Unai Emery in 2019.
“When I saw Arteta’s tactics and approach to the game, I knew there was something bound to change at the club. I saw a hungry winner, something we had lacked as fans,” says Ronald ‘Thierry’ Aronda, a longtime Arsenal fan.
With 18 games played thus far, the club has only lost one game, against Manchester United, and has built a fairly sizeable lead atop the EPL log.
“This is a feeling we had long forgotten about. Lately, I look forward to every weekend of football because I know Arsenal is going to put a smile on my face,” Aronda told Sunday Monitor, adding, “At the Crane Gardens bar in Namugongo, my friends and I are always seated an hour before kick-off time. We buy our beers and pork to get ready for a showdown. And the club never disappoints, hence we return with the same energy the following weekend.”

Tonic for pubs
As the season continues on with clogged fixtures, game after game, Arsenal is also keeping its guard up. Since their loss to Manchester United last year, they have gone on an unbeaten streak in the EPL. 
Because of this stellar performance, Arsenal fans have been religiously flocking in for the club’s fixtures, one after the other, and the pub has satisfactorily been the ideal place to catch the action
One thing with football is you are not a staunch fanatic if you watch a game alone. You just have not felt the euphoria of being a fan if you have never had a crowd around you. This, like many Arsenal fans, is what most EPL fans look out for every weekend—a chance to toast to a win and groove to it right on. A pub is always the perfect place for this extravaganza.

This season, in particular, Arsenal’s winning spree has not just excited the club’s supporters, but also rallied supporters of other EPL clubs, especially arch-rivals of the former.
Because they are leading the EPL table, every club in the top four is a close competitor, and potential title winner at the end of the season. This makes many fans of the top-four clubs interested in season games as well, hence increasing numbers in pubs where the action ought to be caught.
“Lately, much as Arsenal fans come in larger numbers compared to other fans, we host many diverse football fans, some of whom come with the intention of gloating just in case Arsenal lose a match,” says Leo Akankwasa, the manager of Premium Pub in Namugongo. “This has continuously made bars almost flood whenever there is an Arsenal game.”

Robert Mugisha of QC Bar and Pork Joint says he owes the return of Arsenal fans to bars to the new coach. Mugisha adds that: “Many of my customers are Arsenal supporters, and they come here every weekend because they know their club is going to win. And whenever they win, I’m happy because I know they are going to celebrate that win with drinks and meat.”
At Smokey’s Bar and Lounge in the upscale Kampala suburb of Nakasero, management had to expand and redesign the premises, to create enough space for football fans to enjoy. The manager of the bar says: “This season we were overwhelmed by the numbers of people who used to come here on weekends specifically for football.”
The manager adds: “Many of them come from nearby car bonds and offices, and whenever they come, the bar area and restaurant make quite a killing. Resultantly, management decided to create enough space and more screens for football because previously, the only screen was at the counter, which would get overly crowded.” 

Social media frenzy
As the trend of watching football in pubs gains traction, social media has also played a big role in creating the fear of missing out among the not-so-interested lot.
Today, with the buzz that will be created on Twitter about an Arsenal versus Manchester United fixture not getting many out of their houses to go catch the game in a public space, and no matter who loses the game or not, the bars always win.
In terms of marketing and advertising, a number of pubs have now turned to football games. To attract more customers, a pub now makes sure it erects a notice at the entrance about which games they will be showing live, and unless you are not a fan, you will always be lured into passing by that bar.

In fact, some bars have made it easier for football fans who cannot afford buying a meal or paying for a game elsewhere by allowing them to simply buy a bottle of beer, water or soda and just like that, you get to watch more than one match.
Denis Mugula, a frequent visitor at Da Sports Bar in Mengo, says it is convenient for him to just buy water and then get to enjoy his football at the bar. Mugula is an Arsenal fan. He perhaps represents many fans in Uganda who have been buffeted by the cost of living crisis.
While such stinginess does not result in huge sales from a single customer, Bunanukye says it assures bar owners of customers consistently coming again and again. 
This is because they are assured of convenience at a cheap cost.

Threat to pubs?

However, to slightly disagree with the narrative that Arsenal’s success is increasing numbers in pubs, Felix Kabiito—a Manchester United fan and restaurant owner—says there is still a big number of fans who increasingly find it more convenient to watch football from the comfort of their homes.

He adds that many such fans—especially those who have supported their clubs for a very long time—see no appeal in staying out in a pub late simply because of football. This category of people instead choose to invest in Pay TV packages that grant them access to EPL matches in the comfort of their living rooms.
Additionally, because of this year’s World Cup interruption in club football fixtures, kick-off time, especially in mid-week shifted to 11pm, which curtails many from staying out that late.
 

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