Big rebound: DC-area bars expect ‘hungry’ hoops fans to return for March Madness

DC-area bars expect ‘hungry’ hoops fans to return for March Madness

From conference tournament tip off to millions filling in their brackets on Selection Sunday, March Madness is an annual rite of spring in the United States — and a boon for D.C.-area bars with multiple televisions to watch as many NCAA basketball tournament games as possible.

The games and the fans are back from the complete cancellation of the 2020 tournament prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. But what about the neighborhood bars?

During the first full year of the pandemic, about 375 D.C. businesses shuttered and though the tournaments returned in 2021, the fans largely did not — neither at the games nor at the bars.

“That is our best two weeks of the whole year,” said Jeff Holibaugh, owner of Cleveland Park Bar & Grill (CPBG), of March Madness. “For us, it’s everything — and them shutting down right then, right before [the NCAA tournament] in ’20 was a killer.”

Holibaugh said he continued to pay his staff throughout the pandemic and didn’t eliminate any positions during the 2020 lockdown period. He said he had only half of everything back in 2021 and while “it felt good to have it back,” the return of the NCAA Tournament without the actual madness associated with a pre-pandemic March actually hurt worse than the complete shutdown.

“We shut down almost completely,” he said, adding that the end of 2021 was worst of all due to the cold weather and the omicron surge. “It was like a perfect storm for bad business for us.”

Like Cleveland Park Bar & Grill, Clyde’s of Chevy Chase has an outdoor bar that kept it afloat during the height of the pandemic. However, the setup at Clyde’s wasn’t as conducive to a return to form in 2021, according to longtime bartender Andrew Brazoban.

“There was a rebound; it wasn’t significant,” he said, citing the mid-pandemic push for outdoor dining. “The bar that we have that has all the TVs that facilitates the consumption of March Madness is an indoor bar, so that kind of slowed down [customer] traffic.”

“There’s definitely a lot of excitement from our guests,” longtime bartender Andrew Brazoban said regarding the return of the tournament at bars. (Courtesy Joe Matt)

Bryce Yetso, general manager at Clyde’s of Chevy Chase, said March Madness coincides with spring so generally, it marks the return of bar guests — but 2020 put a damper on that and carryout dining remained more prevalent in 2021.

Yetso said most of the business is indoors now, which “that to me says a lot about people’s comfort levels [versus] this same time last year, when a lot of people would be sitting outside with heaters.”

Both Clyde’s and CPBG are considered neighborhood bars, so while neither saw a significant change in clientele — Holibaugh estimates 50-60% of his customers are regulars — Holibaugh noticed new customers during football season before the new variants chased some of them off.

The forecast for 2022: ‘People are ready’

Optimism in a return to pre-pandemic crowds lives at both establishments — especially at Clyde’s, where Yetso gives a favorable comparison to the March Madness haul in 2019 to the 2022 projection.

“I believe more so,” Yetso said. “People have been itching for [going out] for a while so they’ve been trapped inside, they’ve just went through the holiday season dealing with omicron, so … we had this feeling that once people felt things are good, we feel like we’ll get an even bigger push than we normally would.”

Holibaugh was more cautiously optimistic.

“I’m hoping that it’s back to like what it’s always been,” he said. “People seem to be really ready to get back out there but we’ve said that several times throughout this [pandemic], right?”

Holibaugh said the multi-TV setup on the outdoor rooftop bar at CPBG will help, especially if the weather cooperates.

At Clyde’s, Brazoban expects the downstairs ‘Race Bar’ — which earned its moniker because of several antique cars on display — to see a boost even though it’s indoors.

“There’s definitely a lot of excitement from our guests,” Brazoban said regarding the return of the tournament at bars “now that we can do that in a more safe manner during this pandemic.”

Yetso said the change in attitudes amid this new normal is the key to a comeback.

“It’s just been a total turnaround,” Yetso said. “The big thing is the optimism, you really feel it with the guests … the number of people coming inside [dining] really kind of highlights just where people are and how they feel about the lifting of the mask mandates.”

“People are ready,” he said. “They’re hungry for that.”

Rob Woodfork

Rob Woodfork is WTOP's Senior Sports Content Producer, which includes duties as producer and host of the DC Sports Huddle, nightside sports anchor and sports columnist on

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