DETROIT Jason King loves the boost in business that the world's biggest soccer tournament brings to his bar, especially early in the morning when World Cup fans order $2 Budweiser beers with their steak-and-egg breakfasts.
While no one is saying World Cup soccer will bump the National Football League from its perch as the most popular U.S. spectator sport, bars from New York to Houston to San Francisco enjoyed the early-morning crowds that boosted business this week.
"We wouldn't have a single person here because we wouldn't even be open yet," said King, general manager of the Claddagh Irish Pub outside Detroit where about 100 fans clad in red, white and blue drank beer at 10 a.m. and cheered for the U.S. team playing against Slovenia on Friday.
King, wearing a red shirt touting his bar's status as an official sponsor of U.S. Soccer, said business was up as much as 15 percent in the first week and dinner business has not suffered. At a Claddagh in Columbus, Ohio, the first U.S. game against England drew thousands of fans.
Soccer is a growing sport in the United States and the World Cup, being played in South Africa, will help if TV audiences are any indication.
The U.S. soccer team's game versus England drew almost 17 million viewers between Walt Disney Co's ABC network and Spanish-language Univision, making it the country's most-viewed first-round World Cup match ever. The first five matches of the tournament drew around double the audience that tuned in four years ago.
Many fans are heading to their neighborhood bars to catch the action and knock back $5 mimosas or a Guinness beer or two.
"It is definitely helping business," said Ariel Williams, manager of Dave's Tavern in Manhattan. "A lot of soccer fans love the beer."
In Houston, David Perez, general manager of Kelly's Wet Spot, said it has "absolutely" been worth it to open the bar early. "We've seen about a 20 percent increase in our weekday business," he said.
At Steff's Sports Bar near San Francisco's financial district, lunchtime viewers of the France-Mexico match on Thursday spilled out on to 2nd Street. The bartender said business had been good all week.
Not everyone was happy about that. Sitting at the bar, Peter Younger, a shipping executive and passionate fan of the sport, said he didn't think the Steff's crowd compared to those that turned out to watch Champions League matches from Europe.
"A lot of these people don't really know the game, whereas people watching the Champions League do," he said.
And the crowds can ebb and flow depending on who's playing, with U.S. games or neighborhood favorites drawing big crowds.
"There have been some days when it's been just a couple of my friends and some days when there has been 30 or 40 people," said Nick Menage, general manager of Little Woodrow's in midtown Houston, which opens at 6:30 to show games.
Even those benefiting said sports like college basketball's season-ending "March Madness" tournament do better.
"It's not like the NCAA tournament," said Kris Samiec, bartender at Mrs. Murphy & Sons Irish Bistro in Chicago.
Some complained that Americans prefer the comforts of home to hitting the bars.
"Big TV not make a difference," said Nestor Sarmiento, who owns the Carchiofini bar and restaurant in the Corona neighborhood of Queens, where a 60-inch high-definition plasma screen was showing the action.
"People prefer to watch games at home on Latin American channels seen via satellite," he added as three people including a reporter watched the Greece and Nigeria game. "Everybody has the dish. Eight years ago was better."
And apathy appeared when the U.S. team was not playing.
At the Ready Penny Inn, an Irish redoubt in a mainly South Asian area of Jackson Heights, Queens, business dropped off after the U.S.-England game, said owner Eddie Beglane. Patrons at the bar on Thursday were more focused on lottery numbers than the Greece-Nigeria game.
(Additional reporting by Nick Zieminski and Nivedita Bhattacharjee in New York, Braden Reddall in San Francisco, Alyson Zepeda in Houston and Emily Stephenson in Chicago. Editing by Michele Gershberg and Robert MacMillan)