The United States soccer team may have tied England at the World Cup’s Friday match, but the game was a win for San Jose regardless of the results.
World Cup watch parties—organized by the San Jose Earthquakes soccer team, local businesses and the San Jose Downtown Association—have activated San Pedro Square in a way the city hasn’t seen since the pandemic’s start. Hundreds of soccer fans flood the block to watch matches on the big screen, get some drinks and eat food with other locals. Restaurant and bar owners in the downtown area say business has never been better.
“We are seeing quadruple the amount of customers and maybe five times the amount of sales than we have seen since the pandemic,” Dominic Tun, manager at O’Flaherty’s Pub, told San José Spotlight. “Morale is incredibly high.”
O’Flaherty’s is one local business the Earthquakes is partnering with to host watch parties every day. Since the World Cup started a week ago, Tun said hundreds of people trickle in daily at 5 a.m. to watch the games in Qatar where the World Cup is being hosted.
“It is like a mini St. Patrick’s Day—our biggest time of the year,” Tun said. “In my last five years, I have never seen it like this except on that day.”
Theresa Verba, manager at The Old Wagon Saloon, which is also hosting watch parties starting at 5 a.m., said business is skyrocketing—and she expects the increased patronage to outlast the World Cup when it ends on Dec. 18.
“We’ve had customers say they’ve never been here before and they’ll definitely be back, and that is very encouraging,” Verba told San José Spotlight. “We love the visibility, the exposure. It’s really great for the square alone and downtown business in general.”
Downtown recovery stalling
COVID-19 hit the city center hard when shelter in place mandates took effect starting March 2020. Longtime businesses shuttered, leaving streets littered with empty restaurants and dark storefronts. Restaurants and bars lost foot traffic as tech employees went remote. Downtown sales tax revenue has plummeted a whopping 38.5% during the past year, compared to the city average which dropped by only 1%.
Parking usage rates and revenue have also recovered to only 50%-75% of what they were pre-pandemic, indicating fewer people coming into downtown, according to a June city report.
The World Cup could be the much needed kick to change trajectory. Management at Sushi Confidential, right across the street from O’Flaherty’s, said San Pedro Square is typically empty on weekdays. But since the World Cup started, soccer fanatics have frequented the sushi spot and other restaurants on the block.
“The sheer volume of customers has been great,” Sushi Confidential Manager Matt Mura said. “After people have been drinking a little while (at the official watch parties) they come here to fill up on food and get a change of scenery. We’ve gotten a lot of people.”
Black Friday at San Pedro Square was jam-packed with fans in red, white and blue face paint throwing their fists in the air to chant “USA.” Those who couldn’t find a seat sat on the sidewalk or went to the second floor of the parking garage across the street to watch on the big screen. Local officials such as Assemblymembers Ash Kalra and Robert Rivas and San Francisco representative Matt Haney also joined in on the fun.
Downtown San Jose Councilmember-elect Omar Torres, who was decked out in the American colors, cheered on the national team with his four brothers.
“I love seeing the crowd. I love hearing the excitement. I love seeing people buy food and beverages,” Torres told San José Spotlight. “The pandemic almost two years ago practically killed our downtown. What we’re seeing now is large crowds. We’re seeing folks wanting to come back to downtown San Jose.”
Torres, who also serves as the business resiliency manager at the San Jose Downtown Association, said business usually slows during the winter—a trend only exacerbated by the pandemic. But in the last week, he said local cafes and eateries have seen more activity than peak summer nights in San Jose. San Jose’s Al Fresco program—which closes city streets for outside dining—makes the watch parties possible. He intends to close San Pedro Square to car traffic permanently so similar events can occur.
Tutul Rahman, vice president of marketing for the Earthquakes, said San Jose can expect more events like this in downtown—especially as the South Bay gets ready to host some games of the 2026 World Cup at Levi’s Stadium.
“These games gives people a reason to go out and be together, and whenever that happens, people like to have drinks and food. Businesses have told us it’s been great for them, and obviously it’s also great for the Earthquakes,” Rahman told San José Spotlight. “But this will not end on Dec. 18 (the World Cup final). You can expect this type of vibe to be created around San Jose for the next three and a half years.”
Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.