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Finding The Perfect Sports Bar

Feb. 07, 2005
Feb. 07, 2005

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Feb. 7, 2005

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Finding The Perfect Sports Bar

You can't watch the Super Bowl just anywhere. So SI went in search of the best sports watering holes in the land. The trip took us back to the joints of the past and gave us a glimpse of the bars of the future, with a lot of long, grueling research in between. Hey, somebody's got to do it

There was a time long ago, in the years B.D.--Before Dish--when a parched fan would have been thrilled to happen upon a bar with a pair of televisions that showed two different games simultaneously. We got your Cubs game on this TV, and we got your White Sox game over there. Ya want a Bud or Miller? Hallelujah, our man might have thought, for I have found the sports fan's paradise.

This is an article from the Feb. 7, 2005 issue Original Layout

Oh, how it all has changed. Today there exist multistory Shangri-las of sport, cavernous, cacophonous places that hum with televisions of all kind: plasma TVs and high-def TVs and flat-screen TVs and miniature personal TVs and giant projection TVs and even TVs in the bathroom so that one can drain one's bladder while watching Ray Allen drain three-pointers. To watch a game at one of these sports theme parks is to have, in the words of John Pierce, who oversees the marketing of the ESPN Zones for Disney Regional Entertainment, "an immersive sports dining experience."

On a recent NFL playoff Saturday at the Baltimore ESPN Zone, the flagship location which opened in 1998 and serves a half million customers a year, fans were gathered at tables and booths and in big cushy recliners--Recliners! At a freakin' bar!--staring up at a curved 16-foot-by-13-foot screen like so many teenagers parked at a drive-in. They drank beer from gargantuan mugs, they smoked cigarettes, and they shoved great handfuls of seasoned french fries into their mouths, sometimes all simultaneously. They wore jerseys with their own names sewn on the back, they told their kids to be quiet because the Jets are driving and Daddy doesn't talk when the Jets have the ball, and they chose from one of a dozen feeds on their table-mounted monitors, adjusting the surround sound until it seemed as if Al Michaels were sitting close enough to snag the last chicken finger.

If that weren't enough stimulation, one flight up, 10,000 square feet of sports video games buzzed and blinked. Rifle a pass at a simulated receiver! Boot a soccer ball at a simulated goal! Ride down simulated rapids! And everywhere one looked, as if trapped in some Kubrick-ian fantasy, there were flashing images: the Nets versus Orlando on one feed, arm wrestling on another, Old Dominion playing James Madison on a third. It is all synced too; the Zone has more than 150 monitors, all managed from a control station that looks like the flight deck of the Death Star. Unquestionably, the place is a marvel of technology and a testament to the twin American ideals of branding and bigness. But is it really a sports bar?

Is this what sports bars are about: roving packs of tourists, de facto day care and an in-house gift shop, all in a space so large and amorphous that at any given time it takes 200 employees (there's a reason they wear name tags) to run the place? Can it be a sports bar when there's such a bewildering array of visual and aural experiences that spontaneous conversation is all but impossible? In sum, can a sports bar be a place where nobody knows your name and, what's more, likely never will?

To answer that question one must first define what a sports bar is, and that's not easy. Just about every joint that serves alcohol in this age of cable and DirecTV can call itself a "sports bar," considering that you'd be hard-pressed to find someplace that wasn't showing the big game. But to distinguish a real sports bar from a bar that happens to show sports, one must first understand the evolution of the concept. So pull up a stool, order another round and listen up, for there's a tale to tell.

In the beginning, there was no game on. Sure, people talked about the game, as people have always done, as no doubt Romans did in some marble room, remarking upon which gladiator had done well against that day's lion. But it was all ex post facto; there was no way to follow it live. Not that people didn't try. In the early days of baseball, bar owners on the East Coast would have a boy run down to the telegraph office, from whence he'd return, out of breath, to report that the Red Sox had scored two in the seventh to take a one-run lead. Fifteen minutes later he'd be sent off again, thus creating the world's first rudimentary sports ticker.

With the advent of radio, people could at least listen to the game. Still, most sports highlights came by word of mouth or in the next morning's newspaper. Or in the form of lushly illustrated posters, created as advertising by the major leagues and their p.r. companies. These ads were nailed to the walls of bars and boasted of fantastic feats. bartell of giants robs dimaggio of hit read one from Oct. 11, 1937.

Around this time, however, a restaurant in New York City was taking it one step further: It was bringing in DiMaggio himself, who, if you were lucky, might tell you over a beer exactly how he was robbed of that hit. The bar, located smack in the middle of Manhattan, at 51 West 51st Street, was called Toots Shor's and it was owned by the barrel-bellied, boisterous Bernard (Toots) Shor. There were three baseball teams in New York at the time--the Yankees, Dodgers and Giants--and Shor made certain that as many of the players, sportswriters and executives as possible spent their downtime in his bar. It wasn't just a place for sports figures either; on any given evening Jackie Gleason, Frank Sinatra and any manner of politician, Broadway star or entertainer might swagger through the doors. Yogi Berra, the Yankees' catcher, was said to have met Ernest Hemingway at Shor's one night, and when the author was introduced as "an important writer," Berra replied, "What paper you with, Ernie?"

Shor's closed in 1971, and Shor died six years later, but his vision inspired a new breed of bar. In the '60s and '70s steak houses and dive bars across the country began to take on a more sports-driven personality. Places like the Pink Pony in Scottsdale, Ariz. (spring training home to the likes of Harry Caray, Leo Durocher and Billy Martin), Ricky's in San Leandro, Calif., and the Eliot Lounge in Boston (page 76) became the equivalent of locker rooms away from the locker room.

But New York City was the mecca. In 1965 Yankees utility infielder Phil Linz opened a bar called Mr. Laffs (his nickname) in midtown Manhattan. It became the postgame destination for Knicks and Rangers and all those who basked in their reflected glory. The bar's heyday soon passed, but as it happened, one of the bartenders at Mr. Laffs was a young, exuberant Yankees fan named Joe Healey. His father, a congressman from the Bronx, had taken him to Toots Shor's as a boy, and Joe remembered what it was like to sit starry-eyed amid the players and the beat writers. So in the mid-'70s, together with his friend Jim Costello, he set out to create the same kind of atmosphere at a new bar. They decided to call the place Runyon's, in honor of the legendary sportswriter and author Damon Runyon. On April 1, 1977, they opened the doors on 50th Street and Second Avenue to what many consider to be the greatest sports bar ever.

It was not much to look at, a cramped subterranean establishment, a few steps down from the street. Two green box seats from Yankee Stadium stood like iron sentries on the terrace outside, and inside it was dark and homey.

There were two TVs tuned to games, and patrons certainly watched, but the place was really about conversation. There was, at all times, a Baseball Encyclopedia within easy reach, and nary a night went by that it wasn't consulted to settle an argument. To hit the spot at "high tide," as Healey called it, was like walking in on PTI: The Early Years. In one corner there was the Boston Globe's Bob Ryan arguing with Gene Orza, the lawyer for the baseball players' union, about the DH rule, and over there Mike Lupica, the Daily News columnist, and maybe John Walsh, who would go on to become the creative force behind ESPN, and always Kevin O'Malley, CBS's college hoops honcho, and Newsweek writer Pete Axthelm, a cigar in one hand and a cognac in the other. In the back room you might see Beano Cook and Mike Francesca and Bob Costas, not to mention various future SI staffers. There would also be any number of athletes, from Lawrence Taylor to Doug Flutie. And all of them talking sports. "There was a skill in those days to knowing exactly what the ball and strike count was, answering the trivia question someone had just asked, ordering another drink and getting another cheeseburger," says Lupica. "It was kind of the Runyon's decathlon. If you couldn't do that, you had to go to a wine bar or something."

The crowds came in waves: first the Wall Street guys and the locals, then the writers and the regulars and, eventually, the players and the umpires. This meant you could find yourself, after watching the Yankees or the Mets game, arguing calls with the guys who made them--umps like Bruce Froemming and Richie Garcia, who stayed at a hotel around the corner. "It didn't have an Internet sports geek feel to it; it had more of a literary feel," says Costas, who lived nearby. "It had this combination of memory and shared experience and humor and irony and absurdity. The whole mix was the way reasonable people view sports, as a nice little corner of their lives and a place they can come back to for a shared sense of reassurance, but not a place where sports are the only thing that mattered and you become some kind of crazy zealot."

Like any great bar, it had great bartenders, guys like Richie O'Rourke and John (Shirts) Hughes. Healey loves to tell a story about one of the finest, a caustic Irish chap named Doc Mannion. "On the opening night of the Summer Olympics in 1980, we had three out-of-town guys in three-piece suits sit down right in the middle of the bar. We had the Mets and Yankees on the TVs. One of them says to Doc, 'Hey, mind if we watch the opening ceremonies?'

"Doc took one look at him and said, 'We don't watch parades. Not unless they start putting lines on them.'"

At the center of it all was Healey, a Runyonesque character if ever there was one. Robust and lively, with a thicket of black hair and a relentless smile, he'd greet everyone when they came in, and as the night progressed along with his whiskey consumption, he'd grow increasingly hopeful about the chances of his beloved Yankees.

"Joe was one of these guys who didn't just have an interest and a knowledge in sports but a kid's rooting interest," says Costas. "In its own way it was kind of sweet. It didn't have the angry edge that a lot of modern rooting seems to have."

Runyon's was a place where strangers became friends and, since everybody walked home or took a cab, everyone drank. The ethos of the bar was nicely summed up in a manifesto of sorts, written by then SI writer Dan Jenkins. It was called "Runyon's Stages of Drunkenness," and it read as follows:

1. witty and charming

2. rich and powerful

3. philosophical

4. against the designated hitter

5. f--- dinner

6. witty and charming, part II

7. for the designated hitter

8. morose and despondent

9. invisible

10. bulletproof

Meanwhile, just as Runyon's was hitting its early stride, a man in Washington, D.C., named Mike O'Harro was taking note of the country's growing obsession with sports. By this time O'Harro was already a Hall of Famer in the bar business. He'd gotten his start in 1963, when he arrived in D.C. as a young Naval officer just returning from a year in Japan. With the aim of meeting women, he began giving parties for the Junior Officer's Professionals Association. His mixers were so successful that in the mid-'60s, along with his good friend Jim Desmond, he opened what is now considered the country's first singles bar, Gentleman's II. Then with singles bars on the wane in the early 1970s, he and Desmond opened one of America's first disco bars in '75, an elite place in Washington called Tramp's, which attracted big names and turned big profits. Stallone came, Cher showed up in army fatigues, and the bar was so successful that Us magazine dubbed O'Harro "the dean of discos."

When disco gave way to pop in the '80s, O'Harro started looking for his next theme and realized, in his words, "two things are important to Americans: love of God and love of sports." He called up Desmond, rounded up funds and spent $1 million to renovate a 2,400-square-foot building in a run-down space at the back of a forbidding 150-foot alley in Georgetown. Now he just needed a name. He remembered a bar he'd been to in Amsterdam--he still has the matchbook from it--that had as its logo a drawing of an old-time baseball team and a simple yet catchy title: Champions.

Touted in the invitation for its opening as "an innovative new bar-restaurant" that takes sports "from the dugout of the corner bar to uptown chic," Champions opened on Sept. 28, 1983, with the sort of fanfare that these days accompanies only movie premieres. Sugar Ray Leonard was there, Brooks Robinson was there, and so were Joe Theismann and the Washington Redskins cheerleaders. The place was packed and the crowd extended into the alley, as it often would over the years. Surely few revelers noticed on that first night, but the bar had what was then a rather unusual feature: sports memorabilia, all of which had been painstakingly arranged by O'Harro, an inveterate collector. It covered every inch of wall space, and even the bar top contained a small fortune of baseball cards encased in resin. There were only "two or four TVs," as best as O'Harro can remember, but that wasn't what it was about; Champions aspired to be something totally different from Runyon's. "We didn't want just a bastion for guys to talk about high school football," says O'Harro. "We wanted a place where women felt comfortable." So there was dancing and deejays, and Playboy even named it one of the top singles bars in 1984, describing it in memorable prose as "high energy, hot and hetero." For his part, O'Harro, who has a slick, salesman's charm, became one of D.C.'s most famous bachelors. (At his home, which doubles as something of a Champions shrine and '70s time capsule, complete with zebra skin and polar bear rugs, there is a framed 1977 National Enquirer story naming him one of the country's 10 most eligible bachelors.)

Soon Champions was the largest grossing liquor bar per square foot in the country. Still, it might have been just another trendy nightspot if it weren't for the events. While Desmond loved nothing more than to tend bar and b.s. with his customers, O'Harro had a Trump-ian ability to create buzz and was never content unless the bar was jammed. ("I'd go hide in the bathroom if the place wasn't packed," he says.) So he sponsored anything and everything, no matter how obscure: Redskins nights, movie opening parties, the USFL Cheerleaders Kickoff Party, the Georgetown women's tennis team party, a Miss Hawaiian Tropic contest and even the U.S. Boomerang Association party. When all the NFL quarterbacks were in town for a gala, he sidled up to Jim Kelly and told him he could tend bar that night at Champions on the house; Kelly of course brought 23 other QBs with him, and as O'Harro correctly points out, "You can't buy buzz like that."

His next breakthrough came when it dawned on him that the most avid fans are alumni. He contacted the University of Arizona, his alma mater, and the bar hosted an alumni party for a game against UCLA. The place was so full you couldn't move, on a usually dead Saturday afternoon no less. He'd struck gold. He started calling around to other schools. Sometimes there was only a radio broadcast available, but it didn't matter. In a city like D.C., where so many people are from somewhere else, the camaraderie was what drew people. Where O'Harro saw profit, Desmond saw community. "There was a tremendous need of people from other places to come together and cheer on their team," he says. "It was really heartwarming to see."

Soon O'Harro changed Champions' tagline to The Ultimate Sports Bar. Not surprisingly, there was a demand for the concept. So O'Harro opened another one in the D.C. area, and then, in 1986, Marriott approached him: The hotelier wanted to make Champions the first franchised sports bar. Within a year a Boston Champions opened with Larry Bird and Jim Brown on hand for the opening. Within 10 years Champions had expanded overseas and today remains the largest international sports bar franchise, with 34 locations. (O'Harro and Desmond sold their interest in 1992.)

Naturally, once Champions became successful, "every Greek restaurant in town put up a couple of TVs and called itself a sports bar," Desmond says with a laugh. Athletes got into the act as well, among them Jim Kelly, Lawrence Taylor, Dan Marino and even Jay Schroeder. (That one didn't last long.) Bar owners realized the beauty of the genre; for the investment of a satellite dish they could attract a recurring, captive audience--no one switches bars in the middle of a football game--predisposed to drinking large amounts of alcohol and bringing their friends. The next step, it seemed, was to create a place where people could not only watch sports but also play them. In 1987 a young bar designer named Michael Graves, who's now with the Jillian's chain, and two partners opened what he called a "sportatorium" in Baltimore and dubbed it the Original Sports Bar. It was something of a beta model for the ESPN Zones of the future. The 19,000-square-foot complex featured 45 TVs, a video arcade, a boxing ring, a regulation-height basketball hoop, skee ball and shuffleboard. It lasted only a few years, but regardless, the bar, so to speak, had been raised.

What happened next was a blur of commerce and cross-promotion. Pro sports were in the midst of a boom. Theme restaurants became all the rage. Some, such as the Hard Rock Cafe, worked. Others, like Planet Hollywood, did not. (The sports bar equivalent was the unsuccessful All-Star Café chain, which billed Ken Griffey Jr., Shaquille O'Neal, Wayne Gretzky and Joe Montana as its celebrity owners.) In 1998, after considering various themes, Disney opted for the ESPN brand and set up a beachhead in the Inner Harbor in Baltimore, pouring $15 million into construction. It was an orgy of synergy; Chris Berman aired his Monday Night Football halftime show live from the place, ESPN "personalities" dropped by, and everywhere the interior was branded. There were lines out the door from the start. Once that location succeeded, it led to Times Square and Chicago and six other "Zones," as ESPN calls them. Similar bars were springing up elsewhere: Dave & Busters, which began in Dallas in 1982 and went public in 1995, and Jock and Jills, and Jillian's quickly expanded as well. The result was predictable: Just as family-owned small businesses crumbled in the face of Wal-Mart's march across America, it became harder and harder for the neighborhood joint to survive in the face of these megabars and their brethren.

On a recent Friday night, O'Harro and Desmond, who is now a vice president and lobbyist for Lockheed Martin, invited a reporter to meet them at a sports bar O'Harro had decorated, Crystal City Sports Pub in Arlington, Va. It is a spacious place, large without feeling too big, and the air was heavy with the sound of cracking billiard balls, televised games and loud conversation. The female bartender wore a tight T-shirt and smiled. Over beers and steak bites, the two men talked about what makes a great sports bar.

"A sports bar has to have a personal touch," said O'Harro, 65, who was wearing a faux varsity jacket with his name inscribed on the front and poverty sucks, the tagline of a best-selling poster he designed and posed for, on the back.

Desmond, 70, who is down-to-earth and modest, the opposite of the flashy O'Harro, agreed. "This is a good bar because it's dedicated," he said, looking around. "They don't just throw up three TVs and call it a sports bar. See that over there"--he points to a man eating by himself--"that's a good sign. If a guy feels comfortable eating alone, it means it's a good place."

O'Harro took a sip of his drink. "You know what makes a good sports bar? Fun. Did I have a good time? That's the only reason to go to a sports bar."

Desmond nods. "It needs to be a place you can have a one-on-one conversation," he says. "The bartender's gotta have that whiskey on the rocks that you always have ready for you when you sit down. You'll never get a friendly bartender at the corporate places. They have a playbook. 'You can't pull those tables together.' It's all numbers."

Joe Healey has a similar take. Runyon's closed in 1996--the same year as the Eliot Lounge--in part because of what he calls the "nouveau sports bars. Places were opening up with TV monitors everywhere in the joint, including in the restrooms, and boxing rings in the middle of the restaurant. I couldn't compete with that."

Healey, 63, now lives in North Palm Beach, where he plays golf, keeps in touch with his old buddies via e-mail and works "for fun" as a bartender at a local joint. He doesn't have much use for the sports bars of today. "I don't enjoy them. Once in a while I'll go. I'd rather get the DirecTV and watch at home. These places, people watch the game, and nothing else seems to matter. Our place was the opposite: The game was on, you could watch it if you wanted to. But our place was where you sat around and b.s.'d and had a good steak."

Ask those in the industry about the future of sports bars, and one word comes up again and again: technology. The Zones are moving to plasma and hi-definition on all their TVs and investigating how to allow customers to not only change the feed at their tableside monitor but also choose which camera angle they want to see. Others have tapped into that great wingman of sports viewing: having a stake in the game. Not only does Crystal City, for example, post the betting lines on digital Vegas-like scoreboards, but also the whole place is wired for wi-fi, allowing customers to bring laptops and surf the Web to find--oh, let's see--maybe an Internet betting site. "It's great for businessmen holding lunch meetings," says co-owner Art Dougherty, with all the conviction of a head-shop owner selling a bong for "tobacco use only."

Of course, actual sports books in Vegas have long been taking things further: offering a place to have a beer, watch the game and then cash a ticket. But for many years they were rather dreary places, smoky and grungy. Sports books like Green Valley Ranch in Henderson, Nev., a 20-minute drive from the bustle of the Strip, are changing that. Luxurious without being exclusive, Green Valley Ranch boasts 22 TVs; more than 100 seats, each of which comes with its own librarylike cubicle and reading light; a relatively quiet atmosphere (no trilling slot machines); and a core group of regulars. ("Out of 10 seats at the bar, eight are sat on by the same people," says sports manager Kelly Downey.) "There's a social camaraderie here," said Anthony Massucci, one of the regulars. "Everybody's cheering for everybody else." Added Richard Cordello, another regular, from the other side of the bar, "It's a place were guys can express thoughts and ideas and differences of opinion. They can argue. They can really get into debating every aspect of the game. When they're at home, who can they do that with, their dog?"

Green Valley has been so successful, it is planning to expand the sports book to triple its size. Likewise, Crystal City is adding a third floor. As with all the bars, bigger is now better.

So what does all this mean, other than that you will never, ever go without a place to see the Hawks-Warriors game if you really must subject yourself to that? Does it mean that pubs are giving way to a nation of chains, Sports Barnes & Nobles numbing in their sameness and, as Costas puts it, "less authentic as a representation of their time and place"? Yes, and no.

Undoubtedly, people will continue to flock to the megabars, which will continue to multiply. ESPN plans to have 20 Zones up and running over the next 10 years. And this is a good thing--such places fill a niche and provide an "event" atmosphere. But at the same time, there will always be more intimate places, rich with character; they may just be harder to find amid all the blinking neon lights.

That's why such taverns deserve to be honored. So in deciding what makes a great sports bar, SI looked for places that kept the spirit of Toots Shor's and Runyon's alive while incorporating the best of the Champions buzz. Bars that qualify as that "third place." You know, there's home, there's the office, and then there's the third place. This means that camaraderie is as important as the clarity of the TVs. Call it the Cheers factor; after all, can you picture Sam Malone tending bar in a referee's uniform with a name tag?

At its best, a sports bar is like a petri dish. You put all these people together, you put the games on, and you see what happens. It's also an escape, a place where the lifetime slugging percentage of Will Clark is of more interest than the Dow Jones Industrial Average, a place where all men are equal, provided they can hold both their liquor and their own in a discussion of the Eagles-Niners game. A sports bar should have some history and a sense of permanence. It should be a place that starts arguments and resolves them. A place where someone will know that it's .497--Clark's slugging percentage, that is--and won't be afraid to tell you. In sum, a place that feels like a community. Henry David Thoreau once said, "Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they're after."

We feel the same way about great sports bars. The first time you go there may be to watch a game, but that's not the reason you go back.

"Runyon's had a literary feel," says Costas. "It had this combination of shared experience and memory and humor and absurdity, the way reasonable people view sports."

One Green Valley Ranch regular says, "It's a place where guys can really get into debating every aspect of the game. When they're home, who can they do that with, their dog?"

COLOR ILLUSTRATIONIllustration by Mirko IllicB/W PHOTOLEE LOCKWOODPUB PIONEER Toots Shor's was one of the first to mix sports with a bar by encouraging New York athletes to hang out there. COLOR PHOTOCOURTESY OF JOE HEALEYTALK THE TALK Healey (with Tim McCarver and Bob Gibson in 1985) ran a saloon where smart sports conversation was prized above all.COLOR PHOTOCOURTESY OF MIKE O'HARRO (TOP)TIPPLING POINT O'Harro (in headdress at a Redskins' Super Bowl party) opened Champions in 1983, and four years later Marriott took it national. COLOR PHOTOSIMON BRUTY (TOP)IS THIS A BAR? Disney's family-first philosophy prevails at its rapidly growing ESPN Zones, making them a boon to some but an abomination to others.