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 Caf� 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."