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?