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.
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.