With the NCAA tournament winding down and football season still a long ways off, we're finally transitioning out of peak sports-bar season. Kentucky and Connecticut are going to win Saturday, and then Kentucky and the rest of us are going to win Monday, because every sporting drinker's life is improved when he or she stops visiting these cacophonous dens of ranch-dressed mediocrity. Garish, stressful, and sneakily expensive, sports-themed bars used to be evil year-round necessities, but thanks to modern alternatives, most of us can avoid them altogether, and should.
The founding principle was a sound one: Sports, beer, and liquefied cheese are among humankind's finest inventions, and their strengths grow exponentially when served together. But gone are the days when you had to trek to a dedicated sports bar to enjoy sufficient exposure to these delights. Now, most middle-tier taverns have a hundred beer taps and a thousand TVs, your phone has all the scores in real time, and it's cheaper to have the full roster of major American sports leagues annually beamed into your home than it is to pay for a season's worth of mozzarella towers.
I understand the value of getting out of the house and watching sports with other people, which is why we're lucky to live in an age when tons of regular (if bro-leaning) bars subscribe to the exotic cable packages previously found only at places with satellite dishes all over the roof and ball-based puns all over the menu. And one major advantage to skipping the sports bar in favor of your mildly ambitious neighborhood joint, or even frigging Applebee's, is that you're better off eating and drinking at a place built around food and booze that provides sports on the side, rather than the other way around.
Sports bars get away with having shitty food because they serve a voluntarily captive audience that's clearly there for the TVs, and why would your captors waste energy cooking your burger to the proper temperature? The chefs there care about your culinary satisfaction roughly as much as do their counterparts in airports, hospitals, and prisons. Look, pal. There are seven NFL games, women's tennis, a UFC promo, and car racing on in here; your burger touched the grill for a certain period of time, and then it was duly entombed beneath whatever you selected from the Slam Dunk Smotherin's list. Eat it and it smile, and then wipe the goddamn smotherin off your chin and yell at a TV—pick a TV, any TV, it doesn't matter which, here's another 99-ounce Bud Light.
And please don't tell me this or that sports-bar chain has good chicken wings. I'm sure they do, but you're misattributing the credit. Touchdown Todd's Sports-B-Q doesn't have good wings, chickens have good wings. Kudos to Todd for not fucking them up, but it's really not that hard once the egg's hatched. I'm not saying all bar food is created equal, but the better versions are rarely set aside for day-drunks in shame-glazed Peyton Hillis jerseys.
So we've established that there's little need to go to sports bars for the games themselves, since those are available everywhere, including in your pocket and on your couch. And everyone from Cheesecake Factory to your own damn self can make nachos, so the food's no compelling argument, either. This leaves us with the dicey matter of atmospherics.
When I asked around, several people defended sports bars on the grounds that they turn up the broadcast volume: While every bar shows every game these days, only the officially athletically oriented can be counted on to provide the full Aikman experience. This may be true, but it's also the reason that volume is the worst part of a sports bar, because there are always too many games going at once. Your precious Aikman is served alongside a intrusive dose of Simms, who's checking in from three TVs to the left, where he's puking forth the same clichés about a different game.
You can train your eyes to focus on just the relevant game—even if relevancy is transferred every two minutes, you can only really take in one game at a time—but your brain will still get scrambled by the relentless auditory gangbang of too many talking heads stop-making-sensing about too many other games. And of course, each of these other games comes with its own group of fans hooting and hollering at times that do not correspond to the hoot/holler rhythms of the game you're watching. Even if you're able to induce some sort of selective coma that allows you to block out everything but the game you're watching, then you're left paying an awfully high beer markup just to be alone in public.
This brings us to one of the few valid reasons to go to a sports bar. I ran this rant by Deadspin's sports-video expert, Tim Burke, who endorsed sports bars on the grounds of populist bonhomie: "I would promote going to sports bars for major events, where everybody is focused on the same thing. Like the Final Four. There really is something positive to be said about the collective sports-viewing experience, but it is dependent upon it actually being shared, not fragmented."
I can dig it. There's clear value in watching such a momentous event at a place where it's guaranteed that everyone's there for the sports. You don't want your high-fives left hanging by an unsuspecting civilian who's just in it for the jalapeño poppers. That could happen at a regular chain restaurant or local pub, but not at a bar where the hostess has a referee's whistle and the dessert list has a Carmelo Fudge Sundae.
There are other exceptional circumstances under which it's perfectly reasonable to enter a sports bar. If you're traveling and not looking to take chances or miss games, an evening at Buffalo Wild Wings won't kill you. (If you actually live outside of your team's broadcast area, then you need to figure out some cabled or computerized way to watch the games at home; being a diehard Indians fan stuck in Maryland is no excuse to eat at the Greene Turtle 162 times a year.) Or if you're not a big sports-TV person but need to catch one specific event because a fella you slept with in high school is making his NHL debut, then sure, get thee to the sports bar. And if you're into soccer or rugby and don't have an Irish pub handy, then I guess it's Hooters for you.
I'm not saying sports bars serve no purpose, just that they serve fewer purposes than you might imagine. You have a lot of options, so think twice before committing to watching The Game with The Guys at The Bar where The Chicks are paid to smile as they wade through the fried fart clouds to hate-serve you way too much lunch. You're almost always better off at a regular bar with a bunch of TVs rather than a simulated Best Buy tricked out with baseball-bat Coors Light taps.
Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., and has visited all of the other New England states, including, come to think of it, Vermont. Find him on Twitter@WillGordonAgain.
Image by Sam Woolley.
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