I remember the moment well, save for all of the details. It was a bar with food, or maybe a restaurant with drinks. It was for sure on the North Side of Chicago. There was beautiful reclaimed wood everywhere, with tables to match. Big windows looking onto the street covered all of one wall. I was there with one, two, three friends? We were ready to enjoy a nice meal.
And then I looked up. At several. Huge. Flatscreen. Televisions.
I was gobsmacked. I shouldn’t have been, really. This was Chicago, home of not one but five very popular sports teams (six if you count the Fire, which I don’t, but you can if you must) with very devoted fan bases which means that there’s really no time of year for a respite from DA Bears or DA Cubbies or whoever else. This also means that there are lots of places to enjoy the recreational activities of sweating men outside of official fiefdoms like Guaranteed Rate (cannot believe they renamed it that) and Soldier Fields, places full of every kind of beer served in large tankards clasped by fans who are loudly proclaiming that this is OUR year, WE’RE really going to do it, okay? If WE only just tweak a few things, WE got this.
I remember the feeling more than anything, every fiber of my being echoing with one question: Why???
As humans we cannot help but look at light and movement, which makes televisions the most distracting of things. That very fact is why adults have (controversially) taken to shoving iPads in their children’s faces to allow for just a few brief moments of respite from the choice they made that will follow them for the rest of their lives, whether they regret it or not. In a sense, this is what bars with televisions are doing, except this time it’s grown adults shoving the screen in front of grown adults. Stay awhile, even longer than you meant to, their presence is saying. Relax. Become hypnotized. And most importantly, drink more while you’re doing it.
That’s all fine and well if you wanted to be entertained. But when you’re at a food and drink establishment with televisions, having left your house in an attempt to have a conversation with a real person, you end up not really talking to that dear friend, instead finding yourself constantly distracted by whatever is on the screen behind their head. It could be something awful! You could hate what’s on TV. It could be infomercials not featuring the guy who replaced Billy Mays who looks and sounds uncannily like him even though this guy is British. And yet you keep obsessively glancing back to it, the person talking to you frustratingly aware that your eyes keep drifting as they discuss how much they’re struggling with David the new temp, could he please just take this work seriously, I know he’s straight out of college but Jesus Christ the printer paper is in the copy room!!!
Distraction is reason number one why televisions should not be in any establishment that is not manifestly committed to the viewing of sports. An important number two is how hideous they are; I’m often shocked why someone would go through all the trouble of literally throwing their money away to start a restaurant or bar only to think, hey let’s make this disgusting by adding some horrendous light sources that don’t match any of the beautifully reclaimed tile or refurbished wrought iron bar stools we’ve picked out. The hope seems to be that people will come there because they need a meal and also wouldn’t mind watching some TV outside of their home. This could guarantee a customer base even if your food sucks and your bartenders have bad attitudes in a non-fun way. But if your food sucks, your place shouldn’t exist, sorry to say. (If your bartenders have bad attitudes, I guess get new ones, but honestly, I have kind of a bad attitude so I don’t really care.)
I can’t think of any vibe a bar could be going for—other than sports—that would benefit from having a television. (We’re not including the advent of movie theaters where you can drink or places that like to have Drag Race viewing parties or whatever.) There are some bars that have TVs as part of the decor, old-timey ones that don’t draw the eye too much to whatever strange movie they’re playing that you and your dating app date will spend a few minutes trying to IMDB before lulling back into the awkward silence that is knowing you’ll never see a person again. I know and love a few of those bars. I’m not convinced, however, that they’re enough to hold up a counterargument to my claim—give the eyes a break friends!
To get some perspective on the other side, I asked a few friends who’ve spent their time in the trenches as bartenders or bar-backs for their thoughts on one of many plagues of my life. My friend Hayley said she “80 percent” doesn’t mind televisions in bars but agreed that it all depends on what type of place you’re talking about, particularly because “there’s always a risk that certain viewings of sporting events will bring in obnoxious crowds.” She did confirm my suspicion that a TV “brings in more money than it turns away.”
But she also suggested that in the right scenario, a television could actually encourage people you like to come in while deterring people you don’t. For instance, she started putting Antiques Roadshow on at her last gig. “It started to bring in a really lovely Sunday morning group NOT consisting of millennial brunchers, which was wonderful,” she told me.
Another friend, Josh, told me he is “very against” TVs in non-sports bars. “I personally get distracted by all the lights and movement, and I can only imagine that must be frustrating for bartenders to have distracted/unresponsive patrons,” he said. “Everyone loves to complain that they have to wait at the bar too long to get a drink, but when 70 percent of the people there have their eyes glued to the game, it only makes it worse.”
(Josh also pointed out something brilliant that I hadn’t thought of, which is that “hotel bars are a notable exception since they have a semi-captive population and need to cater to a broader range of desires.” I would second that and add that unless we’re talking about a Ritz-level organization, hotel bars are gross no matter what, so who cares what they do there.)
There will doubtless be some of you who will also say that you don’t like sports bars, and love to chill alone at a normal bar on a weeknight quietly watching “the game” while those around you do whatever they’re doing, not bothering you. I have news for you: any bar that purposefully and regularly shows sports and has the energy of a place that shows sports and the decor of a place that shows sports and is known for showing sports is a sports bar. Keep living your life, doing what you do. What I DON’T want is to try to live mine and show up at a place serving food, beverages, or some combo of the above that I know in my soul shouldn’t have televisions and does. Know what you are, and what you are not, and act accordingly. That’s a good rule for people and also for places.
There will also be some of you who agree with me, but are wondering what you should do if you find yourself in a place with TVs that shouldn’t have them. If can’t completely remove yourself from the TV’s line of sight, decide which role you’d rather play: the person being ignored, or the person trying not to ignore the people you’re with. I would not suggest asking the bartender to turn off the TV because I doubt that would go over well, and frankly, why should it? It is their domain; you can go elsewhere. (Also, I once asked a bartender to turn the music down a little bit because no one else was there and it was so loud I had to scream to be heard and he looked at me like I had two heads and then turned the music up. Incredible own.)
I will admit that I don’t really understand the desire to watch sports outside of the comfort of your own or someone else’s home, unless you don’t have cable and “the fight” is on. At home you don’t have to wait in line for the bathroom and soft pants are entirely accepted, if not encouraged. There’s nothing better than that environment when it’s the end of the night and your team lost and everyone has slipped away silently while your head is in your hands, leaving you with your sad thoughts and gassy body. But sometimes the house is too small for all the friends to come over and sometimes you do have to get out there into the world, and for that, I say a sports bar with several TVs and a universal remote the bartender lets you have a bit of say over and large pitchers of beer and bad wings is a great idea, so long as I don’t have to be there for very long. Camaraderie with your fellow man as you all flock to the same watering hole to feel a brief moment of elation sounds nice.
Just do it there, and not where I am.