On the surface, this week's Burning Question is all too simple. Of course people congregate at sports bars for the big game; that's why they're called sports bars.
Much like the distance between residents of Oklahoma and proper dental hygiene, however, a lag exists between nominal sports bars and the genuine article. Most bars in the Dallas area contain at least one television generally tuned to some athletic event or another, a selection of alcohol and a few patrons vaguely interested in the game's outcome. Thus it's conceivable that almost any establishment could identify itself as a venue for the avid spectator.
On the other hand, many of the so-called sports bars disguise their conglomeration of big screens with loud music and features designed to attract a trendier crowd. Manhattan packs flat screens behind the bar and in several other carefully selected walls, but patrons of the Routh Street location bristle at the phrase "sports bar," preferring the more upscale sobriquet of nightclub. It's almost as if a place designed around devotees of football, hockey or whatever carries some sort of stigma. "When the sun goes down and the band starts, this becomes a nightclub," echoes Ron Davis, bartender at Cape Buffalo, home to 32 televisions. Even patrons who share an earnest interest in a televised contest sometimes lose their zeal after a few drinks.
"Often the game becomes of secondary importance once the tippling is under way," acknowledges Chris O'Hagan, Dallas aficionado of all things alcoholic, "and the sports bar becomes just a bar."
So before we address the topic at hand, we need to determine just what constitutes such a venue.
"Although any bar with a TV showing a game could be construed as a 'sports bar,' the general consensus is that it's a joint chock-full of large monitors showing all manner of sports," O'Hagan says. He considers Champps, Frankie's and Christie's as establishments fitting the genre. Others place equal importance on the ambience of a place. "You've got smoke, TVs playing, people yelling, and the menu is burgers and nachos," adds Izabela Buchanan, whom we met at Sense, a decidedly non-sports bar. "It's the smell of grease and smoke and the sound of yelling--that's the ultimate sports bar."
Yet the key, perhaps, is not so much in the number of televisions or the pall of secondhand death, but in the use of sound.
"A true sports bar is one that puts the game audio on, day or night," points out Ronnie Arnold, killing time at Cape Buffalo. "There's not many of them that do that."
Thanks to the growing emphasis on postseason play, many people treat the regular schedule as a meaningless diversion, something worthy of a glance now and again, but little more. This further complicates our definition of the sports bar, forcing big-screen establishments to adopt a more general approach.
"No one will be watching anything tonight," admits Ashton Lovern, bartender at Champps in Las Colinas, during our visit on a Friday, with the Mavericks slated to battle Indiana. "No one really cares until the playoffs. Until then, they do a lot more socializing than watching."
So, does anyone watch sports at one of these places?
"You go to hang out with your buddies," splurbs a glassy-eyed Jason Smith, soaking up a few drinks at Manhattan. "Sports just happens to be on." (Splurb, remember, is Burning Question crew slang for a quote taken from someone at the point of slurring words.) Except on the occasion of an important game, a majority of the patrons treat sports bars as if the multiple screens were simply a visual form of Muzak--even at true sports venues.
"The only people who really watch are those from somewhere else who want to see their team," explains Brian Hauser, bartender at Christie's, where a television dominates every line of sight. "Other than that, all night long we hear people say 'what happened?' But it's a good alternative to staying at home."
"Generally they come for the surroundings, not the sports," agrees Michael Rios, bartender at Manhattan.
With day-to-day games deprived of their meaning, sports bars exist more for the big event than the real fan. "If I'm really interested in a game," says Brad Palmer, drinking at Sense (which has no televisions at all), "I'd rather watch it at home."
Of course, as O'Hagan points out, sports bars serve as "an alternative to having one's deadbeat pals come trash one's place, eat one's food and drink all of one's hard-earned booze."
It's as if he knows us.
Perhaps we struggled with this question more than most because the Burning Question crew considers drinking itself a competitive sport. We challenge our previous records, we try to outchug each other and we practice hard during the off-hours.
Although, for some reason we've never been able to use our record of success to renegotiate with our editor.
So be it. Even if no one ever watched sports at a sports bar, the bars' very existence still provides an easy excuse: "We're going out to watch the game..."
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