The Kinship of Sports Bars

Sorry for the long hiatus! I’ve been busy with work, and when not busy with work I’ve been distracted by, well, sports. The Giants have been lurching from can’t-get-enough win streaks to can’t-look-away loss binges, and the Warriors, of course, are in the NBA Finals. I do have something in the works about the FIFA scandal, but before I get to that heaviness, I have to write about my experience watching Game 1 of the Finals last night at a San Francisco-themed sports bar here in LA.

For whatever reason, I haven’t spent much time watching televised sports with strangers—probably it’s that I’ve barely lived in my hometown since coming of drinking age, so where I am my teams aren’t on TV much in the first place. But I have watched a lot of World Cup soccer that way: in 2002 because I was studying in England, sports-starved, and didn’t have a TV; in subsequent World Cups because a lot of the matches are on cable channels I don’t get.

Some of my most treasured sports experiences, in fact, are of World Cup matches I watched in rooms full (or less than full) of strangers. There was the US’s stunning victory over Portugal in 2002: I was the only American who got up early enough to watch the match in the college common area (the Cup was being played 9 hours ahead so the match was on at something like 8:00 a.m.), and the Brits made sure I knew that the US was going to get pasted, so when the US went up 3-0 and a British student arriving late asked me incredulously, “Does that say three-nil?”, I knew I had been richly repaid for setting my alarm clock. There was England’s tense 1-0 win over Argentina that same year, revenge for their loss in 1998, which I watched in the same common area, this time packed with roaring English students. And most of all there was the US’s dramatic, last-minute victory over Algeria in 2010, sending them on to the next stage. I watched it in a Long Beach bar on my way to jury duty (of all things), and when Donovan scored it was the first time I hugged strangers over a sporting result.

What’s great about watching sports in this way is the complete and immediate feeling of connection you feel with people you don’t know and will never see again. Watching sports on TV alone or with a couple friends makes you feel alienated from the action: you’re always aware of the difference between your living room and a stadium full of screaming fans. Watching in a bar surrounded by an equally committed audience is no longer merely a window on the action; it is nearly as direct an experience as being there in person. The singularity of focus that you share with the people around you makes it feel like an extension of the action on TV, rather than separate from it.

But I think there can be no substitute for the experience I had last night, watching the Warriors in the San Francisco Saloon in West LA. As the name suggests, it’s a Bay Area sports bar (LA, like a lot of big cities, has sports bars for every expat fanbase you can imagine), and the place was wall-to-wall with Warriors fans, 90% of them wearing Warriors gear, including at least two vintage Jason Richardson jerseys (the best I could manage was my “Hella Oakland” shirt). I’m sure it was like this in bars across the Bay Area, too, but that’s the point: every bar north of Monterey was stuffed with Warriors fans last night, so if you’re a fan up there it was just a matter of which one you wanted to go to. For those of us in the San Francisco Saloon, this was where the game was being played—our own little Oracle Arena. We had converged on this bar just as we had converged on the city at large, and at last we were meeting face to face.

The thing is, as big a sports fan as I am, I still might never go to a playoff game featuring one of my teams. I hope to make it happen, but you never know: by the time I can afford playoff tickets plus a trip back to San Francisco, the Giants might be in a decades-long playoff drought. But coming together to the San Francisco Saloon was as close to being there as anyone could hope for. We did our best impression: we chanted the same things the crowd in Oakland was chanting (“WARR-IORS!” “DE-FENSE!”), and when the game got tense we got all quiet and scared, just like the crowd on TV. And when the Warriors dominated the overtime period, euphoria took hold; people were going out of their way to high-five every stranger within reach, like the person during a toast who tries to clink every single other glass.

When we attend a home game, we like to feel that we’re doing our part to help the team win, sometimes getting kind of grandiose with it (“The Black Hole,” “The Twelfth Man”). And while the noise of a home crowd can make a difference in sports, particularly in football and basketball, what we really want is to feel connected to the action and, more than that, to each other—that’s why every single fan base calls itself a “nation.” Late in last night’s overtime period, after Steph Curry made a shot to put the game beyond doubt, he made the “make some noise” gesture to the crowd—arms out, raising his palms again and again. And, watching from a different building entirely, 400 miles away, we cheered at the top of our voices.

Image credit: “Watching the T20 at the sports bar” by A. is distributed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

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2 thoughts on “The Kinship of Sports Bars

  1. Pingback: Why Teams Get Away With Public Financing Deals | The Spiel

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