Glory with a Side of Nachos
22 Jun, 2012 - J.G.C. Wise
By the time you read this, there is a good chance that the New York Rangers will have won the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1994. There is a slightly lower chance that the Boston Celtics will have also won the NBA championship for the first time since 2008. But whether these things come to pass or not, there is one thing that is certain: in these few short weeks of the NBA and NHL playoffs, I will have consumed enough chili cheese nachos to make even Charles Barkley jealous.
That’s because I, like so many sports fans, will spend as many of my free nights as possible this playoff season at the local sports bar. Of course, saying “local sports bar” in Williamsburg, Brooklyn instead of “local pub” or something equally pretentious is rumored to be a crime punishable by stoning, but don’t let these hipsters fool you: they like sports as much as anyone else. They may pretend to think that the Stanley Cup is merely an oversized vessel for holding PBR, but when the puck drops or the ball goes up or the first pitch is thrown, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a seat at any of the few sports bar in this neighborhood, and not just because we’re all too poor to afford cable at home, but because sports bars are where games are fully experienced as opposed to simply watched.
A sports bar is distinctly different from a bar that just happens to have a game or a match on the overhead television in that they specifically design their bar business around sporting events. They are the sorts of places where you know you’ll be able to catch all of the big games, but also where you will likely be able to catch some of the smaller market games, perhaps even sports like gymnastics and softball if there’s nothing major going on in the big leagues. Sports bars will likely have music playing during insignificant events, but when big game days arrive, the music is tuned out in favor of blaring broadcasters giving onlookers a play-by-play over the steady din of a live audience. A good sports bar won’t just have two or three televisions tucked in the corners, but at least a dozen flat-screens lining the walls like picture frames to ensure variety during things like playoff season and the Olympics, and certainty when the masses arrive for championship matches or that decisive Game 7. And of course, the signature of any sports bar worth the distinction is an offering of succulent bar food and a wide variety of reasonably-priced beer.
But what makes the sports bar experience better than watching the game from home? Isn’t a bar too loud, too expensive, and too crowded? How can one possibly focus on the game amidst so much distraction and inebriation?
These are all valid complaints for someone who merely wants to watch a game. But this isn’t about watching — this is about living. Sporting events are, by their very nature, energized, emotionally-charged, and social situations. To truly experience a game the way you would before the advent of television, is to get next to the action, to engage with complete strangers in the common pursuit of victory. Because when you boil it down, sports are about more than simply winning and losing; they are about community.
For reasons I’m not qualified to explain, the current state of human nature compels us to compete with one another. Whether or not you are a sports fan, everyone competes with someone else on some level. Most people won’t have trouble associating competitive nature with things like fighting for a better position or salary at work, or even perhaps for a potential date who has captured the attention of more than one interested party. But competition can happen on a more basic level, even simply that of trying to convince somebody that your ideas are better or more truthful than theirs. If I were to speculate, I’d have to attribute this to mankind’s need to be validated, as well as the universal desire to become something better than what we are, no matter how comfortable we may feel in our own skin. The pursuit of love, money, power and the like suggests that we are all subconsciously aware of our own inadequacies, however many or few they may be.
To compete at all requires that there be someone else to compete against, someone whose defeat will mean another person’s victory and subsequent validation. Thus competition, by its very nature, must be a social occasion because without the interaction of at least two human beings, there is really nothing to overcome. But where two are gathered, others will join because we are naturally social creatures and as such we also naturally gravitate towards social situations, interested and oftentimes eager to be a part of them.
So when one challenger engages another, a crowd almost always forms. People want to see who will emerge victorious, and for some reason (also beyond my understanding), we have a tendency to take sides, to favor one challenger over another. This breeds competition amongst the audience as well until literally thousands and, thanks to television, even millions of people have become a part of the main event. Once there, those who have taken the same side will naturally interact with one another, commenting on observations, strategies, amazing plays, rough hits, or whatever may be relevant for the particular game taking place. Wins results in celebrations and losses result in relative mourning, but all of these things were done historically in the presence and community of others, many of them strangers.
Television threatened to change all of that. Sports have been broadcast into the privacy of people’s homes for over fifty years, eliminating the need to be part of the bigger picture. Of course, one can still be social in one’s home, inviting friends over to watch a game, serving brews and maybe even some of grandma’s secret-recipe chili, but to watch at home amongst friends is comfortable, safe, and frequently dilutes the competitive factor. Friends watching together are likely to be, though they are not always, on the same side, meaning there is an entire component of sports — opposition — that is missing. Besides that, friends watching together can only celebrate with one another, not the collective family of both strangers and friends who stand unified behind a single team.
Sports bars respond to this threat by taking it’s very source — the television — and using it for a greater good, bringing the broadcasted events once more into a public arena and effectively re-establishing community between people who otherwise would not have experienced it together.
This public forum also re-establishes the competition. If you go to a sports bar, you’re not only going to find home-team fans, but also fans of the visiting team, the underdog, the enemy. Fans of both sides can share common space, pitted against one another, making best and talking trash in a truly visceral experience of rivalry and trial.
Not only is the competition re-established, but it is compounded. With the best sports bars out there having multiple televisions scattered throughout, there’s a substantial chance, at least during playoff season, that you’ll be able to watch more than one game at the same time. Consequently, someone who goes to the bar to watch the Celtics game might find himself cheering on Philadelphia or Chicago on the neighboring screen during halftime, period breaks, and timeouts. Add the beer and the nachos, and you’ve got a miniature heaven for sports fans.
Sports bars also bring some of the excitement of a live game into a smaller, more affordable arena. Between the huge crowds of people who swarm the stadiums for local events and the almost-excessive security one has to pass through to attend a live game, sports bars are a great alternative to the stress brought on simply by getting into the live event, offering still the energy of a live crowd, but without the numbers or the invasion of privacy. And in a world where even halfway decent Brooklyn Nets tickets fail to sell for prices lower than the Earth’s stratosphere, sports bars are a cheaper alternative for publicly viewing the big game.
Though watching at home has a time and a place (probably winter when it’s too cold to go anywhere), there’s no better way to take in a game than at a quality sports bar. Sure, at home you lower the likelihood that someone will spill beer on your, or that you’ll have to wait in line for the restroom, and certainly that you’ll have to put up with someone cheering on the opposing team, but all of that misses the point. Sports aren’t supposed to come with a cushy guarantee that everything will go smoothly and without anxiety or a struggle. Sports are gritty, and to properly experience them, we as the spectators need to be someplace equally as gritty. We need to be someplace where we can feel the energy, nerves, excitement, and disappointment of every brother and sister with a vested interest in winning. And most important of all, we need to be someplace that serves chili cheese nachos. Hold the jalapenos.