The Anatomy of a Sports Bar

Posted by J.R. Ewing | Friday, November 20, 2009

This is NOT intended to be a "best sports bar" or "J.R.'s Sports Bar Picks", but rather a generic discussion of what makes a great Sports Bar, using examples of specific places I like with balanced criticism of what I don't like about each.

First of all, the Sports Bar is the perfect marriage of two of life's greatest rewards. For the average sports fan, we basically work and toil all day, be it at our jobs, raising our kids, volunteering in our neighborhoods, mentoring students, etc. With the one goal, that at the end of the day, we can sit back, have a cold one, and watch some sort of entertaining sporting event on TV. Which one can do just about any day of the year, except the day before and after the major league all star game. In which, WNBA is your only option, and let's face it, that's about 2 years from folding. Christmas Day is a bit light for me, too. I mean after the presents and before dinner, what am I supposed to do? Nevermind, different subject for a different blog. But Thanksgiving has it right, IMO.

So what makes a great Sports Bar? Several factors. In rough order of preference for me, a good sports bar needs:

1) High technology TV's and a lot of them
2) Management that analyzes the sports watching needs of the customers
3) Staff that is plentiful enough to easily provide food and drink to the patrons
4) Knowledgeable clientele
5) Lots of tables and seating
6) Location

For each, we delve further:
1) High technology TV's and a lot of them

Nothing kills sports watching quicker than not having TV's that I can see from any place in the joint. A place opened near me recently titled "All Sports Bar". I venture in there, and every TV is 40" or less and none are lower than 15' in the air. I was squinting and shrugging, how am I supposed to watch the game? Within' months it changed to "Baja Bar", abandoning the sports theme and going with the night club theme.

2) Management that analyzes the sports watching needs of the customers

Nothing is more frustrating than going to a bar to see a game, noticing that the game of choice is not on, and having management kind of shrug their shoulders and say that they can't change it. Two examples, I recall Mr. Smokeypants and I (maybe Sirron was there) wandered into a wing establishment in which the waitresses were wearing a lot of orange. We thought they might have the Longhorns/Red Raiders hoops game. After not finding it, we simply asked if it might be put on. Our waitress didn't seem very interested in helping us, so after some consternation, we made a call to another wing joint (Let's just say the wings were "Wild") and they said "OF COURSE" we have the Longhorns game on, we're in Houston, right? Cha-ching. Just last weekend I wandered into a bar in Austin (which will be discussed later) that rhymes with Cluckers. We simply requested the Texas Tech/Oklahoma State game. Initially blown off (manager told us all games currently on were requested, they'd change it as soon as one ended), we did get the game. But in Austin TX, the management should have cut that random Pac 10 game that nobody was really watching and given us the most interesting Big XII South game of the day. Instead, we got to watch OU cackle at A&M until it ended.

3) Staff that is plentiful enough to easily provide food and drink to the patrons

The best sports bars I've been to have a very attentive staff, my cup is never empty, food orders and delivered fast and accurately, and I'm not having to navigate my way to the bar for lack of service. Deal killer any other way.

4) Knowledgeable clientele

Let's face it, we want to go to a Sports Bar where we feel like we're watching the game(s) with friends. It's frustrating to be at a so called sports bar, but find that nobody is "really" watching the game, people are asking why ER isn't on one of the TV's (wow, that dated me), a big play happens and nobody really reacts, etc. The best sports bars are ones in which you walk in, and there are lots of people like you, very interested in the game(s), knowledgeable, may or may not be cheering for the team you are, but in tune with the game at hand.

5) Lots of tables and seating

You can have all of the above, but for me to enjoy a game in full, I need a place to sit, or at least put my beer down. I've seen some very good bars that were all standing, or the seats were in the corner and it really took away. You need to have tables and seats, they need to have TV's in full view, and waitstaff attending them. Period.

6) Location

You could have the best sports bar in the world, but if it's in Washington DC SE (no offense), I'm not going. A corollary of this is that, the bar is best very near your residence. I acknowledge that some of the best sports bars in Houston, are, well, in Houston. Last night I was looking to find a place to watch the Colorado/Okie State game, and the folks I was looking with decided that the best bars were downtown, for a weeknight it wasn't worth the drive, and that we'd just do better watching at home. If there was a place right around the corner, we would have been there.

All that being said, here are some of my favorite (or frequented despite flaw) sports bars, and how they rate on a scale of 1-5 for each category. Each bar I've been to (occasions cited)

1) Home Plate Bar and Grill, 1800 Texas Ave, Houston, TX
My usual stop before Astros game (mini-season ticket holder)

One of two major bars right outside the gates at Minute Maid Park. According to Google, it's literally 400 feet away from home plate (that's just a football field plus end zones, with the white part). This is my preferred place to the other one, more abundant A/C, more intimate feeling, etc. But without further ado, how it ranks:

1 - (4) Good number of TV's and one projection. Whenever I'm there, I'm seeing the game
2 - (5) Always have the best games on, admittedly I only go during MLB when MLB is prominant
3 - (3) Average service, sometimes slow, other times you can't get a bartenders attention
4 - (5) Fans there are in tune with the games on. Nobody is there to watch ER
5 - (3) Some tables, popular times you can't find a seat, but most times you can
6 - (4) Strong location in terms of Minute Maid Park, weaker for being downtown

2) Pluckers Wing Bar 2222 Rio Grande Austin, Texas
Frequent stop before Longhorn games, went there last week after Baylor game

Used to be a hole in the wall, now a full-fledged sports bar.

1 - (4) Good number of TV's in the right spots. Missing a feature TV
2 - (4) Willing to switch games, but not having Tech/OSU on last week gets a 1 pt deduct
3 - (5) Can't say my beer has ever been dry there, staff is plentiful
4 - (3) Half the crowd are Greeks looking for action, not games.
5 - (5) Tables everywhere, bar has great tables, too.
6 - (5) I used to live blocks from here, great location and now with a parking garage

3) Brittany's Sports Bar 12449 Dillingham Square, Woodbridge, VA
After our softball games, or after Potomac Cannons minor league games (now Potomac Nationals). Full disclosure, this bar sponsored my softball team for years. But I can be fair...

1 - (3) TV's are abound, when I was there not necessarily enough or flat enough.
2 - (5) NFL games are catered to the crowd, labels are on each TV as to what game will be on at what time.
3 - (5) Staff was always top notch (and we got discounts for wearing the uniform)
4 - (4) Almost a 5, but there are parts that aren't watching the game. I did see a guy "charge the screen" and scream once b/c his favorite NASCAR driver got wrecked. That's intense.
5 - (5) Tables right where you need them.
6 - (5) In a nice area, close to where I lived, etc.

4) MGM Sportsbook 3799 S. Las Vegas Blvd. Las Vegas, NV
Flew into Vegas before the 1/1/2005 Rose Bowl, watched #4 Tech beat #4 California here (Tech's #4 is in the Big XII South).

A bit of a curveball here. A sportsbook? Bear with me.

1 - (5) TV's everywhere. EVERYWHERE. It's their livelihood.
2 - (5) Every game on somewhere.
3 - (4) Drinks are free with gambling, but you might be dry for a while.
4 - (4) Would be a "5" for those with action, but there are too many others not betting who don't care.
5 - (3) Plenty of seats, but no real food options and no table atmosphere.
6 - (4) Great Vegas location, but anything in Vegas is hard to get to really.

5) The Library, 501 South Mill Avenue, Suite 101, Tempe, Arizona
The days before and after the Jan. 2009 Fiesta Bowl

1 - (4) TV's everywhere, but not quite prominent enough
2 - (4) Diversity of games good, nothing outstanding
3 - (5) Staff dressed very attractively (see link above) and attentive
4 - (3) Fair bit of the crowd really isn't watching the game.
5 - (3) Not a lot of good tables with good views. Bar is good, though.
6 - (5) In the heart of the entertainment district in Tempe, near the trolley.

6) Sports Harbour 13484 Washington Blvd, Marina Del Rey, CA
The days before and after the 1/1/2005 Rose Bowl

This bar sucked. It was within walking distance from our hotel. But it sucked. My review will reflect that (just to show there can be bad). Why I kept going back night after night I don't know. We did meet an interesting bisexual "couple" of ladies.

1 - (2) A few primitive TV's around.
2 - (1) So few TV's, I can't imagine they could cover a wide variety
3 - (4) The staff was adequate, big bar to serve.
4 - (1) Rough, rough crowd. I remember I got hit on by skanks and one guy.
5 - (1) Tables were crappy.
6 - (3) Bad neighborhood, but near my hotel. Split the difference.

7) ESPNZone, Washington, DC
At first I thought that this would be the future of sports bars, but I saw flaws.

1 - (5) TV's everywhere. Including over the urinal
2 - (4) Slight bias toward ESPN events
3 - (3) Service is very average
4 - (4) Big sports crowd as one might expect, but not outstanding
5 - (3) Lots of tables, but you can't get them for any big event.
6 - (4) Great locale, but tough to get to for suburbanites.

8) Champs Sports Bar, 3956, boulevard Saint-Laurent, Montreal, QC
Was in town for a work conference, it so happened it WAS the All Star Game (2008) so I found the best reviewed sports bar in the largest city in French speaking Canada and this review ensued.

1 - (4) TV's abundant, but not as many as there could be.
2 - (4) Tough to say, only one game on, but I think they cater to the crowd.
3 - (5) Service was as good as I've ever experienced.
4 - (3) Cultural difference here, fans were more interested in who played for the Expos than the game.
5 - (4) Tables looked abundant, it was kinda dead.
6 - (4) It was in the heart of an entertainment district.

9) Nick's Place, Rockyridge and Westheimer, Houston, TX
Multiple visits.

1 - (5) TV's are as good as they come
2 - (5) Were able to watch UFC, NHL playoffs, and NBA playoffs all at the same time.
3 - (4) Service good, but they could use a few more servers.
4 - (5) Fans here are the salt of the sports earth
5 - (4) Tables everywhere they can stick them, but it's not that big of a place.
6 - (4) A bit tough to get to, but neighborhood-ey.

10) You living room, your house, anywhere USA.
Another curve ball? Maybe the best place to watch is closer than you think?

1 - (?) I haven't been to your living room, but you set the tone here.
2 - (1) At best you would have two TV's
3 - (5) Food and drink are plentiful and cheap
4 - (4) You set the company, only reason it's not a "5" is b/c you're probably alone.
5 - (5) Big, comfortable couches with great views.
6 - (5) Can't beat the location for staggering to bed.

So if I were to rank the places I've been, assuming all categories equal (which they're not), the pts would be:
27 - Brittany's, Woodbridge
27 - Nick's Place, Houston
26 - Pluckers, Austin
25 - MGM, Vegas
24 - Home Plate, Houston
24 - The Library in Tempe
24 - Champs Sports Bar, Montreal
23 - ESPN Zone, Washington, DC
20+? - Your living room
12 - Sports Harbour, MDR, CA (that place sucked)

I do believe I am still in search of the "perfect" sports bar, there is always room for improvement. But follow the basic six criteria above, and I think someone can achieve it!

  1. SirRon November 23, 2009 at 5:57 PM  

    I’m glad you mentioned Nick’s Place. They are listed on for Sports Bar of the Year. You can vote for them here:

    Besides the ridiculous amount of TVs and their willingness to change any TV to whatever you want (except maybe E.R.), they also have great food. I food quality could be included in the scoring factors as well.

    RE: ESPN Zone, the oddity there is that you have to go to a separate section to eat, which is sometimes inconvenient during a big event.

    My living room, Houston, TX

    1 - (4) I’m going to say based on size, type, and location in the room; I’m above average compared to a sports bar. A 5 should be reserved to those with dedicated TV rooms.

    2 - (5) I’ve got 4 TVs that can be dedicated to sports. 5 TVs total if you count the one that I use to distract the kids. Picture

    3 - (4) Food I fancy myself a pretty good cook and my beer fridge is always diversely stocked. However, whenever I ask the wife or kids to hook me up I always get a blank or cross look... -1 in the service category.

    4 - (2) Compared to a great bar scene, the house doesn’t quite compare. However, behavior and hygiene regulations are more relaxed at home, because I set the rules!

    5 - (5) Best seat in the house.

    6 - (5) The three L’s baby.

    That puts me ahead of Home Plate, but behind Pluckers. That’s about right, if not 1 point too high.