Sports bars – includes related article on Winner’s Circle offtrack betting facilities

Peter O. Keegan


High-charged atmospheres, promotions and state-of-the-art technology have sports bars swinging away at local competition as patrons seek a new kind of fun

Sports bar operators around the country are scoring big points with fans — some by offering action in addition to what’s on the television screen, while others provide a comfortable neighborhood home base, where patrons can grab a beer with friends and watch the local team.

With basketball shooting, Nerf volleyball, baseball and football throws, live boxing and kick-boxing contests, dancing, theme nights and other boredom busters, some operations are taking the concept to new heights.

In contrast, both veteran and newcomer sports bar operators are offering a warm, sporty atmosphere with an informal bar, multiple screens and basic food. By keeping confusing gimmickry at a minimum, those operators provide neighborhood regulars with a local place to frequent where they know people, are comfortable and can have a good time.

“Sports bars are replacing the neighborhood tavern,” says Steve Chiappa, co-owner of Bottom of the Ninth in New York. “It’s not so much the sports, as it is a place you can go when alone, meet friends, talk and catch a game.”

Peter Karalekas, co-owner of The Ballpark in Astoria, N.Y., agrees. “By opening up this place, we are fulfilling a need in the neighborhood.” The new 325-seat bar and restaurant, located a few miles from both Shea and Yankee stadiums, seeks to secure a local following.

“People are tired of going to the little pubs where old men go to party,” he adds. “So they come here because they don’t feel intimidated about the atmosphere.”

The proliferation of sports bars and restaurants on the American scene is keeping pace with Americans’ passion for sports, reports Brandon Steiner, a sports marketing consultant with Steiner Associates in New York.

“I’ve seen more growth in sports bars in the past year than in the last four years combined,” he says. “They’re popping up everywhere.”

Steiner notes that yuppies and baby boomers want more action when they go out and don’t mind paying a little more for it.

“They want to feel comfortable about getting a little loud or restless when a game is on,” Steiner says. “And they want to feel like they are experiencing something that is not happenning anyplace else.”

Steiner notes that the electronic end is becoming more intense, food is becoming simpler, active games are garnering more space, liquor companies are stepping up tie-ins and personal appearances by players are becoming the industry norm.

“People want to feel the players, be near them, because they are the driving force behind everything,” Steiner adds.

A list of sports personalities that own or have an interest in a sports bar reads like hall of fame who’s who: Mickey Mantle, Rusty Staub, Mike Ditka, Harry Caray, Ozzie Smith, Dave Mattingly, Mike Schmidt, Michael Jordan and Lyle Alzado.

Koz’s Sport’s Arena in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., put together by former Miami Dolphins’ defensive back Mike Kozlowski, is billed as the “Super Bowl of Bars.”

Co-owner Barry Simner says that when sports or entertainment personalities are in town, they stop by: “Dan Marino comes here all the time, and we’ve had Bernie Kosar, Jim Kelly, Wilt Chamberlain, Lee Majors and other personalities here.”

The Sports City Cafe, located in Cupertino, Calif., is owned by Ronnie Lott, Roger Craig, Keena Turner, and Eric Wright, past and present players from the San Francisco 49ers football team.

“The players come in for dinner with friends and family and to watch Monday Night Football when they are in town,” says co-owner Allen Gilliland. “And that creates a lot of excitement!”

Lawrence Taylor, the all-pro quarterback-crunching linebacker for the New York Giants, has just opened L.T.’s Sports Bar & Grill in East Rutherford, N.J. No doubt Giant fans will be cruising the restaurant-bar-dance club after games to rub elbows with Giants Phil Simms, Carl Banks, Maurice Carthon and other players who live in the area.

Atmosphere is what gives many sports bars their unique aura, and L.T.’s new place is crafted to make it stand out among the rest. According to Bob Putt, a co-owner in the venture, the outside resembles Giants Stadium, while the inside is modeled after the entire Meadowlands complex.

In addition to a dance floor and sound-and-light system, L.T.’s features a life-sized statue of Taylor bursting through a brick wall, a basketball coming through a ceiling, a giant golf ball, a hockey rink and a boxing ring.

Ball’s All American Sports Bar in Baltimore is housed in the landmark house of local philanthropist Moses Shepherd, and its three floors include a baseball chain link fence, a rubber mat floor and a host of sports memorabilia. “It’s like going to a stadium,” says general manager Joe Reiter.

People are looking for interesting, authentic things that no one else has,” points out sports marketing consultant Steiner.

At Challenges in Providence, R.I., patrons can view Muhammad Ali’s boxing robe and shorts, Ty Cobb’s bat, Bobby Orr’s hockey jersey and Vince Lombardi’s Super Bowl ring.

More than 30,000 baseball and other sporting cards are displayed under a protective top on the bar at Champions’ Boston location. And at Sports City Cafe outside San Francisco, customers can see Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s basketball shoes, Bjorn Borg’s tennis racket and a menagerie of San Francisco 49ers paraphernalia.

The walls at Legends, in Long Beach, Calif., are adorned with everything from Nelson Piquet’s Formula One car hanging from the ceiling to football helmets, a bicycle, a windsurfer and mounted animal heads.

Since mini-basketball shooting games have become all the rage in bars in the past few years, many operators are taking the concept one step farther to give patrons an activity besides-watching televised sports.

At All Stars American Sports Bar in Merrillville, Ind., general manager Melissa Rooney reports that she is introducing volleyball on a back deck to attract patrons during the painfullys-low summer months. “We’re even bringing sand in,” says Rooney, who added that All Stars also features bullpen pitching (which clocks how fast a pitch is thrown), a dart league and a bevy of video games.

She notes that to stay on the cutting edge, she changes the video games every few months to offer the most trendy or popular around.

The Bottom of the Ninth has on-your-knees Nerf volleyball games, robotic boxing, where patrons are strapped to 4-foot-high robots, and on Kentucky Derby day, guys scamper around on all fours with girls on their backs for an impromptu horse race.

Koz’s, billed as the “ultimate funplex,” keeps the action lively with an array of pleasures under its 8,500-square-foot roof. The operation features a two-on-two basketball court with a bar wrapped around it, with authentic NBA baskets and time clocks, amateur kick-boxing contests, a batting cage, a football-throwing cage, a pitching cage that measures how fast the ball is thrown, an electronic golfing range, a mini football field with goal posts, billiards and video games.

After the games on television are over, the boxing ring becomes a dance floor — with everything from suits and dresses to shorts and T-shirts jumping into the ring to boogie.

Koz’s philosophy of offering everything under the sun keeps patrons busy. Many operators find that during the summer nobody wants to go to a sports bar when he or she could be out playing a sport instead.

Promotions are the magnet that draws crowds during “the seventh-inning stretch” — with everything from draft beer specials to bikini contests.

“Atmosphere and curiosity get all these people into one place,” says Rooney, adding that the bar-club packs in 900 people on a good night. “But the promotions keep them coming back.”

Promotions include ladies nights, bikini competitions, dancing, tailgate parties, celebrity book signings and anything else operators can think of.

At Koz’s some of the promotions include live kick boxing competitions, Reggae night, secretary and nurse’s night and the-most-beautiful-women-in-South Florida night. “Every night there is something going on,” Simner says. “We have a constant flow of ideas going through here.”

Champions features “The Dating Game,” a party for the Tour de Trump bicycle race, the Boston Marathon and any other sports event that can be parlayed into a theme party.

“Half of the year the sports bars are popular,” says Steiner, “but you must have something to get you through the rest of the year.” Steiner adds that charity events, celebrity bartenders, private parties, alumni clubs, trips and tailgate parties are just a few things that keep patrons coming in.

At Ball’s management tries to get out-of-towners in during the summer to make up for the loss of business during those months. “We try to hit the conventioneers during the summer,” says Reiter of Ball’s. “We work with the hotels and distribute fliers there, telling out-of-towners that they can come and watch the home team play.”

The key to getting out-of-towners, conventioneers and transplanted people in is to have the capability of showing an array of games on the video screens. Having at least one satellite dish is par for the course these days, and multiple screens are allowing sports bars to show up to 10 different games at one time.

The $120,000 video and sounds system at The Ballpark consists of three satellite dishes, three different sound systems, 21 television screens and three large screens, a VCR, a compact disc player, a tuner and a tape deck. “Every table has a view of four screens,” says Karalekas, who adds that if a group from out of town comes in, he can put a requested game on that is in view of their table.

When The Ballpark begins sponsoring ball teams, it will videotape certain games and replay them for the teams in a private room during team functions.

All Stars boasts 30 25-inch television screens and two 42-inch screens and televises sports ranging from football to the Olympics to European soccer.

Many of the sports bar operators note that women make up approximately half of their clientele, especially on the weekends.

“It’s great for singles,” says Chiappa of Bottom of the Ninth. “When an exciting play happens, you can turn to the next person and start a conversation,” he explains, adding that with sports as a common denominator, it’s easier to break the ice.

“A sports bar is a fun, casual place to meet people,” says Mike Small, managing partner at Jocks & Jills in Atlanta. “We have a good mix of people; you can have a plumber sitting next to a lawyer here. People can come in and be themselves.”

Rooney of All Stars agrees, “You can come in dressed in cleats and a dirty uniform or a suit and tie, and everyone is comfortable.”

PHOTO : Above: The bar area at Koz’s Sports Arena in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., features goal posts,

PHOTO : football helmets and jerseys. Right: From left, brothers-owners Chris, George and Peter

PHOTO : Karalekas swing into action at their new restaurant-sports bar, The Ballpark, in Astoria,


PHOTO : Left: A bartender pours drinks for sports-minded patrons at The Ballpark. Above: Everyone

PHOTO : gets into the action at Champions in Boston.

PHOTO : At Bottom of the Ninth, NYC, co-owner Tarek Moussa serves patrons cold beers at the bar,

PHOTO : while, above, patron Rick Fortunato tries his hand at the popular mini-basketball game.

COPYRIGHT 1990 Reproduced with permission of the copyright holder. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group