Ode to the Shitty Sports Bar

Kids these days.

Kids these days have no idea what it was like to be a sports fan in the 80’s and 90’s. They’ve probably never even been to a shitty sports bar.

When I was a kid, we had to wait for something called a newspaper if we wanted to see a box score.

I would stay up until 4am for the Memphis Commercial Appeal to arrive after a particularly exciting win. “No big deal, Mom, I’ll just sleep until noon.”

In the meantime, I’d rewatch the game on VHS. Unless the machine ate my tape.

The 1992 NCAA tournament game between Penny Hardaway’s Memphis State Tigers, and the Arkansas Razorbacks comes to mind. On a dark, quiet, celebratory morning I ran out into the March dawn, grabbed the paper, ran back in – and spent the next delicious 7 or 8 minutes reading a deadline abbreviated, sterile summary of the game, a 500-word column, and a 10-point news and notes feature (including the box score).

Then I read it again.

And again.

And again.

Because it was all I had. It was all anyone had. What am I supposed to do? Think about something else?

Crumbs in retrospect, but amazing at the time. There were no message boards, no Twitter feeds, no proliferation of pundits. Sure, there were sportswriters – but they wrote articles in their town, for papers in their town, read exclusively by people in their town. We had our sports page, a coach’s TV show and terrible talk radio. If you wanted to know what Tony Kornheiser thought about something, you’d better have a friend in D.C. get some scissors, a stamp and an envelope — and then wait 3 or 4 days.

When I was a kid, there was no ESPN2. At least not until 1993. Even then, there was no ESPNU, no ESPNNews, no SEC Network, no CBS Sports Network, no FS1. There was simply ESPN. And the occasional network game. If your favorite college basketball team had more than 4 or 5 “national” TV games, then you were a Duke fan.

Though most programs and major conferences had local or regional television coverage of their games – the stations which carried such packages were not available outside a defined region on basic cable packages. In other words, in 1996 the Conference USA Game of the Week between Memphis and DePaul, live from the Rosemont Horizon – with Jon Albright doing analysis – was probably available in Memphis, TN on WLMT-30 or some other such station. But it was not available anywhere else in the country and certainly not in Lawrence, KS, where I went to college.

Or maybe it was.  But not in my dorm room.

Maybe it was available at a shitty sports bar.

Ah, the shitty sports bar. The revered, crucial, indispensable, shitty sports bar. On the outskirts of town. With real satellites. Big satellites. And overpriced food. And dirty carpet. Filthy carpet.

And waitresses that acted shocked and put out when I came in and demanded that they find the satellite guide and check for the Memphis – DePaul game.

And check again please. And will you at least try?  And ask the manager, please. And you TOLD ME on the phone you could get the game. WHY DID YOU TELL ME YOU CAN GET THE GAME IF YOU CAN’T GET THE GAME?!?  WHY DID YOU LIE TO ME?!? DO YOU NOT VALUE MY BUSINESS?!? And let me see the book, please.

And GOD DAMN IT let’s just try the other shitty place that’s not really even a sports bar but I think they have a signed Danny Manning jersey on the wall so maybe they’re a sports bar even though deep in my heart I know they’re not – Yea, let’s at least try that place.  But quick, because it’s already probably halftime and we’re probably already losing.

(Not that I would know – because it’s still 1996 and cell phones don’t exist)

When I was a kid, there were no cell phones.

When I was a kid, my brother and I would actually call the news desk of the Commercial Appeal to ask them to tell us the score of the game. They’d chuckle, check the wire, and give us the score. We’d say thank you. Then we’d call back in 10 minutes (or 5) and ask again. If that didn’t work (it usually did) we would find the media guide, get the number for the press row at the games, and call it up for scores. If we needed to pretend to be calling from some other paper, sure, we’d do that.

When I was a kid, you did what you had to do to get a score.

I once had my mother put the phone next to the TV and let me listen. For the entire 2nd half.

Unless we found the game at a sports bar. Yes, the sports bar. There was always hope in a sports bar. The sports bar wasn’t a place, it was an experience. It was a method to prove allegiance. It’s one thing to say you like a particular team. Maybe you have a t-shirt, that’s cute. Or a hoodie. Cool. Oh, you have a sticker on your car. Nice.

It’s one thing to DVR a game, in 2014, and watch the last half (skipping commercials) while laying on the couch after an enjoyable dinner at some trendy restaurant with your friends.  That’s one thing.

It is a whole other thing to spend an hour going through every sports bar in the Yellow Pages, call each one up, ask for the manager, inquire about the satellite equipment, inquire about which packages they have paid for, explain to them that, yes, the University of South Florida does indeed have a basketball team, show up, explain that I’m the guy who called about the Memphis – South Florida game, see the amused look on the waitresses face as I nervously sit down, wait, see the game actually come up, look at the satisfaction on the waitresses face, feel the excitement in myself, order a burger and a drink, sit by myself, sit alone for the next three hours (“I’ll take the check now but I’m not leaving for a long time”) and become gradually more depressed as I watch Memphis’ season end unceremoniously in the quarterfinals of the CUSA tournament.

That…is an entirely different thing.

When I was a kid, we did shit like that.  Because what other option did we have?

Now?  Everything is different now.

It’s like Robert DeNiro’s character at the end of Casino:

“The town will never be the same. After the Tangiers, the big corporations took it all over. Today, it looks like Disneyland.”

In an HD / Digital world, being a fan is simple, convenient. For that reason, students (kids these days) don’t go to games nearly as much. They just watch.

I’m not complaining. Essentially, regional networks are now national networks – a function of live sports being the last refuge of the post-DVR advertisement marketplace. That’s good. I’m happy about it. HD is really pretty awesome. Every AAC (Memphis’ conference) game is on National TV. That’s a beautiful thing. I’m too old to be harassing the Saturday morning manager at Harry T’s right when she walks through the door, before she even has a chance to put coffee on.

But when I was a kid I did it. Because I had to.