"Let us consider the sports bar. This is a cultural institution of rather recent vintage."
Thus begins a Web site put up by a group that organizes sports bar trade shows. Let us consider, indeed. It is a truth universally acknowledged that sports bars are a modification of another type of operation with a much longer history, the gay bar.
A good place to consider this proposition is a well-established club such as JR's Video Bar [808 Pacific Street, (713)521-2519]. Walk through doors, which are always open in good weather, and you will discover, located in an old converted commercial structure, an establishment that sports an elegant old wooden bar, lots of television screens, pool tables and gaming machines. A woman known to regulars as "Mama" works behind the bar, as she has for the past 13 years. The beer is good and cold, and drinks are discounted during happy hour. Most of the clientele are Caucasian men, casually dressed, in khakis or blue jeans and often sporting a dark T-shirt with some sort of message on it.
Settle up your tab and head toward downtown. Across the street from Enron Field is the B.U.S. Sports Grill & Bar [1800 Texas Avenue, (713)222-2287]. (See "Intentional Walk," April 12.) Walk through doors, which are always open in good weather, and you will discover, located in an old converted commercial structure, an establishment that sports an elegant old wooden bar, lots of television screens and pool tables. A woman is working behind the bar. The beer is good and cold, and drinks are discounted during happy hour. Most of the clientele are Caucasian men, casually dressed, often in khakis or blue jeans and often sporting a dark T-shirt with some sort of message on it.
The B.U.S. does serve food on occasion, while JR's stopped doing that when it changed its name recently to "JR's Video Bar" rather than "Bar and Grill." So, they are not identical.
To fine-tune the comparison a bit further, sports bars are closer in spirit to the type of gay bar known to habitués as a wrinkle bar. There, paunchy, pasty, out-of-shape guys go to drink and watch really buff guys on the TV screens. Sure, in a sports bar, TV is always understood to signify "television" rather than "transvestite," and the terms "tight end" and "wide receiver" conjure up different mental images in each place. And sure, sports bar TVs are not tuned to the latest episode of Queer as Folk or Will and Grace, nor are they playing a tape of guys go-go dancing. But is content that important? Didn't Marshall McLuhan teach us that "the medium is the message"?
In both types of bars, women customers can be found, but almost never to the 50 percent levels in the population at large. Coincidence? Men generally drink more lustily than women do, regardless of orientation. Bar owners know that as well as they know that a trio of pickled pearl onions in a martini transforms the drink into a Gibson.
Sports bars and gay bars also require little start-up investment. The customers are never bothered by being in what is usually little more than a warehouse with a beer license. Neither crowd needs a Philippe Starck interior. That's girly stuff.
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Despite a common stereotype that gay men swap recipes for chicken tetrazzini, neither sports bars nor gay bars are big on food. That's an additional saving for the proprietors. No square footage is taken up by a kitchen filled with expensive stainless-steel equipment. There are fewer requirements from the health department. No testy chef de cuisine to pay, pamper and pay some more. No produce to buy. The profit margin on a draft beer is much higher than on a perfectly sautéed filet mignon. The very successful Little Woodrow's Neighborhood Ice House [2301 West Alabama, (713)529-0449] and Little Woodrow's [4235 Bellaire Boulevard, (713)661-5282] serve no food whatsoever made on premises. A microwaveable frozen pizza is the entire menu.
Currently, the main difference between sports bars and gay bars is in the area of merchandising. In that, sports bars have proved to be leaders despite their newcomer status. The great money-making idea that Robert Earl hit upon when he operated the Hard Rock Cafe chain was that while you may make a 10 percent gross profit on your burgers and fries, you get a 50 percent gross on the T-shirts and baseball caps. And the T-shirts don't have a health department-mandated shelf life.
Which is not to say there is no merchandising in gay bars. The Ripcord [715 Fairview, (713)521-2792], a venerable Montrose institution for the rough-trade set, has always had a shop in which, instead of Astros pennants, a patron could pick up a cock ring or a slave harness or a wooden paddle with holes bored through it (just like the ones found at the better frat houses from coast to coast). The Ripcord also has several cases filled with trophies won by the motorcycle club sponsored by the bar, and other prizes. Just like a sports bar.
Boys will be boys.