The Joy of the Expat Sports Bars

A fan watches the Germany vs. Algeria World Cup match at the Red Fox English Pub in Royal Oak, Michigan on June 30, 2014. Credit: Paul Warner / Getty Images

I don’t want to spoil it for you, but your team is probably going to lose. They aren’t winning the Super Bowl, the Stanley Cup, the Finals, the World Series, the World Cup, March Madness, or anything else. I don’t have the numbers to show you why, but just trust me. The only things you can do are watch and hope, drink as much as possible, and try and enjoy the company since there’s something great about communal winning and losing. It heightens the experience and makes the sting a bit easier to take.

But what about those of us who leave our homelands for other cities with their own teams? Being a Duke fan in New Orleans or a Seahawks fan who gets transferred to San Francisco can make for a lonely life spent drinking beers by yourself on your couch. Nobody wants to be that solitary fan bribing the bartender with the promise that you’ll spend at least 50 bucks on crappy food and beer if they’ll just spare one of the ten televisions they have showing the same local game for your team’s week two battle with the Jacksonville Jaguars. That’s really why bars that actively invite fanbases from other cities to watch their games should be celebrated.

I’ve watched two of my hometown teams lose for a decade almost exclusively at two places: Kelly’s in Manhattan and Canal Bar in Brooklyn. As a Chicago sports fan, I’ve spent many opening days at those two places (Kelly’s for the Cubs, Canal for the Bears) joyously drinking beer, and ended seasons getting piss drunk off Jameson, wondering if I should just take my wife’s invitation to join her family in rooting for Boston teams. You’re probably thinking that I live in one of the biggest cities in the world, so surely finding a sports bar that will play a Cubs game on a Friday night couldn’t be that hard to come by; and you’d probably be right. But that’s not the point. Kelly’s and Canal Bar aren’t just sports bars; they’re Chicago bars. (To be fair, Kelly’s is also a Buffalo bar with Cubs in the summer, Sabers and Bills in the winter, although, in all honesty, the accents from those two cities are so similar that you might not know the difference.)

The expat sports bar is a marvelous and often overlooked urban amenity, and in New York there are lots of them. I know a place for Green Bay Packers fans that serves bratwurst, a few that open up at an ungodly hour on Saturday mornings to show Premiere League matches to diehards, and about a dozen that cater to the city’s large number of Michigan Wolverine fans. In a transient city like the one I live in, you’re bound to find a place where you can feel comfortable cheering on your team. But what about in other places?

Steph Opitz, a writer, critic, and Minnesota native, knows a little bit about needing a place to watch her beloved teams play. She goes down a list of places where she’s “sought out TVs with Vikes, Wild, Twins, and Gophers” in her adult life, including Pittsburgh, Boston, Austin, London, Christchurch, New Zealand, and most recently, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. “I’ve moved around a lot as an adult,“ she says. Although American football hasn’t caught on in the former Soviet republic, Opitz has had some luck catching a few games. One place, Burger House, doesn’t cater to any one group of fans, and has “shitty burgers, fries, and milkshakes,” but Opitz points out that, “I did wear my Vikings jersey to the Super Bowl and met some Minnesotans.”

Kyrgyzstan doesn’t have a bar that caters to one specific group of American fans; it’s literally a spot for all Americans looking for a place to watch some NFL games. Yet as more fans from the States find themselves making trips or moves abroad, bar owners are often willing to accommodate them if they can gather a small group together. Rome has a Pittsburgh Steelers bar, a group of Florida Gators fans have set up shop every Saturday in a pub in London that is happy to host them, and I’ve heard rumors of a Dallas Cowboys bar somewhere around Berlin, which sounds like a swell time. Whichever team you root for, if you’re longing for home, nothing really beats hearing one or two other people with your same regional dialect and your sports team playing on the television.

Personally, if I were going to watch a team like, say, the Texas Longhorns, I’d rather watch them play with a bunch of actual University of Texas fanatics. Since those kinds of experiences aren’t hard to come by where I live, when I visit another city and find a bar that celebrated a team from another city, even if it isn’t mine, I try to catch a game there. You can tell a lot about a place by watching a sports team from another town in a local bar. Like Woody’s in Hartford, Connecticut, which boasts some of the best hot dogs on the East Coast, and is also a Miami Dolphins bar. And when I say it’s a Dolphins bar, I mean the place is covered in Dolphins flags, hats, foam fingers, jerseys, and just about everything else. As somebody who has spent a good amount of time in Miami, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a real Dolphins bar in the team’s hometown, but come Sunday afternoon, the 30-or-so diehards from the Hartford area show up to Woody’s, and it’s really the most fun I’ve had watching a team that I care nothing about play other teams I could care less about.

The truth is, I’ve come to enjoy watching my teams play in Chicago-designated bars in other cities more than I do in my hometown itself. The Chicago Bears bar I stumbled upon in Los Angeles, where I watched my team beat the Lions with four other guys who were all decked out in jerseys and face paint? That was a blast. The free Vienna Beef hot dogs Canal Bar serves during Sunday games always hit the spot, and there’s something beautiful about ducking out and watching a Cubs day game on a hot summer day in a quiet bar on the Lower East Side. 

It’s also made me enjoy sports more as a whole, seeing how other fans celebrate when they’re removed from the place they’re supposed to be celebrating. Because, after all, team sports aren’t supposed to be about a specific player or the team as a whole, it’s about hometown pride. It’s about rooting for where you’re from, and that team represents you. Or, for somebody where American sports don’t have a huge fanbase yet, like Steph Opitz in Kyrgyzstan, just finding a place to watch any teams from America, be it her Vikings or any other team, can feel like a victory and give you a whole new perspective.

“Basically, it’s an adventure to watch U.S. sports in Kyrgyzstan,” she says. “Maybe my new sport is just that.”