As the pandemic continues to progress, I’ve been pacing the bar in thought. I recently visit Portland, Oregon’s Sports Bra, which has (rightly) garnered publicity for its corrective mission: broadcasting exclusively women’s athletics on its in-house televisions, virtually eliminating it Fashion Writer Emma Specter describes the self-motivated “rush” required of bar patrons, who often have to unsuccessfully request that women’s sporting events be screened.
Because the sports bra is distant, it remains utopian: a bar from the Instagram stream. The bar appears to be very gay (because female athletes, fans and advocates are very gay), by which I mean accessible and affirming to visitors who are not straight cis men; There are gender-neutral bathrooms, Pride flags and trans-affirmative language alongside Black Lives Matter posters. The bar is deep, all on one level, with outdoor seating. (As someone who’s becoming more resilient to indoor eating and drinking with each new strain of coronavirus, I think outdoor seating is essential for any venue.) The Bra’s website and social media clearly lists which sporting events are taking place and when, so both established fan groups and those curious about sports can be informed and scheduled accordingly. Photographs and tchotchkes depicting women and non-binary athletes adorn the walls.
These venue features are not just superlatives; The Bra’s intentionality towards inclusivity informs my evaluation metric for any facility that organizes its offerings around a cultural interest in 2022. I had all of that in mind when I went to the Boot Room – Durham’s new football bar – on a recent Saturday lunchtime to watch Sweden and the Netherlands meet in the early group stage of UEFA Women’s Euro 2022. (This July is a stellar month for women’s professional soccer, with the Women’s Euro and Copa América Femenina, the 2023 World Cup qualifying tournaments and the National Women’s Soccer League taking place concurrently. When I say I’m watching soccer this July, it’s Are these the games I look for across the gamut of smaller mainstream sports platforms that taken together in their disjointed mess create yet another barrier to watching women’s soccer in a bar or at home.)
Cleverly advertised with its own team crest – block colors of red and white and a charging bull that looks more like Ferdinand than Wool E – the Boot Room describes itself as a “sandwich shop, football joint and entertainment venue”. (Based on my just OK BLT and tots, I’d cautiously advise rearranging the above list.) The crest also indicates the founding date: 2020, when the owners took over the former Italian restaurant The Boot and the new space for the European Football-named clubs – particularly Liverpool’s – stud camps and social spaces. (The bar retains a loose affiliation with Liverpool FC.)
Happy to say there was no rush on my recent visit. Mask on and kombucha in hand, I weaved my way through the multi-room space that includes the shoe room—bright yellow walls in the front food ordering area, dark navy blue in the back—noting every reflective surface with the familiar fescue green. All the bar’s TVs and projection screens were already tuned to Sweden-Netherlands on ESPN2, with clearly audible commentary over the quiet glitch thrum from bar ambient Sylvan Esso. None of the TV programs changed during the game, which was a nice distraction from the total of five people (my party of three and two friendly dad guys, one of whom was wearing a Dutch men’s jersey) who showed up with the intention of watching.
The shoe room is a place to settle down. The seating is comfortable — seminar-style wooden tables, smaller bistro setups, banquettes — and wide-ranging. HEPA filters out hum and chug. Patrons and bartenders flock in and out of the adjacent Beer Study, which I was told by the very friendly cashier in the Boot Room, functioning as a “sibling.” That seamlessness and seeming lack of proprietary stance from both companies is surprising and revealing: Drinkers of both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages will find a lot more variety right next door, but the Boot Room has hinted via Instagram that it’s expanding internal bar offerings shortly, adding an import bar , keg machine and “more choice of bottles”.
Traditional sports bars find their function as places to settle down: they thrive as appeasers, not correctors. Hang out with friends, get your drink, watch the game. But what are the micro-actions that build on these gestures? Where does the attention go during commercial breaks, between penalty shootouts? (Mine: to my own clenched knuckles.) The Light: Too bright, too dim? The wall art: how does it fit the theme of the bar? And then: who or what does the work of art represent and how? What or whose story is embedded in the landscape?
Aside from flashy vintage World Cup posters (men) (Orby’s best ode to Zaragoza’s games at the 1982 Spanish tournament) and hundreds of historical football photographs, I only counted a handful of images of non-male players. The bathrooms — for “men” and “women,” not gender-neutral — are flanked by outdated photos of the US men’s and women’s national teams. Though there’s outdoor seating, the TVs are tiny and useless in direct sun, making game-watching decisions harder for COVID-conscious guests. While browsing the Boot Room’s social media during half-time to check out the bar’s upcoming events, I was dismayed to see no mention of any of the current women’s tournaments or related spectator events.
On these points, I encourage this promising community football bar to be more aware and quicker. These are simple substantive issues – corrective ones – that require attention and reaffirmation, not only for women’s football (which, I always emphasize, includes transgender and non-binary players), but also for a broader fan base and constituency. Here I am thinking of the (unpaid) work of supporter groups, particularly in women’s football, to reach out to all while supporting the most marginalized: an antidote to heteronormative supporter culture. With no room of his own, our local NC Courage-affiliated Uproar makes regular appearances at Raleigh’s London Bridge Soccer Pub and more recently at Durham’s Hi-Wire Brewing for Courage watch parties.
A much smaller and more fragmented metropolitan area than Portland, New York, or London, the Triangle contains fewer interest-based venues like the Boot Room. Their arrival brings to light the scarcity conundrum that plagues our arts and culture scene at large: the idea that celebrating and preserving these spaces requires covering up critical concerns.
What I love about queer bars and the idea of bars like Sports Bra is their delight in political orientation. I can arrive, real or in my mind, in all my fullness, knowing and enjoying the many valences of a game, a dance or a drink. (In other words, no claim that cultural activities are neutral or merely non-political entertainment; no “shut up and play” will be tolerated.) These are the spaces that deserve our foremost, fullest protection and advocacy, and deserve recognition when mainstream cultural institutions — in Durham, in Portland, everywhere — embrace their inclusive gestures and come closer to validating the full spectrum of the beautiful game.
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us maintain fearless surveillance coverage and important coverage of arts and culture across the Triangle.
Comment this story below firstname.lastname@example.org.