Friday, October 09, 2009

All I want in a sports bar....

I don't ask very much, I don't think - but it seems I ask too much for Beijing!

My recommendations or requirements for a decent sports bar would be (please take note, someone):

1) It's better to have a few good, large TVs than a plethora of small or crappy ones.
Be careful how you spend your start-up capital, bar entrepreneurs.

2) It's essential to have TVs - of whatever size - that work to a decent minimum standard.
I don't think I've ever been to a sports bar in Beijing where at least one of the screens isn't hopelessly fuzzy, or the colour or brightness isn't massively out of whack.

3) It's better to have a really good, BIG flat-screen TV than a projector.
It may be possible now to get projectors that can create a decently sharp wall-size image - if bar owners have the patience and savvy to set them up carefully and keep them properly adjusted. And if they have HDTV. I don't think any of the satellite feeds available in Beijing offer HD yet. And certainly, in the past, every projection screen picture I've seen in this town has been painful to look at: so blurred as to be unwatchable at close range; and, once you've got far enough away to make the picture seem reasonably clear, it's not much bigger - and much less bright and crisp - than a TV anyway. Projectors are a complete waste of money for sports.

4) It's vital to have individual feeds for different TVs.
Well, you need at least 2 or 3 separate feeds, anyway. Otherwise, what's the point of having the plethora of screens? Remember, for example, the nightmare experience I had at the Goose & Duck last year on the last night of the Olympics?

5) It's vital to have staff who know how to operate the equipment.
Again, the Goose has - for over a decade now! - been one of the most conspicuous offenders on this point; but just about every sports bar in Beijing suffers from it to some extent. Most of the staff in The Den - very good in most other respects - are clueless about operating the TVs and satellite feeds if the boss isn't on hand. Ditto the (now defunct) Stumble Inn over on Lucky St, which was making a bid to become my new favoured sports-watching venue earlier this year. Ditto them all. (And oh my god, Room 101! It was a favourite drinking den of mine last year, but its half-hearted attempts to position itself as a sports bar never got anywhere. No-one - including, it seemed, the owners - could get the satellite link working. They made promises that they were going to show every game of last summer's European Football Championship; as far as I'm aware, they showed none of them. At least things got a little better for the Olympics, when they gave up on their satellite and showed CCTV coverage.) I know it's hard: shoddily mounted rooftop dishes wander off station very easily; the encryption keys get changed regularly (yes, er, most of what we watch is probably pirated...); the availability of channels (and the lineup of sports they cover) seems to change with bewildering frequency. But, if you're trying to run a sports bar, you need to stay on top of all of this.

6) It's vital to have technical back-up available.
This is where the little Aussie bar, Ned's, on Nanluoguxiang scores a brownie point. Their satellite connection suffers very frequent problems, but their installation guy is genuinely helpful and usually prompt on the scene to put things right. At most of the other places in town, if things go wrong with the picture - you might as well head immediately to another bar.

7) It's vital to know what the schedule of major sports events is.
This is where poor old Luga lets himself down: he usually hasn't got a clue what's on - but will at least do his best to find something you request. This, however, can lead to problems: as last Saturday night, when he put on some superbike GP for a couple of punters in Luga's Villa just before the day's big football game was about to start (and again, only one satellite channel; or only one working). He was reluctant to switch over.... until the crowd of impatient Arsenal supporters got so large and so rambunctious as to intimidate the superbike fans. Know your customers. Plan what you're going to show them. Advertise it. Yes, next point....

8) It's highly advisable to publish a programme of what you intend to show.
Brownie points there for The Den. And for the Stumble Inn (and its precursor, Sangria). Not for anyone else that I can think of.

9) It's extremely desirable to make a commitment to ONE primary sport.
It helps to give a bar a sense of 'identity', I think. And it gives your regulars confidence that they're going to be able to catch the game they want with you, even if they haven't had a chance to check your schedule. It's especially important when there are two major events on at the same time. In particular, there are often ugly turf wars when major rugby fixtures clash with football. Personally, I loathe the game of rugby, and am reluctant to go anywhere where there's any danger there might be some being shown (it's one of the main things I hold against The Den: because of its long association with the Beijing Devils Rugby Club, it often has a boorish, rowdy, 'rugger bugger' atmosphere - even when there's not actually any rugby on). I would have thought the expat community here was plenty big enough now to support one or more bars that were solely - or primarily - devoted to football; but it seems not. The late, lamented Club Football, I've heard, was losing substantial sums annually (although that was back in the mid-Noughties, when the expat population was a fair bit smaller; and they never did come up with any ideas for what to do on non-game nights; they were heaved out every weekend during the footie season, but that, apparently, was not enough to turn a profit). However, if you do occasionally have to diversify, the sports bars here are all big enough to divide their space in two when there's a clash of scheduling for two major sporting events. I've had the devil of a time trying to get anyone at The Den to show the Wimbledon Finals in preference to football (or anything). They ought to know what's coming up and plan for it. And Wimbledon is a BIG event. Not many tennis tournaments are, but Wimbledon is.

10) It's pretty important not to dilute your image as a sports bar.
Again, that's a tough one, I know. The sports crowd is thin to non-existent during the week, so these places have to find other ways to bring the punters in when there's nothing showing on the TVs. But, you know, you can slant your activities towards your principal theme: pool and darts competitions, sports trivia quizzes, sports movies - rather than karaoke and wine tastings. The short-lived Stumble Inn (said to have encountered landlord difficulties over the summer, and to be looking for a new location - we'll see; despite its promise, I think it was dying on its feet) was a particular offender on this score. They developed a confidence problem early on about how much money they could make from the football crowd, and started courting other constituencies. On Saturdays they started having drinks specials and playing dance music - to try to draw in the crowd headed to popular underground dance club White Rabbit next door (I hear the Rabbit has hit landlord problems too - something rotten on Lucky Street!! Maybe that should be Unlucky Street?); that was a modestly successful initiative, but it ruined the place as a venue for watching football. Then they started billing Sundays as 'movie nights' (despite the fact that it's now usually the 'big game' day in the English Premier League); this, I think, was a complete failure - they weren't even bothering to show the advertised movie the couple of times I looked in on this (but they weren't showing the football either).

11) You have to play the commentary. Loud enough to hear clearly. In English. Even at half-time and during breaks in play.
The Den drives me to distraction by switching to thumping dance music the second the half-time whistle blows, obscuring all the useful half-time analysis of the game's talking points. And it's taken a long time to convince Luga that we really don't want to be listening to his music playlist (or a live band - usually a really crap live band rehearsing!!) at the Villa while there's a game on. And, please, Chinese commentary is never going to cut it - we can watch CCTV5/BTV6 at home.

And, of course, you can't afford to overlook the other rules of Great Bar-ness - although, strangely, sports bars usually do (almost all, except The Den, have generally been distinguished by their dismal service). And increasingly in recent years, they seem to think that they can justify charging much higher prices than the regular little divey drinking dens they otherwise resemble. The old Club Football (has it been gone two years now? three?) was OK, but not wonderful. The Den is intermittently tolerable. Just about every other sports bar I've ever been to in Beijing has sucked pretty terribly.

The last few great sporting moments I've enjoyed in Beijing have all been in Ned's. But their satellite goes on the blink all the time. The place is tiny. They open fairly short hours. And they're mostly about the Aussie Rules (which I find fun for a change occasionally, but it's not really my thing). But it's in my 'hood, they have great beer, and they're nice people. What more can a man ask?

And it was a great place to watch England's recent victory in The Ashes!!

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