Gay Sports Bars Tap a Growing Market
From the outside, Boxers NYC looks like the kind of sports bar you might find in a suburban strip mall. Large windows reveal 14 flat-screen TVs, two pool tables, and a dartboard. Inside, men in suits sit atop vinyl-covered stools, fidget with their BlackBerrys (RIMM), and swill pints of beer—served by bartenders dressed in their underwear. After all, Boxers wasn't named for the sweet science, but for the style of skivvies its clients prefer.
Less than a year after opening in Manhattan's Flatiron district, Boxers has become a pioneer of the gay sports bar movement. Equal parts generic pub and gay boîte, it has Lady Gaga on its speakers and Knicks games on its TVs. "The sports theme allows people to be comfortable," says Bob Fluet, a co-owner who met his business partner, Rob Hynds, in a gay softball league. The two realized that while the gay community had plenty of nightlife options, it lacked an old-fashioned watering hole where guys could root for the home team. "I don't want to go to some fancy lounge and drink martinis," says Hynds. "Or end up at a leather bar." So far it's working: Since Boxers opened in April 2010, Hynds says, sales are tracking 45 percent above their initial forecast.
In the past few years, nearly a dozen sports bars catering to a gay clientele have opened around the country, including Crew in Chicago, Fritz in Boston, GYM Sportsbar in Los Angeles, Score Bar in Columbus, Ohio, and Woof's in Madison, Wis.—which bears no official relation to Woofs in Atlanta. The sudden success has even surprised some proprietors. "Quite frankly, we had no idea that gay men and women really loved sports," says Jennifer Morales, the marketing director of SideLines sports bar, outside Fort Lauderdale, which recently reopened after a $20,000 renovation.
The bars are profiting from a rare demographic group with a growing amount of disposable income. Market research firm Witeck-Combs Communications puts the buying power of the adult lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender (LGBT) population at $743 billion, up from $732 billion in 2009. With large populations in metropolitan areas and more households without children, gay sports fans are actually the perfect customers to catch a game on a Wednesday night.
The trailblazer, Nellie's Sports Bar, opened on U Street in Washington, D.C., in 2007. It was designed specifically to appeal to both hard-core sports fans and clubland loyalists, and the decor features a mix of team pennants and pictures of Abercrombie & Fitch (ANF) models. Traffic has increased 30 percent each year, says owner Douglas Warren Schantz. "I'm not even a sports fan; I just have a lot of experience in marketing and advertising," says Schantz of his previous career at Ogilvy & Mather. "You can't just open a stereotypical gay bar and expect that one set of people. That group's already been targeted."
Schantz intentionally inserted the words "sports bar" in his establishment's name to aid neighborhood Internet searches—and to attract potentially fearsome heterosexuals. While Nellie's brims at night with a crowd of strivers who want to drink vodka sodas before heading to Town—a popular gay Washington dance club—it plays host to neighborhood fans during the afternoon. Schantz expects to pay back his sixth, and final, investor by next year.
The key for each bar has been striking the right balance to appeal to both gay and straight fans. "Since we're a gay bar, people call asking about karaoke, live bands, and drag," explains Morales of SideLines. "I just scream, 'No! No! No!' We've filled a niche where we're all about sports." She also insists that SideLines has eschewed another stereotype of gay bars: It has trained its staff to be extra friendly, replacing the haughty attitude some workers may have developed at more glamorous nightclubs. Appealing to one kind of clientele without alienating the other is complicated. "I feel like this is the Olive Garden of gay bars," says Kevin Teague, a 34-year-old architect who recently visited Boxers for an afterwork meeting. "It's a nondescript bar for nondescript gays."
When it comes to food, however, many gay sports bars are, well, pretty gay. At Crew in Chicago, a selection of sliders is referred to as Marvelous Minis, while another sandwich is called the Threesome Grilled Cheese. Adventurous eaters might order their wings with Sassy Sauce, which the menu describes as "just like Friday night's fling—tangy and HOT!!!" At Boxers, a four-cheese pie, "A's Rod," is offered alongside meatier options like the Italian Stallion and The Batter's Box. The bar also offers half-price drinks after 9:30 p.m. on Saturdays to those wearing nothing but their underwear.
Winks to gay sexuality are also part of Schantz's marketing plan. Nellie's New Year's Eve entertainment featured a packed schedule of college bowl games—and a drag queen named Shi-Queeta-Lee. Its menu is equally varied, including empanadas, arepas, and edamame in addition to burgers and nachos. "Sports bars don't have a great reputation for food, but we have a really great menu," Schantz says, before adding, "That's so gay. Of course the gay sports bar is gonna be the one with good food!"
While no U.S. city besides New York has more than one such bar, many communities are clamoring for their first. Before GYM Sportsbar opened in Los Angeles, one fan started a Facebook group called "Draft a Gay Sports Bar to LA." His pitch contained the selling point: "This is a group for anyone and everyone who would love to have a gay sports bar in Los Angeles, a place where you can cheer on your team and talk about how hot they look in tight pants." Less than a year after opening Boxers, Fluet and Hynds are scouting for a second location. "There should be a bar like this in every American city," Fluet says. "If someone won't open it quickly enough, we will." The two are very interested in opening a bar in Washington, thus prompting another first: a gay sports bar rivalry. "I'd love to see how much Nellie's is making," says Fluet. "We want to take them on."