When Showbox owner Jeff Steichen and a couple of partners announced plans to open a sports bar this past January in the space they previously called the Mirabeau Room, it smelled a little fishy--in an "oh shit, we can't sell our failed business, we have to do something with this place" kind of way.
But perhaps there's method to Steichen's madness: What's been obvious to casual passers-by these past few months is that the Spectator and its 16 plasma screens are packing patrons in at a healthier rate than its pretty yet misguided predecessor, a swank lounge-nightclub hybrid that may have suffered some backlash simply for replacing beloved dive bar Sorry Charlie's.
"The Mirabeau, being a nightclub, while the location was good, it was sort of standing alone," says Steichen. "The trend for people going out these days is to go to a given neighborhood, park your car, and have plenty of options. There's a trend toward picking a neighborhood rather than a particular club."
So Steichen and his partners soberly assessed the terrain, noticed that the Sonics played their home games a couple blocks away, and took a more "when in Rome" tack in birthing the Spectator. "I think Seattle has been a bit underserved in the sports bar department," says Steichen, who's lived here since 1988. "Cities of our size, it's not uncommon to have a little ad hoc sports bar on every corner."
Tellingly, it's been transplants from cities of our size who've buttered the Spectator's bread thus far—not the neighboring Sonics or their fans. "I think that Seattle definitely wants to support their teams," theorizes Steichen, "but I don't think you have the dedicated, rabid fans that you see back East. Those teams have been around for a long time, and sometimes it takes several generations of sports fans to build a powerful fan base. For instance, we can have a Sonics game on and maybe have 20–25 people. But if a Boston team is playing, we could have 100 people transplanted from Boston to watch their team."
As to whether Uptown merchants are sweating bullets over the Sonics' uncertain future, Steichen says: "I think the consensus is that there have been times when the Sonics contribute economically to the neighborhood and times when they don't. To be able to pull people to an arena, the team has to be winning. "
Translation: With respect to its bottom line, even a sports bar within crawling distance of KeyArena takes a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward a once-beloved franchise that brought Seattle its only major professional men's championship (in 1979) and was the hottest ticket in town throughout the '90s.
I was in the Twilight Exit the other night enjoying bourbon and sodas with a handful of acquaintances, most of them Capitol Hill residents. The bar was dark. There was a section of couches where people tapped away in solidarity on their laptops, taking advantage of free Wi-Fi ubiquity. A quaint game of trivia played out at a handful of tables. And a nearby TV was muted and turned to the Cartoon Network.
The Twilight Exit is a fine establishment and is under no obligation to keep its television set tuned to sports. But drop me into the Twilight Exit of Chicago, and I'm betting that muted tube has some sort of sporting event on it—sports being the perfect programming for any bar that doesn't want excess noise getting in the way of music and conversation. The oh-so-cutesy choice of cartoons reinforced a hunch I've had for some time: It's not cool to be a fan of Seattle sports in Seattle proper anymore. Rooting for the Seahawks is something people in Auburn do. Sonic games are for Black Eyed Peas fans and Eastside yuppies. M's games are a killer place to drink beer and play hooky when it's nice out, but who cares about Jarrod Washburn's ERA? It's beneath our secondhand hoodies, designer vodka, and Death Cab albums to worship at the altar of Jesus (Shuttlesworth), Felix, or Shaun.
In cities such as Chicago, Boston, and St. Louis (famously and inaccurately referred to in The New York Times a few years ago as "the Boston of the Midwest"), rooting for the hometown team is tantamount to religion. In a large metropolis like Boston or Chicago, history and sheer population no doubt play a huge part in propping the pro squads up, win or lose. In St. Louis, where I lived for nearly four years, tradition—at least with the Cardinals—is part of the equation. But more significant, in my opinion, is that St. Louis, a battered if slowly recovering old river town, doesn't have the "tons of events" nakedly available to its citizenry that spiffy Seattle does. Nor does it attract nearly as many young, creative types to relocate from other cities, or feature the burgeoning populations of gays, artists, musicians, techies, and all-around bohemians—groups that, generally speaking, couldn't care less whether the Sonics are up on the Blazers at the half. If the Supes start winning, the team might occupy a spot in the collective consciousness as a fad of sorts. But if they're bad, they pass into oblivion.
For better or for worse, Seattle is well on its way to becoming San Francisco Jr. The better: a gorgeous, temperate, hyper-progressive city that is accepting of a broad array of lifestyles, personal choices, and different belief systems. The worse: totally unaffordable housing, which in turn squeezes middle-class natives out into less tony burbs, which simultaneously purges the very demographic most likely to express unbridled support for pro sports teams, in sickness and in health. No wonder the T-Birds want to go to Kent and the Sonics have been relegated to Renton—all the better to have KeyArena available for large-scale performance art exhibits.
That's hot. That's hip. That's us. And that sucks.