As the pandemic plods on, I’ve been bar-hopping in my mind. Lately I’m visiting Portland, Oregon’s Sports Bra, which has gained (rightful) publicity for its corrective mission: to broadcast solely women’s athletics across its in-house TVs, in effect eliminating what Vogue writer Emma Specter calls the self-motivated “hustle” required of bar goers who must request, often unsuccessfully, that women’s sports events be shown.

Because the Sports Bra is distant, it remains utopic: a beam from the Instagram stream. The bar seems very gay (because women’s sports participants, fans, and advocates are very gay), by which I mean accessible to and affirming of visitors who are not straight cis men; there are gender-neutral bathrooms, Pride flags, and trans-affirming language alongside Black Lives Matter posters. The bar is deep, all on one level, with spillover seating outside. (As someone more resistant with each new coronavirus variant to eating and drinking indoors, I consider outdoor seating essential for any venue.) The Bra’s website and social media clearly list which sports events are happening when so that both established supporters’ groups and the sports-curious can be informed and schedule accordingly. Photographs and tchotchkes depicting women and nonbinary athletes decorate the walls.

These venue features are not mere superlatives; the Bra’s intentionality around inclusiveness informs my evaluative metric for any establishment that organizes its offerings around a cultural interest in 2022. I had all this in mind when I went on a recent midday Saturday to the Boot Room—Durham’s newish soccer bar—to watch Sweden and the Netherlands face off in the UEFA Women’s Euro 2022 early group stage. (This July is a banner month for professional women’s soccer, with the Women’s Euro and the Copa América Femenina, 2023 World Cup qualifying tournaments, and the National Women’s Soccer League running simultaneously. When I say I’m watching soccer this July, these are the matches I’m scrambling to find across the panoply of minor-mainstream sports platforms that, taken together in their disjointed mess, form another barrier to watching women’s soccer in a bar or at home.)

Slickly advertised with its own team crest—block colors of red and white and a charging bull more akin to Ferdinand than Wool E.—the Boot Room describes itself as a “sandwich shop, soccer pub, and event space.” (Based on my just-OK BLT and tots, I’d gently advise reordering the aforementioned list.) The crest also states its startup date: 2020, when the owners took over former Italian restaurant The Boot, naming the new space for European football clubs’—especially Liverpool’s—cleat storage cum social spaces. (The bar retains a loose Liverpool F.C. affiliation.)

I am happy to say there was no hustling involved in my recent visit. Mask on and kombucha in hand, I wound my way through the multiroom space that comprises the Boot Room—bright yellow walls in the frontal food-ordering area, dark navy blues in back—and noticed every reflective surface bearing that familiar fescue green. All of the bar TVs and projection screens were already tuned into Sweden-Netherlands on ESPN2, with commentary clearly audible over the low glitch-thrum of the bar’s ambient Sylvan Esso. None of the TV programming changed over during the match, which was a nice distraction from the total five people (my party of three and two friendly dad types, one wearing a Netherlands men’s team jersey) who showed up with the intention of watching.

The Boot Room is a place to settle into. Seating is comfortable—seminar-style wooden tables, smaller bistro setups, bench booths—and spread out. HEPA filters hum and chug. Patrons and bartenders breeze in and out of adjoining Beer Study, which the very kind Boot Room cashier told me functions as a “sibling” venue. This seamlessness, and the seeming lack of proprietary attitude on behalf of either business, is surprising and revelatory: imbibers of alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks alike will find much more variety next door, but the Boot Room has indicated via Instagram that it’s expanding in-house bar offerings soon, adding an import bar, cask engine, and “more bottle selections.”

Traditional sports bars find their function in being places to settle: they thrive as placaters, not correctors. Gather with friends, get your drink, watch the game. But what are the micro-actions that build toward these gestures? Where does one’s attention move during commercial breaks, between penalty shots? (Mine: to my own clenched knuckles.) The light: Too bright, too dim? The wall art: How does it connect to the bar’s theme? And then: Who or what does the artwork represent, and how? What, or whose, story is embedded in the landscape?

Beyond striking vintage (men’s) World Cup posters (the best an orby ode to the Zaragoza matches in Spain’s 1982 tourney) and hundreds of historic soccer photographs, I counted only a handful of images of non-male players. The bathrooms—for “men” and “women,” none gender neutral—are flanked by outdated photographs of the U.S. men’s and women’s national teams. Though there’s outdoor seating, the TVs are minuscule and useless in direct sun, making game-viewing decisions more fraught for COVID-conscious patrons. As I scanned the the Boot Room’s social media during halftime to check the bar’s upcoming events, I was dismayed to see no mention of any of the current women’s tournaments or connected viewing events.  

On these points, I encourage this promising community soccer bar to be more intentional, and quickly. These are simple material issues—correctives—that require and affirm attention not only to the women’s game (which, as I always point out, includes trans and nonbinary players) but also to a broader fan base and clientele. Here I think of the (unpaid) work of supporters’ groups, particularly for women’s soccer, to appeal to everyone while supporting the most marginalized: an antidote to heteronormative fan culture. Without their own space, our local, the NC Courage–affiliated Uproar, regularly pops up at Raleigh’s London Bridge soccer pub and, more recently, Durham’s Hi-Wire Brewing for Courage watch parties.

As a much smaller and more fragmented metropolitan area than Portland, or New York, or London, the Triangle contains fewer interest-based venues like the Boot Room. Their arrival surfaces the scarcity conundrum that afflicts our arts and culture scene at large: the idea that celebrating and sustaining these spaces requires papering over critical concerns.

What I love about queer bars, and the idea of bars like the Sports Bra, is their pleasure in political orientation. I can arrive, IRL or in my mind, in all my fullness, knowing, and reveling in, the many valences of a game or a dance or a drink. (No pretension, in other words, that cultural activities are neutral or mere apolitical entertainment; no “shut up and play” tolerated.) These are the spaces that deserve our front-line, full-energy protection and advocacy and that deserve the credit when mainstream cultural establishments—in Durham, in Portland, anywhere—incorporate their inclusive gestures and edge closer to validating the full spectrum of the beautiful game. 

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