Chicago sports may be more European than you think

by Louis Ricard
Medill Reports

The ‘85 Bears revolutionized the way defense is played with the 4-6 scheme. The Chicago Bulls won six NBA titles, including two three-peats with the levitational Air Jordan. The Chicago Cubs recently broke a 108-year-old losing spell by winning the World Series. And it feels like yesterday the Blackhawks won two Stanley Cups in three years.

All these teams brought the city together as Chicago became a renowned sports city with an international flair. But that’s not the only thing Chicago has to offer.

Soccer and rugby fans do don’t care about sleeping in when it comes to watching their favorite team play at sports bars such as the Graystone Tavern, Paddy long’s and other favorites. (Music/Funin and Sunin)

With growing leagues of expatriates mingling with native Chicagoans on the streets, European sports are gaining increasing popularity, especially in the past 10 years, bringing people from all nationalities to secluded bars priding themselves in offering unique experiences for expats and locals alike.

But what does it mean? Why should we care? And where should we go?

The Lakeview Blues

It’s 8:45 a.m. on Saturday and the city is slowly awakening after the polar vortex forced everyone into hibernation. The Graystone Tavern, 3441 N Sheffield Ave. in Lakeview, is slowly filling up with people covered in blue from head to toe.

The crowd gathers near the multiple screens placed all around the establishment, beer in hand, ready to cheer.

9 a.m. The whistle blows, and the nearly 20 customers start clapping.

“I’ve lived here for 12 years but I’ve only recently started watching soccer in bars, and I love the fact that it brings people together,” British-native Karen Roberts said. “I come all the way from the suburbs to be here, to watch the games with people. That’s how much it means to me.”

Soccer has been an integral part of Roberts’ life. She was born in England, but also lived in Germany, two countries where “Football” is king. In Europe, American football and baseball do not dictate one’s Sunday – soccer does.

It took time for Americans to buy into the sport, and there are strides left to be made, but bars like The Graystone Tavern are helping with the transition.

“As far as Premiere League goes, we’re exclusively Chelsea here,” Graystone co-owner Sam Stone said. “We do all their matches, 6 a.m. is the earliest we opened.”

Chelsea is one of the best teams in the Premier League, the main soccer league in England. The Blues are currently 6th behind their biggest rival Arsenal.

“You’ll find the Arsenal fans bright and early and they’ll stay there to watch the Chelsea game, hoping Chelsea loses,” British-native Alex Oswald said. “And it’ll be vice versa, some of the Chelsea fans will get in early just to hope Arsenal loses.”

The rivalry may be more intense in London, but everything about the soccer culture gets represented in this Lakeview bar as this soccer fever expands throughout the city and the country.

“Now they’ve expanded the MLS [Major League Soccer], they’ve got a lot more teams now, and it really caught up,” said Lenny Leonard, a childhood friend of Oswald. “I think that the Americans are understanding the game a lot more, and they’re embracing the game a lot more.”

Leonard thinks that the length of a soccer game may be helpful in the growth of the sport in the U.S. A regular game is 90 minutes, while most American sports span at least two hours to complete a game. But most importantly, there are no interruptions, no timeouts, no commercials in a soccer game except for halftime.

“I think a lot of Americans like the fact that it’s nonstop. A place like this is great for us, coming from England, because now we can meet a lot of people who support the same club. It’s good! It’s like a piece of home for us.”

Soccer is not only great for expats such as Oswald, Leonard, or Roberts, it’s great for business.

“The great thing about soccer is that, since it is earlier in the morning typically, all business is incremental sales to us,” Stone said. “It’s great for the bar, it’s great for the staff because it gives them for shifts.”

Stone’s interest in the sport grew because of the Chelsea fans who are regulars at his bar, and he mentioned that watching games used to be more difficult for Americans in the past.

“You didn’t use to be able to watch every match,” Stone said. “Now we can stream every game, and i think that’s a lot of being able to grow it here in America. It’s just having the access to be able to see it.”

Stone said that Graystone uses three streaming services including ESPN Plus, Bleacher Report, and NBC Gold which he estimates cost about $30 each per month.

The Irish Connection

Less than a mile away, a different crowd is roaring, this time sporting green and white at Paddy Long’s, 1028 W. Diversey Pkwy.

The six [VI] nation rugby tournament kicked off this past weekend, including a premium matchup between two Top 5 teams in the world, England and Ireland on Saturday at 11 a.m.

All chairs are filled 30 minutes prior to kickoff, while the smell of bacon and beer fill the place up.

It’s rugby time.

Unlike soccer, rugby’s popularity varies greatly in international circles. Western Europe, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa are known as rugby areas. However, the sport is still struggling to make its way into America.

But sometimes, all it takes is one rugby game to turn things around.

“Myself and my partner opened Paddy Long’s in 2007 and we actually got the idea for the bar while watching Ireland and England play in the VI Nation’s game in Dublin,” said Patrick Burger, co-owner of Paddy Long’s. “I played rugby here in the U.S. for about 25 years. I started the Loyola University Rugby team, and then I coached them for years, so we kinda had a built-in rugby audience when we started.”

What started as a small venue intensified quickly as the bar is now packed with rugby supporters yelling at the TV screens for different reasons.

Like Graystone, Paddy Long’s welcomes a lot of expatriates, and according to Dan Anderson and Padraic Connolly, co-founders of a youth rugby team, the ratio is evening up with Americans feeling more attracted to the game than ever before.

Anderson, a Chicago native, started getting involved with rugby six years ago, while his Irish friend Connolly grew up with the game.

“Rugby is the fastest growing sport in America,” Anderson said. “We started (the youth rugby club) in 2011. [Compared to] the same time last year, we’ve had a 28 percent growth in the number of kids.”

“What’s attracting kids to this is actually that more American families are veering away from American football,” he said. “It’s so commercialized. You come into here, it’s a running clock, it’s an hour and 40 minutes, but there’s lot of respect for the game.”

According to an ESPN article, 35,000 U.S. high schoolers are playing rugby, 10 times more than a decade ago.

Anderson explained that he saw that respect when visiting Ireland and attending a game there. The respect between the teams and the fans pushed him to get involved in the sport.

While the sport is growing in the country, the broadcasting regulations are not as simple as Stone mentioned for his business.

Paddy Long’s charges a $20 cover per person, which was not their idea, Burger said.

According to Burger, the streaming company called Premium Sports charges him a significant amount of money that’s hard to recover from even with the sales made when the bar opens early. Burger does not mind. He started this bar because of his love of the game. He explained that he only obtained the rights to stream the VI nation tournament last year, but he plans on broadcasting it as long as he can.

Burger did comply with the streaming fee, though that did not prevent a server freeze for 10 minutes, leading to complaints and chatter across the bar. One group did not let this technical difficulty bother them as a member pulled up the game on his phone, attracting curious heads from the tables nearby.

Sports unite people one way or another. Whether it is cheering for the same club, for the same country, or hating the same team, and even liking the same player, the moral remains the same: Sports create connections.

What Chicago bars such as Paddy Long’s and Graystone offer a broader connection as expats and locals come together to learn from one another and share their cultural knowledge to spread the love of the sport they follow.

“Chicago has always been a good audience for it because of our expat base, not only European, but South American, Mexican – [for] all of these people, their number one sport is soccer,” Burger said. “When we hold the rugby weekend and international soccer games, you see the expats excited and the Americans curious, and I think it helps grow it all. We’re set to be a stage for international sports.”

Photo at top: Paddy Long’s fills up before kickoff for rugby games that draw international and Chicago area fans