ALEXANDRIA — Watching sports can be an integral part of communities, with special bonds entrenched in decades of memories and shared aspirations.
Recent years have seen the sports bar and restaurant industry help galvanize these sentiments by offering unique spaces for fans to come together and celebrate, commiserate or cheer on their teams. But what makes these environments so special? Why do people keep coming back? And what are some of the challenges that sports bars face?
Well, the Echo Press went out and interviewed a few local establishments to understand the significance and sentiment behind the sports bar and restaurant industry.
is entering its fourth year as an
for the NDSU Bison football team – and the brewery is fiercely proud to be able to do so.
Every game day, loyal Bison fans make the trip to Copper Trail to watch their team.
Whitney Niblett has been on staff at the brewery for two years serving as a beertender and working some events. One such event is the NDSU watch parties, which Niblett provides color commentary for along with updates for other games across the nation. The crowd for the watch parties usually consists of parents or friends of students and some alumni, maybe even a couple fans from the opposing school.
For many years it was hard to find the Bison game on TV, so having a site that always has the game on with audio coming from the main speakers is something that the fans and families are grateful for and excited to be part of.
“We get people asking one another ‘Who’s gonna be back next week?’” Niblett said. “They look forward to being together. It’s a better camaraderie so you feel more immersed, almost like you’re actually at the game. The ability to yell at the screen and talk with people who are enjoying it with you adds to that camaraderie. People want that belonging. It also makes a world of difference that we have the sound on so you can hear the crowd cheering when you’re cheering.”
What started as a small group of about 10 or so a few years ago now consistently pulls 50 people from the surrounding areas, sometimes upwards of an hour and a half away. The attendance hit its peak last year during the SDSU rivalry game, which pulled roughly 200 people. Long tables of both NDSU and SDSU fans gathered at the brewery to support their teams.
“Sports are a thing that people are, almost curiously, emotionally invested in,” Lewis Mundt said. “So, it’s fun to go have that experience around other people who are emoting the same way.”
Mundt is the marketing and events coordinator for the brewery and despite not being the biggest sports fan in the world himself, he said he’s grown more and more accustomed to wanting to go out with friends to watch a game.
Part of that he thinks might be the lingering effects of the pandemic.
“It’s one of those ‘you don’t know what you have till it’s gone’ type things,” Mundt said. “I do still get a sense of gratitude when people come out into a community space. As a venue we did see increased traffic that’s been maintained since Covid. It’s like people are thinking, ‘Remember when this was all gone? Well, I’m really glad it’s not.’”
Niblett agreed with that sentiment, suggesting that game days give people another reason to go out, even if they were out the night before. And it’s usually closer and less of a hassle than making the trek to Fargo.
“Somebody told me it’s one step above tailgating,” Niblett said. “It’s tailgating, but you don’t have to do anything. You just pull up to the bar. You get to be at your favorite bar with your favorite food watching your favorite team. What’s better than that?”
And this season Copper Trail is hoping for an even better year from its NDSU base as the school’s alumni network has started promoting the Alexandria watch site in its network.
Chad Meyer is one of the owners of
, and having worked there for most of his life (his family has been owners since 1957), he has watched countless games on the big screen with his patrons.
“The idea of going to a sports bar or restaurant is gathering with other people,” Meyer said. “Sports have always been that outlet, especially for spectators. That goes back for many, many years.”
He suggested that a big part of why people go out to watch the game is simply because they don’t have access to the game at home, and the sports bar or restaurant makes it easy for just about anyone to come and watch the game with other fans.
“It’s nice for someone to come and sit down with other people that understand the game the way they do, or at least have some team spirit (which they might not have at home),” Meyer said.
Meyer is a season ticket holder for the Vikings and is adamant that watching the game at a sports bar or restaurant doesn’t compare to the real thing (he got to see the
in person), but there are a few moments at Fat Daddy’s when “the electricity in the room” has come awfully close.
“When Brock Lesnar was fighting with UFC, this place was full, standing room only in the bar and another 100 people watching in the bowling alley,” Meyer said. “We were wheeling out chairs for people to sit in, probably 400 people. It was funny because the UFC had those three-minute rounds, and everyone would freeze and watch TV, cheering or critiquing for those three minutes. Then the round would end, and we would pour as many drinks as we could, and you’d have to fight through the crowd. Then the round would start again, and everyone would freeze to watch.”
But those amazing moments and atmospheres don’t come without a slight uncertainty.
“We took the risk of paying for the commercial pay per view, which not everyone can do because those UFC fights get expensive. [But it was big for the community] with our tie to him, knowing that he lived here for a bit, and his daughter graduated from here. People were definitely drawn to that.”
Meyer also knows that there’s always an ebb and flow. As the seasons get further along, fan involvement will either pick up or completely fall off depending on how the team is doing. And not all sports are as popular as the others, so the industry has its innate lulls.
The Vikings’ season is definitely the biggest around Alexandria. Meyer suspects that has to do with the easy rhythm of the season (one game a week) and the freedom of a Sunday afternoon that most families or individuals have.
The biggest Vikings’ night he’s experienced at Fat Daddy’s was the 2010 NFC Championship game against the New Orleans Saints.
“Brett Favre took a beating that game,” Meyer remembers. “We had some season ticket holders there that night that came to watch the game and tried to make it like a home game. They were doing all the chants. It was packed and would get pretty loud when things were going well or when the refs made a call we didn’t agree with.”
Fat Daddy’s has had some amazing watch parties over the years and has even hosted a smattering of Minnesota sports stars like John Randle (Vikings) and Al Newman (Twins), and Meyer is hopeful those experiences continue.
Alexandria-native Mariah Hagen was a manager at the Raapers Eatery and Ale when it tragically burned down three and a half years ago.
“I lost my second home that day,” Hagen said.
It was there that Hagen discovered her passion for bar tending, a way to build relationships with people from all walks of life and make an impact in her community. But after the fire, Hagen was left adrift with seemingly no place to go and nothing else she wanted to do.
A few months later those relationships paid off when a former customer suggested that Hagen purchase and refashion the Redbird’s Sports Bar and Grill off Country Road 22.
Despite having no restaurant experience, Hagen’s parents, Tanya and Dane Hagen, took the plunge with their daughter, and three years later the business, now
, continues to grow and is coming off its biggest summer yet.
As with most Alexandria businesses, summer provides a massive influx of vacationers to help soften some of the colder, cash-empty winter months, but the success of Fired Up revolves around its core customers: the locals.
From her experience at Raapers, Hagen understood what mattered to her clientele, what Fired Up needed to be for the community. And it is the customer’s passion and consistency that creates the environment that keeps people coming back.
“These are our people now,” Hagen said. “The people are what makes this feel like home, the fans that are here for every game at the exact same time every week. I think sporting events are such a big thing because sports are so many people’s hobby, and they played them themselves, so it turns into a piece of them for the rest of their lives.”
The sports atmosphere is something that Hagen and her staff have specifically tailored for Fired Up with game volume pumped out over the main speakers and a TV set up outside for gameday.
“I tell my employees to wear their best jerseys and hats,” Hagen said. “Some people go all out. I swear there’s one guy whose mom must crochet him a new hat every week.”
The business also runs specials for certain events or days of the week. Sundays are “happy hour” all day, and Hagen is hoping to have some season tickets to give away in a raffle a few times this year with some fans already getting amped up for the new season.
“I had one customer send me a video of him wearing his Viking helmet yelling, “It’s Vikings’ season, baby!” Hagen laughed.
The excitement and merriment doesn’t come without its drawbacks though. To take care of her fans, Hagen has to make sure she has access to all the different games and fan-favorite teams. And with the advent of network deals and subscriptions, it has become harder and harder to keep track of everything that’s going on and who’s playing on what channel, not to mention fitting the bill for all the services.
But for Fired Up the effort has been worth it.
“I just love seeing the people that it brings together,” Hagen said. “And when people get together the intention is to have a good time, so seeing them happy is the best part. It’s the Alex community that keeps our lights on. When you take care of your own, they take care of you.”
is a well-known entity in Minnesota with locations all over the state. Bartender Shawna Avila has worked at several of those locations during her past 18 years with the company and only arrived in Alexandria in May, but as a Packers fan amidst a sea of purple, she’s well aware of the role a sports bar can play in a community.
“I love to go out and watch games because of the crowd interaction,” Avila said. “For me as a Packers fan it can be a good day if we’re winning, or it can be a bad day if we’re losing, and I’m having to listen to all of it around me. But I also love the rivalry and what it does to the environment.”
Over the years she’s enjoyed watching all the different people who come in and represent the diverse fan groups of communities: different sports, different teams, different ways of interacting, even if that sometimes makes it impossible to please everyone.
“Sometimes you just don’t have enough TVs for everyone, especially when so many different groups come in,” Avila said.
Despite some of those challenges, she thinks sports bars are important because they offer people spaces to go out and get to know their community rather than just staying at home.
“Plus we have some really good food,” Avila laughed.
Avila’s fellow bartender, Lanay Asmus, has been with the Alexandria Zorbaz since it opened in February of 2013. She has had over 10 years to build relationships with the customers and watch their favorite teams alongside them.
“Especially after Covid it was important for us to be able to socialize outside our normal places like home and work, to be able to interact with other adults and let kids run wild,” Asmus said.
For her, the highlight of this past year was the Vikings’ historic comeback against the Colts, the largest comeback in NFL history. Down by 33 points in the third quarter, the Vikings erased the deficit and scored a touchdown and a two-point conversion late in the fourth quarter to send the game into an overtime period which the Vikings won.
“We were all lined up here, and someone was videotaping us going crazy after they made that last touchdown; it was awesome.” Asmus laughed.
But it’s not always just fun and games. She knows the cost of running a sports bar has gone up significantly in recent years as prices for most things continue to climb. And sometimes she’s had a few people get a little too passionate about their team.
“[In those moments] I just have confidence in my position here that I can tell someone they need to leave or that they need to stop. I have a lot of backup here, too. If one of us makes a decision, we are all there to back it up.”
But in the end, Asmus is grateful to look back on so many fond memories over the years.
“Again, it’s the level of passion people have for sports,” Asmus said. “It helps get them out of their house to connect with others. I’ve watched friendships develop, watched people meet and get married – lifetime friends, and they all met here.”
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