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Three of the five flat screens in the main room at Nellie’s Sports Bar are set to the Redskins-Ravens game as it finally kicks off Saturday night. The volume on all the TVs is turned down, however, so the patrons who are pretty much packing the downstairs level at the new U Street joint don’t get to hear the play-by-play. Instead, the house sound system pumps the Pet Shop Boys’ “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money).”
And nobody in the almost-entirely male crowd seems to give a damn.
Hold on, here: The Pet Shop Boys soundtracking a Redskins game? Is this some sort of gay bar?
Absolutely. With Nellie’s opening last month, owner/entrepreneur Doug Schantz hopes to give D.C. its first gay sports bar.
It’s not the first outlet of its kind: New York’s Gym and Chicago’s Crew Bar and Grill beat Schantz down the gay-sports-bar path. He says he was unaware of the other pioneers when he came up with the idea and admits he’s only well-versed in the former half of the gay/sports formula.
“I don’t know a thing about sports. Nothing,” he says with a laugh.
His closest brush with sports, in fact, came in the early 1980s, when he was working for a Chicago ad agency that handled the Ace Hardware account. Schantz helped that chain transition from spokesmodel Suzanne Somers to spokesglutton John Madden.
“I worked with John for six years, even got to eat Thanksgiving with him,” says Schantz.
He’s used to playing off-type (he says he was, until recently, a proud Republican). And based on his years in advertising, Schantz has come to the conclusion that D.C. is more than ready for a place like Nellie’s, no matter how odd “gay sports bar” looks on paper.
And it does look odd.
“It’s a weird theme, I think,” he says. “But this isn’t totally a gay bar or totally a sports bar. The sports theme is out of hand, an instant attraction. There are games [on television] that will bring 50 to 100 people here. I can have that on nonweekend nights. I wanted a neighborhood hangout, and that’s exactly what’s happening. From when we open ’til 8 or 9 [p.m], it’s a very neighborhood-oriented place, whoever comes to watch the game. And then, about 10 o’clock or so, it’s a much more gay crowd, later on at night, when they’re ready.”
Why is the gay crowd so late?
Says Schantz, “It takes four or five hours to get ready. Hello!”
Schantz says he consulted a group of sportscentric gay friends to put together the bar’s TV schedule, and he promises Nellie’s won’t show more ice skating or Greco-Roman wrestling than it should.
The bar’s name, along with being a soft gay slur, was his great-grandmother’s name, and family heirlooms are all over the place. The walls aren’t, however, loaded down with the sort of jockish paraphernalia that typical sports bars are—yet, anyway.
But the memorabilia Schantz does have should gain serious credibility with D.C. sports fans: The sinks in the downstairs bathroom came from Griffith Stadium, the former home of the Washington Senators and Washington Redskins that once stood just across the street and down a couple of blocks.
He says that prior to its opening, some of his gay friends accused his business of “not being gay enough.” However, that segment of his target market should appreciate how he acquired the old stadium’s bathroom fixtures: Antiquing in Baltimore!
The wide world of sports is hardly tolerant of homosexuality. No active American professional male athlete has yet admitted being gay. Instead, we’ve gotten press releases from stars—Mike Piazza comes to mind—just to declare complete and utter straightness.
What’s more, other than the fact that both have testicles, the clienteles of stereotypical gay bars and stereotypical sports bars have little in common.
Schantz grew up in rural Kansas, and, at 46 years old, says he’s old enough to remember when being gay there could “get you killed.” He didn’t come out until he was 29 and had moved to New York. And when he moved to D.C. in the mid-1990s, he remembers how every gay bar here “had no windows.”
So, as much as Schantz would like Nellie’s to be just about business, he knows there’s more to it.
“I don’t want to go down the river on this about the idea of equal rights and [gay] marriage and all,” he says. “But if we’re supposed to assimilate into the mainstream, you probably want [different] people to live side by side with you. I’m just a businessperson wanting to cast as wide a net as possible.”
The concept has taken off. He’s been blanketed with requests from gay and nongay athletic organizations asking if Nellie’s could sponsor their events or be their home base. Groups such as the Atlantic States Gay Rodeo Association, the Lambda Divers, and the Rainbow Spinnakers Sailing Club are among dozens that have linked their Web sites to the bar’s.
But—proving Schantz’s contention that he wants a “straight-friendly” bar—a D.C. United fan group, with no declared hetero or homo allegiances, reserved an upstairs room to watch Saturday’s match with Toronto, which was on opposite the Redskins-Ravens telecast.
The best barometer that he’s onto something, however, is attendance. The place has been packed since its opening. Business has been so good that he’s already hearing from wannabe investors, inquiring whether Schantz is willing to expand to other parts of the city or even other parts of the country.
And this comes with no traditional marketing, just a few e-mail blasts to gay groups and the handing-out of 2,500 Nellie’s T-shirts.
“Extra small!” Schantz says. “Very targeted!” He’s joking.