It's Saturday afternoon, and 20 or so people, mostly men, have forsaken the blue skies and bright sun to huddle in the semi-darkness of the 16 video monitors in the Out of Bounds Sports Bar and Grill in Huntington Beach.
Two of the televisions have eight-foot screens. Six monitors line the wall behind the bar, with two others boxing the corners. The rest jut at odd angles to provide full coverage. It's a veritable video buffet.
The Out of Bounds probably wasn't what they had in mind on the East Coast when tavern owners set those first black-and-white televisions on their bars. A sports bar was four walls and a roof, a place to hang out, drink, talk about Mantle and Williams, Orr and Tittle. It was a way to get through the sloppy winters.
When the sports bar was exported to California, it underwent some perhaps predictable changes. It's a marketing concept rather than a hangout. A place where there's male bonding rather than buddies.
Glitzy or not, the sports bar theme works. "It's a concept that began in the mid-1970s that became very popular," says Tony Romero, beverage supervisor at Champions American Sports Bar and Grill at the Irvine Marriott.
Normally, Saturday afternoons this time of year are given over to baseball. But on this day, with the lockout just ended and opening day yet to start, the screens are aglow with college basketball--the NCAA semifinal double-header of Arkansas versus Duke, followed by Georgia Tech versus University of Nevada-Las Vegas.
While Duke and Arkansas go at it on all screens, Out of Bounds owner Mark Larsen oversees the installation of two more satellite receivers that can pull in stations from Kentucky, Moscow, or as Spike Lee says about Michael Jordan, the Sea of Tranquillity.
Larsen has spent the last three years turning the bar into a video sports mecca. "If it's up there, I'll get it," he tells me. "There are 20 satellites up there, and 24 channels on each. It's a matter of search and find."
Larsen, a confirmed sports fanatic, was convinced from the outset that more and bigger televisions would draw more sports fans. "Especially football. That's by far the sport that everybody watches," he says. "During football season, at 9 a.m. people are waiting to get in. They come from as far as L.A.; they fight for the seats at the bar because they can watch all the games at once."
He adds: "I wish football was 36 weeks a year. If it was, I could close all week long and just open on Sundays."
But while the sports theme will carry a bar a long way, it's not always into the end zone of financial success. There will inevitably be down times. For example, on the Wednesday night before college basketball's Final Four, the Out of Bounds is, by its own standards, dead to the world. Maybe a dozen customers ambled about, unaccustomed to the elbow room.
On the big screen near the stage, there is horse-jumping from Florida. The eight televisions over the bar are tuned to different stations; National Invitation Tournament basketball is side by side with the world snowmobile championships and beach volleyball. Lee Marvin is slapping the Dirty Dozen into shape, although what we are hearing is 50 watts' worth of Chick Hearn and Laker basketball.
On the main monitor the Lakers are playing the Clippers. The monster screen gives the game a three-dimensional immediacy; from the angle of the camera under the basket, a driving layup looks as if it is about to provide an in-your-face look at the business end of a size 14 Reebok. This is sports as it was meant to be seen on television.
The small crowd is made up of stayers. Two women alternately shoot pool and shoot free throws in the basket toss. None of the men make a serious effort to get friendly with them.
I wind up shooting free throws with Dave and Bill. They hadn't been in the Out of Bounds before tonight, but they say they expected to see a lot more of it in the future. Dave, a former USC football player who once worked on nuclear warheads on Minuteman missiles in the Air Force, now works for Bill as a painter. Between rounds of free throws, Dave and I have an informed discussion about whether the water buffalo head mounted on the wall is a big water buffalo or an average-size water buffalo.
We have both been to the Philippines and met water buffaloes face to face. I am of the opinion that any water buffalo is a big water buffalo. Dave feels this one is exceptional.
A group of middle-aged regulars say they show up in late afternoon. Tom Hartnett of Newport Beach says he has been coming in here for 10 years. Don Lowe, a sales engineer and Little League coach from Huntington Beach, says they're celebrating the day's victories on the ball field. The Final Four is a bonus.
Roxine Spencer, an office coordinator from Huntington Beach, says she has been coming in for a year with Hartnett, but because she's a UNLV fan she has a double reason for being here today.
They say Out of Bounds actually has several personalities.