Soccer is the undisputed champion of sports, with more than 240 million registered players around the world and a built-in audience above a billion. For comparison, this last Super Bowl broke all viewership records with a reported audience of only 111 million people.
Yet in the United States, soccer takes a back seat to other sports, turning into a sort of subculture, an underground following that borders on religious devotion.
Because of this, The Highbury Pub (2322 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.) is a soccer shrine, a temple devoted to the FIFA gods.
The pub itself is fairly standard, small with interesting, almost graffiti-like paintings on the walls, a short bar top, with only a few beers on tap, and a shuffleboard table in the back that looks unused and more like decoration. It’s intimate, not spacious, like many sports bars. Only a few televisions are mounted above the bar, and team flags, banners and ribbons hang about, not obnoxious or overt, but instead blending in with the décor.
What changes the Highbury from an ordinary bar to a stalwart establishment in Bay View is the patrons it holds and the hours they keep.
Highbury has been known to open as early as 6 a.m. for soccer matches, and it actually fills seats at that time. I went this past Saturday for the Manchester United/Crawley Town game and arrived at 10 a.m. (the game was at 11 a.m.). The bar top was already full, with more people filing in every few minutes.
Interestingly, patrons can make or break an establishment, and typically do so without knowing it. They are the single greatest, loudest and most flamboyant objects in a bar. At Highbury, the patrons are in love with their sport, an utter and deep madness (much like tweenie-boppers at a Bieber concert sans swooning). This furthers an atmosphere in a way that only people can. Most are dressed in soccer regalia and sweat pants, shouting themselves hoarse before noon for the team they love. Many are drinking coffee served up alongside Bloody Marys or beer. And they all look to be friends, regardless of the obscenities they shout at one another during plays. Highbury straddles the border between pub and underground club, where admittance is gained by the jersey you wear.
But it doesn’t feel like a sports bar. Or rather, it doesn’t feel like an American sports bar. It’s dedicated to only one sport, soccer and all things soccer, which not a lot of places do because they try to cover it all. Because of this, the patrons are loyal to the bar, completely and almost as fervently as they are to their team.
And so a paradigm is created at the Highbury, a bar where the commonality lies in the love of the game alone and where the bar truly thrives on the patrons it holds.