NEW YORK — USF is starting slowly, and it’s the reason I’m more sober than I expected. The bar I’m at, called Van Diemens, gives out free shots whenever USF scores a touchdown.
To be a college football fan in Tallahassee or Columbus or Austin or Boise is easy. To be one here, so far from the sport, is a challenge.
The lack of native CFB fandom is why eyebrows raised when College GameDay announced Times Square to host its Sept. 23 celebration of the sport. No one thinks of New York City as a college football hotspot, and there aren’t even any big games within hundreds of miles on that day.
New York City is a desert for college fans.
But that need for oasis has created a unique landscape. Every Saturday, tribes center at watering holes throughout the metropolis. You can find one for virtually every sizable fan base.
It’s too easy to say New York’s not a great town for college football fans or to make fun of it as just an uninterested media market the Big Ten sought by adding Rutgers. So I went to find the passion.
The upstairs portion of this Manhattan bar has a green skylight above pom poms and Bull logos.
This is the New York City USF alumni chapter’s watch party. There will be dozens of its ilk on Saturday across the city.
When USF was bad, there weren’t many free shots. Then they started exploding on offense midway through 2016, and the bar had to water shots down, because they were going too fast.
“This place, prior to us joining, was a UConn bar,” Andrew Jones, a former chair of the alumni club, said. “UConn’s still here, but doesn’t really draw much for football. We’ve had games against them where we kinda just absorb them. For college basketball, you can’t get in this place; there’s a line out the door for it. So we’re the main school here.”
Jones had season tickets when he lived in Tampa. His wife, Melissa, wears a green dress, gold eyeshadow, and USF-themed shoes. If the Bulls can become the Group of 5 entrant in the New Year’s Six, the couple will travel to Atlanta for a likely date in the Peach Bowl. But Melissa’s settling on doing the journey by train. She’s pregnant, and under doctor's orders, won’t be able to fly after Thanksgiving. So they might train. Anything to stay connected to the squad.
“I want to say if they can get past those slow starts, it’s an undefeated team. And that is largely because our schedule is weak. Our schedule is really weak,” Jones said. “I think that us having this senior team that has all the pieces, with the defense that’s actually doing what they’re supposed to do, I think undefeated is something that is definitely in reach.”
The Bulls do need to stop dilly-dallying with teams like the Owls, and even if they do, they’ll still have to sweat out the Playoff committee.
Nicole Graham, the vice chair of the chapter, assured me I would like the free shot that accompanies a touchdown, even if she says she’s too picky to enjoy it. After starting in a created position as a watch party coordinator, Graham rose because she was doing too many things like writing grants and connecting with the main alumni association in Tampa.
“It’s kind of a joke because I was the quiet one in the corner,” Graham said. “Didn’t really talk to anyone my first few games. And then, I don’t know, something just sparked in me, and I wanted to be more a part of this. I felt the energy. I felt different directions that you could grow in.”
Before the game, Jones had been summoned to take a shot for his coming bundle of joy. The guy that gave it to him is passed out on the bar by the end of the 3-0 first quarter.
But beyond the booze and the football, what drives these gatherings? What fuels the passion to meet?
As college football fans, our teams define us, either because our college years define us or because it started even earlier than that. College made us adults, introduced us to our spouses, or graduated our parents.
But when you eject from your typical college town into its likely polar opposite, an intensely vertical city, it can be jarring.
It was like that for Amanda Mull, a Georgia ex-pat, when she moved six years ago.
“I thought about how it was gonna be different not to drive,” she said. “I thought about how it was gonna be different to live in a very small apartment. I did not think about how it was gonna be different to not have that set of cultural touchstones. It took me a while to realize that, oh, for people who grew up up here, it really doesn’t translate culturally at all.”
In New York City, Saturday is just another day. It’s not the drop-everything tentpole that an entire city or even state rallies around.
I grew up in Gainesville, Florida, and went to the University of Florida. My first 23 autumns had a distinct rhythm. Then I moved to the Northeast. I write about college football, so finding a way to stay tethered to the sport is how I pay rent, but for others like Mull, it’s not that easy.
“I had to train my set of friends,” Mull said. “I got very lucky that I managed to make a good set of friends up here, but none of them are really college football people, except my friends that I met through Georgia stuff and Georgia Twitter. It took like a couple years over the course of our friendships for it to be clear that, ‘Oh, Amanda is very serious about this. If we plan something — a party like a day party — on a Saturday in the fall, she ain’t coming.”’
Mull went to a bar her first fall Saturday in New York. She found it on Facebook. Others use websites like this bar guide to find a spot.
Even beyond college football, New Yorkers are especially driven to the communal watching experience, especially Millennials. The stereotypes are true about small living space. It’s not conducive to having dozens of people over to watch a game.
Also, plenty of us don’t have cable. Even if you do, like one of Mull’s ex-boyfriends, there’s an acutely New York problem. Cablevision, which runs one of the city’s largest cable companies, doesn’t carry the SEC Network. Cablevision was recently bought by Altice, and is still in dispute with ESPN over the network.
She might be a Southerner at heart, but in true New Yorker fashion, she scoffs under her breath about James Dolan, the former CEO of Cablevision. He also runs the Knicks, poorly. But Dolan’s not the only man to run afoul of her pursuit of college football fandom in the city.
“I would go out on a date with a guy that went to Wesleyan or something like that and watches three Notre Dame games a season, and I would mention football, and he would immediately launch into some sort of professorial sort of oration of his understanding of college football,” Mull said. “And I would be like, ‘No, you don’t understand, I’ve been to dozens and dozens of in-person college football games my entire life.’”
Mansplaining during sports is nothing new, but in many pockets of college sports fandom, it’s normal to see women enjoying the game. Nobody questions you if you say you’re a college football fan in Iowa or Oregon or Oklahoma. It’s more unique to be apathetic toward the sport.
“Up here it’s like, ‘Name three of their albums,’” Mull said.
To anyone questioning Gameday going to NYC...Dudes next to me at NY bar are in a fierce debate about Purdue football. #itseverywhere— Sam Ponder (@sam_ponder) September 20, 2017
Adam Lathan is getting the year he graduated LSU mixed up.
“2009. Why did I say ‘07? I said ‘07 honestly because that’s when we won the championship,” Lathan said. “That’s like one of those numbers that stands out, not my college degree.”
I’ve just eaten at his Louisiana-themed restaurant in downtown Brooklyn called The Gumbo Bros. (I recommend the shrimp po’boy). I’d sat down right next to a guy who recognized the word “Gainesville” on the back of my shirt and struck up a conversation about the Gators. He went to UF’s law school years ago.
Lathan and his college roommate, Clay Boulware, opened the restaurant in Dec. 2016. Up until recently, they didn’t have a liquor license. Two doors down, a bar called The Brazen Head didn’t have a kitchen. The establishments would partner for events like Mardi Gras-themed parties. Lathan’s spot doesn’t have TVs, and doesn’t really have the space to host a gameday event. But when the fall came around, his patrons wanted the authentic LSU experience.
“Everybody’s like, ‘Can we watch the game here?’ Lathan said. “‘All we want to do is to have authentic Louisiana gumbo and watch the LSU game, as opposed to going to a sports bar in the city where it’s cramped, can’t have the sound on.’ We don’t really have the space, and these guys do.”
And so The Brazen Head, which has been around for 17 years, became an LSU bar in Brooklyn, thanks to the new blood down the street.
Manager Sasha Kotylar has recently been to New Orleans, but Lathan is still in the process of converting her into a full-fledged LSU fan. For now, she enjoys busy Saturday crowds that haven’t gotten too crazy — yet.
“It was just really keeping up with all the big changes here and what’s around and kinda try to stay on track with that,” Kotylar said. “We’re a very neighborhood-type bar. We’re not a dive bar; we’re not a sports bar. We’re just a local neighborhood-type place.”
People know Lathan’s affiliations and come in to talk to him about football. A couple Michigan fans often enjoy the Wolverines at The Brazen Head (Michigan has a massive presence in New York City).
“I’d so much rather be in Death Valley,” Lathan said. “But if you’re not, it’s really kinda cool to be far away from it with people who appreciate it.”
USF scores two touchdowns in the second quarter and begins to pull away from the Owls.
My faith in Quinton Flowers & Co. delivering free liquor is restored. The green shots are basically candy with a hint of alcohol. Maybe Brooklyn’s ruined my tolerance, or maybe they could’ve used some watering-down after all, but who am I to refuse?
I have no formal ties to USF, save for Florida itself, but then Graham reveals something.
“We actually are working on an updated menu with some Tampa-themed specialties,” Graham said. “So, we have the Bulls sampler that we’re going to be doing, we have a Florida cuban sandwich that we’re doing, and a Publix sub. We’re gonna have a Publix sub.”
Publix being the Deep South’s beloved grocery chain with legendary deli subs. No matter where the Bulls end up in bowl season, I think I’ve found my place to watch their game.
Mull said it best:
“It seemed like the longer I live here, the more it seems things like those parties and the opportunity to be around people from home — the opportunity to be around people with that shared context — makes living here possible.”