It’s a balmy Friday night at Bier International, and the small German beer garden, a block from Harlem’s Morningside Park, is filled to capacity. Diners, mostly young, sit perched on stools at the mahogany bar, lounge at the terrace tables, and pack the long communal wooden benches that fill the space. Needless to say, it’s a typical Friday night at a bar in New York City. But the collective groans and frustrated sighs that perpetually interrupt the barroom chatter hint at something more.
About three-quarters of the room is turned to the projector screen taking up the far wall. They’re watching the U.S. women’s national team battle Sweden in the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup. Two women at the table in front of the screen sport similar baby-blue No. 17 Tobin Heath T-shirts. There are exasperated shouts as a header goes wide.
To Bier owner Chris Pollok, these signs of women’s soccer madness are nothing new.
“I’m from Germany and my business partner is from Senegal, so we get a lot of the European-African community in here,” Pollok tells the Voice. “And you know, soccer is their sport, our sport. I get calls from people — I’ve gotten calls all day long asking whether we’re showing the games or not.”
Bier, located on the corner of West 113th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, will show every single Women’s World Cup match over the next month (including, of course, tonight’s U.S. v. Nigeria game at 8 p.m.). In addition to its projector screen, Bier has five smaller flatscreens angled over the bar and throughout the small space. Pollok said that Bier has promoted the World Cup on its social media accounts and on its website to attract fans of the game. The fact that Copa America, the South American men’s soccer tournament, is being played during the same weeks has also attracted fans, Pollok said.
“People come in here to see if we show the women’s games,” Pollok said. “The rest is word of mouth. People know. I mean, we’re not so huge that we want two hundred people to come in here and watch certain games. We’ve had that for some games, but it’s hard to handle.”
We’re constantly bombarded with Americans’ lack of interest in the women’s game — snide suggestions that male viewers aren’t interested in women’s sports, and that the networks care even less. And yet the atmosphere at Bier is being replicated in bars across the city on match days.
Indeed, soccer has gained new followers since last year’s World Cup, in which the U.S. men’s team lost to Belgium in the round of sixteen. That followed similar growth after the women’s team lost to Japan in the final of the 2011 World Cup. But in spite of the gains — the women’s match against Sweden was the most-watched soccer match ever broadcast by Fox Sports and the most-watched Women’s World Cup group-stage match ever, according to the network — the disparity in coverage persists.
So why haven’t we heard more about the World Cup this year?
Matty Wood, a soccer aficionado who co-owns Woodwork, which calls itself “Brooklyn’s finest soccer pub,” has a few theories. The bar is showing all the World Cup games and, just like it did last summer, offering beers from the different countries playing in the Cup.
“Women’s sports are obviously in America not as popular as men’s sports for a lot of reasons I do not agree with,” Wood tells the Voice. “But women’s soccer especially is just as good if not better to watch than men’s soccer. And the American women’s team is incredible.”
Wood says it comes down to marketing. “There’s the worldwide bias toward men’s sports over women’s sports with very few exceptions,” he says. “It’s really just about getting the word out. You heard about the World Cup last year for six months beforehand and a few months afterward. This is a little bit different. They don’t have as much money behind it. It’s just a matter of creating awareness.”
Woodwork, which is near the Barclays Center, has five flatscreens. Wood relishes the fact that not all bars are going to show the matches — so much the better for his business.
“It’s a great thing for us because you can watch the men’s World Cup in any place in the world,” Wood says. “You don’t have as many places like us dedicating themselves to showing all the games, so we really do reap some good benefits off of that just by making ourselves Brooklyn’s home of the Women’s World Cup.”
Wood pointed to last week’s opener against Australia to emphasize just how crazy soccer fans can get.
“Monday’s game was ridiculous,” he says. “We were wall-to-wall human beings. We could not get to the bathroom. It was awesome. When the U.S. [women’s team] plays, it’s like the men’s World Cup in the finals. We really do fill up that room. People come in and they’ll tie American flags around their neck like a cape. They’ll wear those big, stupid Styrofoam Uncle Sam hats. They costume up for it.”
At the Banter, a popular bar in Williamsburg known to be a haven for European soccer, co-owner Chris Keller says each of the pub’s five screens will be showing all of the World Cup games as well. The bar also has drink and food specials to go with each game. “For U.S. games, we’re slammed as it is,” Keller tells the Voice.
“It’s always been like this. U.S. games are really slammed. Everybody comes out for those. Then a pretty healthy response for all of the bigger teams and a smattering, I should say, like, five to ten people, for some of the smaller games.”
Other soccer bars have done similar brisk business. Legends manager Noel Firth says his bar doubled receipts for the Monday night of the U.S. opener against Australia. At Zum Schneider, manager Micha Gerland says that while the bar was fuller during last year’s World Cup, sizable crowds have come out for the U.S. and Germany women’s matches this year. At Brooklyn’s Highbury Pub, owner Jimmy Grimason also says the bar was packed for the U.S. opener.
Grimason was blunt about why he was not surprised by the strong attendance: “The United States women’s team is much better than the men’s team. I’ve seen the interest and I think the women can win this.”
At Bier in Harlem, one of the biggest women’s fans in attendance Friday night was Tim Heath, who said he is U.S. midfielder Tobin Heath’s uncle. Tobin grew up in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, about 40 miles west of New York City.
“She’s awesome,” he says. “I have become a soccer fan due to the fact that my niece has been playing since she was a little tyke. In truth, I’ve watched more women’s soccer than men’s soccer. But now that we have a team at Yankee Stadium that might move to Columbia, I’ve become more of a fan.”