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America Is Short On ‘Third Places,’ But Sports Can Help Facilitate Them

people talk at a sports bar
Image CreditGroupon / YouTube

The crowd gathered to watch a game, if not all their attention is on the screen, can facilitate an environment like Oldenburg’s third places.

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During one of the several edge-of-your-seat moments between the Bengals and Chiefs in Sunday’s AFC championship, I got a kick out of watching patrons from all corners of the sports bar take a gasp of anticipation at the same time. The group of young people at one of the hightops and the guys sitting solo at the bar were all complete strangers, but everyone shared the same emotion and the same reaction for the same brief moment.

A few minutes later, I watched one guy stand up and start walking to the restroom, only to stop in front of the TV to watch a big play and remark about it to the random man sitting nearby. None of us knew each others’ backgrounds or even names, but for three hours (plus overtime, in Sunday’s case) the thing we were all focused on was something we all had in common.

A football game (or other ballgame) on its own doesn’t turn a sports bar into a perfect facility for meaningful community, of course. But in a country of busy individualists where such havens are woefully lacking, the thread of commonality created by sharing a game has the potential to be spun into something that continues past the final play.

What Makes a ‘Third Place’

Ray Oldenburg coined the term “third places” to describe a setting that is neither in the home nor in the workplace, but where people informally gather and build community. It may be the downtown diner, the park, the soda counter, the pool table, the firehouse pancake breakfast. It might also be the corner coffeeshop, as long as not too many people are tucked behind laptops.

Oldenburg, in his book “The Great Good Place,” describes key attributes of third places. There is neutral ground: “individuals may come and go as they please, in which none are required to play host.” The place serves as a leveler, where a patron’s career or wealth or social standing bears no relevance. Additionally, “conversation is the primary activity and the major vehicle for the display and appreciation of human personality and individuality.” Third places are accessible and “open in the off hours” that aren’t demanded by work or the home.

Another essential quality is the presence of regulars. The setting itself is unpretentious, somewhere people go to relax, unhindered by the need to dress up. “The mood is playful,” Oldenburg says, and the third place is a “home away from home.”

…And Why America Needs Them

Thanks to a combination of factors like spread-out infrastructure, individualistic attitudes, love of privacy, career focus, and modern busyness, third places like the English pub and the Viennese coffeehouse are harder to find in our America. The highly mobile United States lacks even the general strong sense of place that is necessary for third places to thrive.

After World War II, “the automobile suburb had the effect of fragmenting the individual’s world,” Oldenburg writes. Now, “there is little sense of place and even less opportunity to put down roots.”

Or, as Kenneth Harris put it in “Travelling Tongues,” “The American does not walk around to the local two or three times a week with his wife or with his son, to have his pint, chat with the neighbors, and then walk home.”

Americans have always thrived at creating private associations, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed two centuries ago. We have our churches, our ladies’ societies, our baseball leagues and book clubs and Moose Lodges. But between the responsibilities of work, home, and our structured extracurriculars, we have few places that would qualify under Oldenburg’s criteria.

How Sports Can Help

One informal association we do have is sports. Of course, the players who are actually on a team are an exclusive group that doesn’t fit the bill. But the crowds of boisterous people who gather around the bar to watch a game find themselves brought together in a setting that, if not all their attention is directed toward the screen, can facilitate a similar environment to Oldenburg’s third places.

Although the game has a set timeframe, observers are still free to enter, leave, or mill about as they please — they need no exclusive invitation. Social status need make no appearance, and such gatherings usually take place on weekends or evenings. A sports bar is certainly unpretentious and the mood is collegial — either rambunctiously delighted or sharing momentary and fraternal dismay.

What remains to be filled in, however, is conversation, as well as the presence of regulars. Just showing up to a bar, watching a three-hour game in silence, and then asking for the check fosters little community. Sports only facilitates a third place if the game doesn’t inhibit conversation — if commercial breaks and the minutes after the game ends are filled with talk, and even the exciting moments of the game prompt comments afterward.

Brian Jackson’s description of pub games like cribbage and dominoes in his 1968 book “Working Class Community” is a helpful model here: “Spectators are never quiet, and every stage of the game stimulates comment — mostly on the characteristics of the players rather than the play; their slyness, slowness, quickness, meanness, allusions to long-remembered incidents in club history.” Similarly, sit down to watch a football game and you’ll hear “What a play! How did he pull that off?” and allusions to that Super Bowl.

The presence of regulars is also vital — and mutually conducive with the other factors. Combined, such an environment can provide company that is “similar to a good home in the psychological comfort and support that it extends,” in Oldenburg’s words.

That’s not to say every sports bar in America on Sunday afternoon or Monday night will deliver on such an ambitious goal. But America is sorrowfully short on third places, and it shows in our fragmented lack of community from the national to the local scale. If sports can nudge us a little closer, we should do our best to let it.