Case Study: Spirit of 77
Robert Sacks & Dave Schrott, two Portland-area real estate developers (landlords to Ace Hotel Portland, among many other Portland properties) had a large, barn-like structure near the Rose Garden Arena that was sitting empty after a few failed businesses. Having had a successful relationship with the design/build process at Ace Hotel Portland, they brought the opportunity to Jack Barron, who posed it to us: did we want to try and reinvent the sports bar? The catch (and draw) was that we’d exchange our services for a very reduced fee and a percentage, profit-sharing ownership.
The goal was implicit in the brief: reinvent the sports bar. Make it a place where people actually want to go to, sports fanatic and “civilian” alike. The survey of friends and family, when asked, “Where do you go when you want to watch the game?” never had a clear answer - it was a weighing of lesser evils, proximity, and limited by the size of your group.
The cliché is unfortunately true: sports bar food is usually sub-par, the drinks are unexciting and the testosterone levels are uncomfortably high. The design of the room, the marketing materials (if they exist) are usually uninspired or off-the-shelf from a beer company. The main feature—the endless sea of big screen TVs—creates an unpleasant atmosphere, with pockets of gatherings competing for attention, as opposed to the sense of community you have in a stadium or arena.
We wanted a place with a point of view, thoughtful design at every corner, a locally sourced and inspired menu, and a top-shelf bar program. Most importantly, we wanted a sense of community akin to being at the game itself, drawing from the best aspects of sports and leaving the hostility aside. The collective cheering, rooting for your team, and the shared groan of losing—you feel a part of something bigger. It’s invigorating, to say the least.
Process and methodology
The name Spirit of 77 references the year that the Portland Trail Blazers won the NBA championship, and is meant to operate as a rallying point. It is a poetic reminder of a forgotten era of sports, when players rode bikes, smoked grass, had afros and serious style. This aesthetic fueled the entire branding of the bar.
Our approach to creating the atmosphere was simple and straightforward: strip down the elements to the essentials, and only add in what was crucial. Working under the creative direction of Jack Barron, we opted for big, simple moves whenever possible.
Instead of putting the name on the existing giant rooftop sign, we decided instead that it was a space best used for a message to the city. It says, “This is RIP CITY / Since 1971 / Portland, Ore.” This is our tangential nod to the history of the namesake. For the uninitiated, “Rip City” became synonymous with Portland and the Trail Blazers in 1971, thanks to Bill Schonely.
Upon entering the space, one is immediately directed to go either right or left with over-the-top, hand-cut and painted wayfinding signage. This is on the backside of our custom, hand-built basketball arcade (dubbed The Buzzer Beater), intentionally placed in the path of the doorway—splitting the flow into the space and creating a divide from the outside world. To your right, there is indoor bike parking, enough for roughly 15 bikes near the smaller secondary bar. To your left, we have dartboards and the massive main bar.
Once inside, long rows of bar-height tables, designed for both sitting and standing, are oriented to face a giant 16 x 9 screen. All main features are projected in high definition here—the epicenter of the entire bar. The single giant screen was our solution to the jarring sense of having multiple TV screens everywhere, and provides the focal point for the crowd. Instead of playing every game that is on cable on a million screens (an unpleasant and daunting task), we simply play “the big game.” Programming becomes a place to showcase our point of view.
We have a few supplementary screens scattered throughout the bar to show other games as well, but having a singular, strong point of view was crucial to our concept. We want watching a game at Spirit of 77 to be almost as exciting as being at the game itself.
Above the long main bar is the namesake signage. Each letter is 4-ft. tall, and the entire length is roughly 33 feet. We constructed it from start to finish in the space, with the typeface projected onto sheets of plywood, which we cut out with a jigsaw. The result can be seen from blocks away, and is the glowing beacon for the bar.
The other big move in the space was building The Buzzer Beater. Purchasing a new, generic basketball arcade with four lanes was far too costly, and ultimately the wrong aesthetic. We quickly realized we’d need to figure out how to build one ourselves. We sourced vintage basketball flooring (originally from nearby Hillsboro Union High School gymnasium) and used that as our court. For the electronic brains of the arcade, we contracted our friend David Neevel to design the mechanics of the timers, score keeping and countdowns. He programmed several Arduino mega-brains and motion-sensors in Processing to make it come alive.
Like our dartboards and foosball table, we keep The Buzzer Beater free of charge: not monetizing every aspect of operations is part of breaking the mold of traditional establishments. We have no video lottery machines, for example.
An additional layer we’ve added to operations is a retail component featuring apparel inspired by the 1970s era of sports, our city, the Blazers and now our other major league team: the Portland Timbers. Some examples of local ethos as seen through a sports filter are our Rip City velo caps and our vintage sports-logo inspired 77 shirts.
Imbued into all components of the branding and marketing is a layer of “intelligent stupidity.” For example, using vintage sports trading cards as a base, we Photoshopped out what was once a football or basketball, and replaced it with a piece of fried chicken or a boiled egg. Once reprinted in the exact format and style of a trading card, that became the artwork for our take away menu.
The brand voice is that of a sports fanatic with a sharp sense of humor, one that celebrates the hilarious innocence of previous eras, and wants to relive those times today.
Creating something new and against the grain in a field where the approach or execution is rather homogenized can alienate many people. As much as we wanted to reinvent things, we still wanted to appeal to the wide demographic of “classic” sports fans. Our hope was that those folks just didn’t yet know it could be this way, and they’d choose quality once they saw it. Along the way, it was difficult knowing how far to push things without deviating too far.
It was also a struggle at times to find a unified point of view. Dealing with the concept of a re-invention, trying to do so with big, simple moves—it sometimes lead to butting heads while trying to nail down the “right” solution. In the wide world of sports, there are so many niches, cliques, trends, “truths” and opinions—we ran into many of them along the way.
We feel like we achieved our goals for Spirit of 77—to turn a traditional idea on its head, subvert the typical notions of what a sports establishment should be, and raise the bar for quality in all aspects of operation.
Since the bar has only been open since October 2010, we’re still assessing the financial success of our work, and feeling out the patterns of customer interaction. We’re continually concepting new ideas to drive traffic and revenue, with non-sports programming to fill in the gaps between seasons.Trivia nights, movie nights and video game nights are part of this effort to capitalize on the scale of the space and the big screen.
As far as local and national recognition is concerned, we’ve garnered positive mentions in Esquire, Food & Wine, Playboy, ESPN The Magazine, and Bill Simmons’ sports blog.
As profit-sharing owners, we continue to work on Spirit of 77 on a fairly regular basis. Our role has largely shifted into ongoing marketing, and we continue to produce all of the graphics and collateral for operations. The responsibility of basic upkeep & repair for our custom-built objects often falls on our shoulders, so we do the occasional maintenance on The Buzzer Beater and signage.
Moving into year one and beyond, we look forward to doing even more, including ad campaigns and a series of web commercials, and designing more retail products.