Inside the Boozy, Rowdy Vortex of the Philadelphia Sports Boom
Philadelphia has the unsavory, but probably fair, reputation of claiming home to the worst fanbase in sports. I should know. I'm part of it. We've flipped cars in celebration of winning the Super Bowl, booed our franchise players right out of the city, and on one infamous occasion, we've purposefully vomited on children. (That last guy was technically from New Jersey though, so we don't take full credit for him). Philadelphia is the one city where the same thing happens if we win or lose. Don't get it wrong—we wouldn't have it any other way.
Right now, the drinking water in Philly must be laced with magic, because the impossible is happening. The Eagles are undefeated at 8-0. The 76ers are starting the season off with two perennial all-stars on the roster. Oh, and the Phillies? The team is playing the good guy in a battle against the trash-can-banging Houston Astros in the goddamn World Series. There's a serious chance for the baseball, football, and basketball trifecta of championships this year in Philadelphia, and the fans may just flip every damn car in the city.
The chaotic camaraderie of unprecedented sports success can best be felt in one boozy, rowdy vortex: the Xfinity Live! center. It's one of the most bizarre sports destinations in the country—imagine a shopping mall filled sports bars and beer halls—especially since it's smack dab in the middle of all three of the city's major stadiums. The complex broke ground back in 2011 with a $50 million construction cost, but nobody expected business to take off like it did. We should have seen it coming. Theoretically, you could see a Phillies or Eagles game during the day, then simply walk across the vast parking lot to a 76ers game at night. Hell, I haven't even mentioned yet that the Flyers play in this dubious sports mecca as well.
Let me give you a better idea of this place, where fans come to drown themselves in Yuengling and Jameson shots, win or lose. One of the largest LED televisions on the East Coast is located in the bar of the NBC Sports Arena. It's 32 feet wide. The bar—which is just one of five massive sections in a complex that also holds Philly favorites like Geno's Steaks and Chickie's and Petes's Crabfries—can pack in around 850 fans a night. The total projected foot traffic for the entire Xfinity Live! complex on a busy weekend? Around 20,000 to 25,000 people, according to Philadelphia Business Journal. Think about that for a second. That's the population of a small town. PBR even has a cowboy-themed bar equipped with a mechanical bull. Most people can't last longer than eight seconds on these bucking things, but that doesn't stop fans from trying all night. Don't forget! There's also a baseball game happening right outside. Xfinity Live! is a sports fan's paradise or worst nightmare, depending on what jersey you wear.
On the frontlines of Xfinity Live! is Chris O'Donnell, 40, a Philadelphia resident who has worked as a bartender at the complex's NBC Sports Arena for over a decade. I caught him on the phone between demanding shifts pouring beers and "facilitating the party," as he put it, to find out what it takes to cater to a batshit crowd on the precipice of a championship title. "Everything is like a blur," he said. The guy sounded completely burnt out, calling sleep "nonexistent." He worked an 18-hour shift the other day, fitting in an Eagles game during the only two days the World Series has taken a break so far. "I don't even know what day it is," he told me. "I've been there 10 years and I've never seen anything like this. No one really has. We're in the middle of an 11-day stretch where there's been a Sixers, Eagles, or Phillies game just every day."
O'Donnell views his role as the great caretaker, making sure that the blue-collar workers that keep a city like Philadelphia running are spending their hard-earned money on the best night of their lives. But yeah, it takes a toll. "You're basically working the nightshift until 3 a.m. and sometimes you have to be back at 7 a.m.," he says. "By the time you wind down, you're just getting up for the next morning, back at it again. Nonstop making drinks, pouring beers." O'Donnell talks about the roughly 300-person staff that works on any given night as if they're on the field competing for a championship, too. "If you threw another bartender in from just another bar or restaurant, they'd just crash," he adds.
It's easy to understand why. You might not only get thrown off of a mechanical bull, but subjected to pounding music in a packed house, as if it's baseball night at the club. And yet, I would expect nothing less from Philadelphia fandom. Cut loose and get weird! Brian Salls, a lifelong Phillies fan in his 30s and a project manager for a Philadelphia-area construction firm called Domus Inc., told me that he once knew a guy who went straight through a news van's windshield. I guess there's crazier things for a city to do than make a Robyn cover their World Series anthem.
Salls was at the ballpark for nearly 10 hours during Game Five of the World Series on Thursday night, finally getting home around 2:15 a.m. He remembers when his fellow Philadelphians poured into the streets, beers in hand, and lit fireworks off to celebrate winning the World Series back in 2008. "People right next to you, just going absolutely crazy," he told me as he recovered Friday morning. "There were 45,693 people in that stadium, all standing up until the last pitch." Last night, over at at Xfinity Live!, fans were seeing a lot more red than just the color of their jerseys. The Phillies dropped another game to the Astros, going down three games to two in the series. "They're a highly passionate fanbase," Salls said. "You can have a party of 50-75 people where only 2 of them even have tickets to the game."
For the workhorse bartender, O'Donnell? There's no better time than now to be a Philadelphia fan, no matter what rival cities and sports media may say about them. "We get the bad rap for being the bad city, worst fans, but they're going to celebrate regardless," Chris said. "I was over at the Phillies team store yesterday and it was like a Black Friday sale. You have to enjoy this, because this doesn't happen very often."
One night after a win, O'Donnell recalls, the whole Phillies team came in "like normal people," shaking hands with the bar staff and celebrating. "That was pretty special," he said. To win Game Three of the World Series on Tuesday, the Phillies dominated with seven home runs against a scoreless Astros squad. "A guy I work with called the Phillies 'The Team of Destiny,'" O'Donnell says, excitedly. "Feels meant to be. A trifecta of championships? It's possible. We're seeing the impossible happen now."