Neal Rubin: A sports bar that’s closed for the Super Bowl
Erik Olson will open the doors of his sports bar early on Super Bowl Sunday.
Then he’ll close them, hours before kickoff.
“It sounds crazy,” he concedes. Does a church shut down on Easter? But Thomas Magee’s Sporting House Whiskey Bar in Eastern Market is not your normal big-screens-and-ballgames barroom — or really, your normal anything.
The proprietor is a wide, friendly, freely philosophizing former heating and cooling wholesaler who’s devoted to Detroit, but doesn’t live there because Kwame Kilpatrick didn’t get caught soon enough.
The place itself offers cold beer, good whiskey, late hours, corporate executives clinking glasses with barbers and bricklayers, a cornhole game next to an unconvincing fake fireplace, no food, and when the time comes, no New Year’s Eve Party.
Olson closes then, too, for the same reasons he locks up before the Super Bowl: It’s an event for amateurs, and besides, everyone already has someplace else to go.
The football game kicks off at 6:30 p.m., give or take a Budweiser commercial. Olson’s regulars will be drinking Guinness 10 hours earlier, at 8:30 a.m. Detroit time, when Manchester City takes on Swansea in an English Premier League soccer match.
They’ll still be drinking Guinness, or at least something else more continental than Bud Light, when Manchester United plays Leicester City at 11 a.m. For those who watch one football game a year — and no futbol games — that’s also soccer.
When Man U is done for the day, Thomas Magee’s will be, too.
Where soccer is king
They’ll devote a TV screen to a college football game at Magee’s, but that’s an obligation. Soccer is a commitment. If the lads (or lasses) are playing, the beer is flowing and the fans crowded around the bar are howling, even if ill-mannered time zones force them to show up at 7 a.m.
Olson, 45, figured soccer and boxing could be his niche when he opened three years ago, partly because he likes them and mostly because no one else had claimed them.
Now Thomas Magee’s is an official rooting spot for Liverpool, another English Premiere team. The Reds are the team of choice because ringleader Dan Marcacchio, a 31-year-old massage therapist from Royal Oak, became a fan a decade ago as he watched them on television from the orphanage where he was volunteering in Kenya.
“It’s a port city. Lots of industry. A beautiful city center,” he says. “Then it goes down the tubes.”
It was almost enough to make him homesick.
Olson, meanwhile, grew up on the east side and in Mount Clemens. He lives in Grosse Pointe Park, about 30 yards outside Detroit, because he swore he’d leave town if Kilpatrick was re-elected and his friends held him to it.
“I always remind people,” he says, “we were a pretty cool city before it all happened.”
“All” means Dan Gilbert, the influx of man-buns and the blessed new arena that will bring Olson 41 home-game crowds a year for hockey and basketball. He is grateful, business-wise, but also guarded.
“You can do yoga on a beach in the middle of Woodward,” he says; it’s a reference to Campus Martius, in case you still won’t cross Eight Mile. “But we’re not really back until Miss Jones can go grocery shopping in her neighborhood.”
Boxing day, and night
Back to boxing, briefly: Two decades and many pounds ago, with better knees, Olson fought as a joyful if mediocre amateur.
He’s still devoted to the sport, and Magee’s will host a fundraiser March 4 to help a team of Detroit teenagers travel to a match in Ireland. A gofundme.com page is in the works under Bridges Beyond Boxing.
Just look for the former Murphy’s and the even more former Tavern at Eastern Market, basically around the block from the main entrance of Gratiot Central Market.
The Thomas and Magee in the name were his grandmothers. “Sporting House” is a tribute to his great-aunt Rose, who was busted in Toledo during the Depression for running a bordello.
The bar took a year to pound into shape in a building that had been abandoned for more than a decade. The goal was to build an everyman’s pub that’s open seven days a week until 2 a.m.
Stop by sometime, he says, and meanwhile, enjoy the Super Bowl — anywhere but his place.