By Drew Olson Special to Published Sep 01, 2009 at 11:21 AM

With temperatures beginning to cool and autumn and -- shudder -- winter approaching, there is a strange phenomenon taking place in living rooms across Milwaukee, Wisconsin and the upper Midwest.

Sofas and recliners suddenly seem a lot more comfortable.

Do you really want to get dressed and venture out on a brisk weekend morning? Wouldn't it be much easier to throw on some sweats, heed the call of the La-Z-Boy and cuddle up with the remote for a few hours?

Those questions, which have confronted local soccer fans for years, intensified when cable giant ESPN reached a deal to broadcast English Premier League games this season.

Over the past several years, establishments like Highbury Pub, 2320 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., Carleton Grange Pub, 3807 S. Packard Ave., and The Nomad World Pub, 1401 E. Brady St., have opened their doors in the morning hours to legions of spirited (and thirsty) fans ready to gather around big-screen TVs and spend hours cheering and jeering Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and reveling in the type of football played without helmets and shoulder pads.

Once ESPN, which bills itself as "The Worldwide Leader in Sports," decided to showcase the world's most popular game, a lot of folks wondered if the early-morning bar ritual would lose momentum.

Two weeks into the EPL season, the early returns are so encouraging that concerns seem a bit silly. Are local bars empty during Packers games?

"We've been busier than ever," said Joe Katz, owner of the Highbury, which draws its name from Arsenal's previous home stadium.

"It's like the smoking ban theory. In cities where smoking was banned, everybody thought that business would drop off and it actually got better. Saturday morning, we had a line around the corner to get in."

Peter Wilt, a regular at the Highbury and other establishments who also happens to be the chief executive officer of the Chicago RedStars women's pro soccer team and former general manager of the Chicago Fire, is not surprised.

"First of all, the live experience watching a game in a pub is unique and can't be replicated at home," Wilt said. "In general, people will continue to go to the soccer pubs for the social and communal experience as well as the variety of games that they can't get at home.

"Most people will continue to watch the EPL games in person at the Highbury and other soccer pubs, but it'll work both ways. Some people who used to go to soccer pubs will stay home to watch the ESPN games, but other people who previously didn't follow EPL will be turned into EPL fans and will now start to go to soccer pubs to watch the many EPL games that are not on ESPN."

Wilt, who began his soccer career as public relations director for the Milwaukee Wave, said that ESPN's imprint can only help grow the sport's popularity.

"The direct and indirect exposure is good for the game in the U.S.," he said. "ESPN's EPL broadcast commitments means they are also showing more EPL highlights on "SportsCenter" and including more soccer scores on the crawl (at the bottom of the screen). It's another example of soccer's evolution in the U.S. The sport is slowly mainstreaming here."

Mike Eitel, proprietor of The Nomad, agreed.

"The more channels and the more exposure EPL gets, the better for everybody," he said. "Access shouldn't be a privilege. Cable companies have made it too difficult for too long. ... It's about time the world's most popular sport even gets on the radar."

For Colin Deval, soccer is not only on the radar -- it dominates.

"I spent years waking up early and watching these matches alone in my living room at dawn," he said. "For five years now, I've been watching the matches at The Highbury. It's still amazing to me that I've been able to plug into this community and meet the people I've met."

Deval, who works for an advertising agency in the Third Ward, channeled his love of EPL into a popular blog at

"So much of following football in America is about the routine," Deval said. "We live each weekend in a different time zone. News reports, sleeping patterns, matches -- everything -- it's all on a different schedule. The newspapers come out at different times. The reviews are different. Everything. You learn to adapt to it.

"As such, the anticipation of heading to a pub with a common group of people facing the same plight is such a massive draw that -- regardless of how the TV schedule will shake out -- you're still gonna do it. We have people come in to watch three matches on three TVs and a fourth on their laptop in front of them, all because they want to be a part of it and share the experience.

"Watching a game at The Highbury, to quote Peter Wilt, is the closest you can get to a live match-day experience. We sing, shout, insult, celebrate ... the works. Every weekend, I meet a new person, supporters of new teams, people from new countries. I've made some of the best friends of my life through that community outpost.

"So yeah, I could stay home and watch the match in my pajamas, or I could go celebrate with a bunch of amazing people who speak that same language."

Katz said that the crowd and vibe for soccer matches are different than those for Packers games. "You don't have timeouts and commercials," he said. "You have 45 fluid minutes. You have actual momentum.

"And, as far as the crowd, it's a lot more nationalistic." Katz said that Manchester United fans are the most vocal, hardcore and "rough around the edges," but that fans of all teams can have fun watching the games.

"Of course people can sit at home and watch the game on their own TV and drink their own beer," Katz said. "But, you come out for the experience."

The bar business is competitive and prone to copycat activity, but Eitel isn't worried.

"I think it's like anything with bars and sports -- its up to the venue to create the exciting atmosphere in which to watch the games," he said. "The more places showing games, the better, in my opinion.

"As for too much competition, I think people seek out The Nomad and Highbury for the matches because of the vibe, the crowd, the specials, and the commitment to the game of soccer -- not just because we bought the soccer channels."

Drew Olson Special to

Host of “The Drew Olson Show,” which airs 1-3 p.m. weekdays on The Big 902. Sidekick on “The Mike Heller Show,” airing weekdays on The Big 920 and a statewide network including stations in Madison, Appleton and Wausau. Co-author of Bill Schroeder’s “If These Walls Could Talk: Milwaukee Brewers” on Triumph Books. Co-host of “Big 12 Sports Saturday,” which airs Saturdays during football season on WISN-12. Former senior editor at Former reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.