Photo courtesy of U of L Athletics
Quentin Snider | Photo courtesy of U of L Athletics

I’m going to make a statement so unpopular, it might get me stripped of my Kentucky Colonel membership: I believe more people in Louisville get swept up in March Madness hoopla than they do in Derby fever.

Perhaps it’s because the NCAA tournaments mark the first sign of spring; perhaps it’s the rise and fall of filling out brackets and watching them crumble; or perhaps it’s because the commonwealth has two winning teams we can cheer for, jeer for and beer for.

I don’t think I ever watched an entire basketball game before moving to Louisville in 1999. Sure, my home state boasts the Buckeyes and Bearcats, but we certainly never let them intrude on our daily lives. For instance, “Melrose Place” would never have been postponed due to a basketball game.

Andrew Harrison | Photo courtesy of UK Athletics
Andrew Harrison | Photo courtesy of UK Athletics

But here I am, some 16 years later, and I’m as red as a Cards fan can be, and as blue as Ashley Judd. I’ll admit what first drew me to partaking in all the madness was the excitement of watching the games at local bars — and the amazing drink specials that came with it. Buckets of beer for $10? I’m in. Shouting at the TV and pounding chicken wings. Hell yes!

I was curious to find out how local bar owners feel about this time of year. Are they overwhelmed? Ecstatic? Is their business dependent upon the Cards and Cats advancing through the brackets? And who are they taking to the finals?

I caught up with the three wise men of Highlands watering holes — John Dant of the Back Door, Dennie Humphrey of the Monkey Wrench and Tom O’Shea of O’Shea’s (on Baxter and Downtown) — to find out what happens when basketball stops being polite and starts getting real.

All three agree that March Madness means mad sales at their bars — especially when the Cards and Cats advance.

“When the Cardinals show up to play — especially when we advance — it triples what we do,” says Humphrey, whose Wrench gets so crowded during games that he makes sure the rooftop bar is open in time for the first tipoff.

When Rick's happy, Louisville bar owners are happy. | Photo courtesy of U of L Athletics
When Rick’s happy, Louisville bar owners are happy. | Photo courtesy of U of L Athletics

“My sales will double during a Louisville game … and I have to have those wings,” says Dant, referencing the mighty chicken wings for which the Back Door is known.

Depending on the game and if the favored team wins or loses, O’Shea says he’ll generally see profits rise afterward. “We aren’t necessarily a sports bar, so there isn’t that big of a difference for us on the impact of a game,” he says. “Most people are not drinking much during games because they are consumed with it. But fans will celebrate and drink after a win if the game is not too early or too late.”

It’s hard not to get swept up in all the fanaticism, and Humphrey, Dant and O’Shea are no different. In fact, it’s their favorite part of the tournaments.

“I love the excitement of the customers who come and watch the games,” Dant says. “I especially love the expressions on their faces and seeing them yell at the refs as though they are at the game.”

For Humphrey, the NCAA tournament brings back sentimental memories of when he first opened his doors.

“I can remember the first year I opened, I had only been open two weeks, and the Cards went to the Final Four,” he explains. “I was scared as hell of opening the doors and wondering if people would show. Well, they did — like 250 of them! I had nothing in the bank, and then — boom — it all happened. I had a dream of watching my team win the national championship in my house and wondered what that would feel like — well, it happened.”

Willie Cauley-Stein might take the Cats to the finals. | Photo courtesy of UK Athletics
Willie Cauley-Stein might take the Cats to the finals. | Photo courtesy of UK Athletics

“The camaraderie of the fans supporting their teams is a fun thing to watch and participate in,” adds O’Shea. “It’s all pretty fun, although the overly upset fan over a team loss can sometimes be unpleasant to deal with.”

Humphrey and Dant agree that losing is the hardest part of the games, but it comes with the territory.

“My least favorite aspect is the sadness of the loss. It’s heart-wrenching — no pun intended,” says the Monkey Wrench owner. 

“My least favorite is if both teams get knocked out early,” says Dant. “I would never kick myself if both don’t play — I know it’s great for business, but in reality, these are just kids playing, and you can’t win every game.”

While Dant is betting on UK and N.C. State in the finals, both O’Shea and Humphrey are hoping for a UK/U of L match made in heaven … or hell.

“This could be the ultimate dream game this year,” says Humphrey, anticipating a clash of red and blue, feathers and fur.

UK plays West Virginia on Thursday, March 26, at 9:45 p.m. Louisville plays N.C. State on Friday, March 27, at 7:37 p.m. Good luck to both! 

For more Bar Belle musings, go to barbelleblog.com.

Sara Havens
Sara Havens is the Culture Editor at Insider Louisville, known around town as the Bar Belle (barbelleblog.com). She's a former editor of LEO Weekly and has written for Playboy and The Alcohol Professor. Havens is the author of two books: "The Bar Belle" and "The Bar Belle Vol. 2."