The floor above Southbound Nightclub has been underutilized for years, acting as an overflow for the downstairs bar and hosting the occasional sorority party.
When COVID-19 hit Knoxville, owner Leigh Burch III saw an opportunity to transform it into a place for sports lovers to gather.
With sports returning to TV and the Vols football season just around the corner, Burch is preparing to open Old City Sports Bar, complete with 18 TVs and seating on a balcony overlooking Central Street resembling those found in New Orleans.
“There’s plenty of sports bars, but there are only a couple of places in town that have this much infrastructure,” Burch told Knox News.
It will be ‘rocking and rolling’ soon
Burch envisions the bar being “jam-packed, rocking and rolling” during all kinds of sporting events. Of course, that type of atmosphere will be limited due to COVID-19 guidelines and restrictions.
Burch said he’s doing his part to keep people safe, including cutting the bar’s capacity in half. Neyland Stadium is cutting its capacity to 25% this season, which means thousands of people who normally come to Knoxville on game-day weekends will be looking for somewhere else to go.
The possibility of Smokies minor league baseball coming to the Old City also could be a plus for the business, which has a baseball as its logo. The proposed stadium would be just around the corner.
“We had always wanted to do a sports bar in the Old City,” Burch said. “We always felt the stadium was going to happen — not if, but when.”
The space used to host sports fans over cold beer years back; Burch remembers when it was Hoorays Sports Bar and Grille. After Burch moved to Atlanta, he would come back to town and visit the Central Avenue watering hole.
“We came up here in this bar, and it was standing-room only,” he told Knox News. “It was packed.”
It’s not a sports bar without wings and beer
Burch admits he has “neglected” the space, for lack of a better term. But that’s about to change.
Old City Sports Bar is holding a soft opening Friday for family and friends. Burch plans to open the business to the public Sept. 10 for the Kansas City Chiefs game against the Houston Texans.
Any sport imaginable should be available, Burch said. Customers can ask the staff to change channels on the TVs, ranging from 55 inches to 70 inches.
“I don’t think we’re going to get cute and fancy,” Burch said. “I think we just need to get the sports thing down. … You’ll be here on a Sunday, and Cleveland Browns fans come in and want the game on. And they want it now.”
But what’s a sports bar without pizza and wings? Burch said he’s working out agreements with nearby restaurants to provide food. The bar has a kitchen, but it won’t be used.
And what’s pizza and wings without a cold beer? There will be a variety of brews on draft, unlike Southbound, which only sells beer in bottles and cans. Customers can expect a full bar with plenty of other non-beer options.
NOLA style in Big Orange country
Southbound is a completely different concept, even though the businesses share an address. But some of the Southbound employees have been out of work and could be brought on at Old City Sports Bar.
“We have all of these bartenders around town and waitresses who aren’t working,” Burch said.
In addition to bar, couch and table seating, the business also will have TVs and seating on the balcony.
“I’ve always felt like if I had to describe this bar, it’s got a real New Orleans style — a real New Orleans feel,” Burch said. “It’s kind of like being in the French Quarter when you’re up here in this bar with the steel balconies and the big French doors.”
The business won’t discriminate against LSU fans, but the bar is in the heart of Vols country after all.
“All of us here, we live, eat and breathe UT sports,” Burch said. “There’s plenty of other bars that have the orange everywhere. The orange will come here. This needs to be a 52 weeks a year sports bar.”
Game audio will be played through speakers for highly anticipated games. Burch said customers will dictate which game this applies to.
All Tennessee games will have audio, but the Vols won’t be on every screen.
“People may want to watch other games when we are crushing some of our opponents,” he said in a text message.
Want to check it out?
The bar, located at 106 S. Central St., is scheduled to open next Thursday. The business will be closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and Burch still is working out the hours.
Those hours likely will revolve around the times games typically are on TV. Between games, customers can play darts or the Golden Tee Golf arcade game.
Burch said customers already are calling him, excited to watch the Thursday night NFL game.
“It’s just one of the nicest bars in the Old City, but it’s been underutilized for a long time,” he said. “Given what’s going on with the COVID and everything, we felt like this is the perfect opportunity to utilize it as a sports bar. So that’s what we’ve been working on here for the last several months.”