The new sports bar experience -- TV has turned the taproom into an entertainment center where fun and games draw a full house

Sports bars and restaurants are everywhere — and standing-room-only.

Everyone’s used to going to the local multiplex to see the latest movies and packing into a music club to hear a favorite band. But heading to a bar to watch NCAA tournament basketball games on a dozen big-screen televisions? That’s something different. The old corner tavern may be doing a slow fade, but the explosion of television sports programming has helped to make sports bars an entertainment phenomenon.

There is no official tabulation, but bars and restaurants with sports themes number about 300 nationwide, with estimated annual sales in the $200 million range, says Michael Bartlett, editor in chief of Restaurants & Institutions, a trade publication.

”The idea is not new,” Bartlett says. ”It goes back to the ’20s and ’30s and guys who started their own places, like Jack Dempsey.”

But places like Dempsey’s didn’t have satellite dishes, 17 TV screens, or basketball free-throw games.

On New York’s East Side, Rascals was a popular restaurant for years. ”We had the hot spot in the city for the singles crowd, but the restaurant had pretty much run its course,” Tom Nally, one of the partners, says.

So in 1988, Nally and partners George ”Blue” Stephanos and Lou Valicenti spent $1 million to renovate Rascals into TKO’s, a sports bar and restaurant. ”We’re all big sports fans, so we decided to take a chance, and it’s paying off.” The proof: On any given night, men and women shoot hoops, shoot pool, shoot the social breeze — and watch sports on the sports bar’s many televisions.

Most sports joints provide your basic bar things: drinks, food, TV, and assorted contests and games. What sets them apart are the decor, the games (from batting cages to shuffleboards to mini-bowling alleys), and the size and number of television screens.

At the Scoreboard in Charlotte, N.C., the exterior is a replica of a stadium facade. At Max’s in Glendale, Ariz., more than 900 pro, college, and high school football helmets are on display.

At Bathtub Billy’s in Rochester, N.Y., it’s miles to the nearest major-league sports stadium, but that doesn’t matter. Maybe that’s the reason it’s usually jammed, especially in March, when college basketball games are beamed in some days from noon to midnight.

”It’s unbelievable how college basketball packs people in,” co-owner Joe Giordano says. ”We’ve got fans rooting hard for teams from all over.”

Ditto for the fans at Ricky’s in San Leandro, Calif.; Schmiezing’s in St. Louis; Yankee Doodles in Long Beach, Calif., and Duffy’s Draft House in Lake Park, Fla.

Joining that roster are bars and restaurants identified with big-name athletes, retired and active. Baseball names include Rusty Staub (Rusty’s in New York), Mickey Mantle (Mickey Mantle’s in New York), and George Brett (P.J. Brett’s in Hermosa Beach, Calif.). The football roster includes Ken Kremer (Fuzzy’s in Kansas City, Mo.) and Rick Walker (Rick Walker’s Scoreboard in Fairfax and Herndon, Va.). One of the most successful is Mike Ditka, coach of the Chicago Bears, who has three Chicago-area restaurants and his own 16-page licensed sportswear catalog. The Ontario Street restaurant grossed more than $9 million in 1989.

But the biggest name in the business these days doesn’t belong to a person. It’s a franchise: Champions. Michael O’Harro and Jim Desmond founded the original Champions bar seven years ago in the Georgetown section of Washington. There are now 13 nationwide — 10 in Marriott hotels — with three more under construction.

Champions is very promotion-minded. The Tampa, Fla., Marriott has booked alumni groups from Duke, North Carolina, and Georgia Tech to watch their schools’ NCAA tournament games in the bar.

If the establishments don’t promote themselves, beer companies will be happy to fill in the hype gap. The Coors Light World Series of Bar Games may be the biggest of these promotions. More than 10,000 men and women from all over the country are expected to test their skills at pool, electronic darts, basketball, and video bowling at about 1,000 bars in March and April. The national finals are scheduled for July at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas.

It’s way beyond a beer and a burger. But then, as the stories on these pages indicate, so are most sports bars.