Stephen Brocks says Empire Bar knows what it means to be a "soccer bar."
When the World Cup is on, it’s playing on every TV in the bar, with the sound up. Scores of fans — oftentimes, from the countries playing — crowd the floor to watch.
Between goals, the fans banter, yell at the referees and share beer. And when a goal is scored, the floor erupts.
Brocks, who moved to the United States from Portsmouth, England to play soccer in college, was one of several fans who went to the bar on Dec. 9 to watch his country’s national team play France in the World Cup. England lost, 2-1, but he still shared in the excitement when Harry Kane scored on a penalty kick.
Brocks said the bar in Tulsa’s Cherry Street neighborhood not only serves as a great place to watch soccer — it’s also a place he can meet other English Tulsans.
“It sounds silly, right, to say, ‘All English people know each other,’ but we all do kind of know each other around town, right? You play football with each other, we went to college with each other, so in there, you meet the other people who are in there for other reasons, other than school or sports,” he said.
Over the last 12 years, Empire has established itself as arguably Tulsa’s most prominent soccer — or, as the rest of the world calls it, football — bar. It’s drawn fans from Europe, Africa, New Zealand, South and Central America.
The bar gains the most exposure during the World Cup, but their support for soccer is year-round, every year — something manager Larissa Darnaby says isn’t changing anytime soon.
“We definitely just want to support the culture and support the teams, and continue to be that destination spot for people who live here and don’t live here alike,” Darnaby said.
‘They would refuse to have any other sport play’
Empire Bar opened in the mid-1990s. It’s in a gray stone building on Peoria Avenue just south of 15th Street.
The bar’s soccer theme began in 1997, when regulars Jimmy Mills and Dennis Donnelly consistently made the bartenders play the sport on what was at the time the only TV in the bar. The late Mills and Donnelly now have their photos on the wall behind the bar.
“They would refuse to have any other sport play,” said Darnaby, who said the pair also played soccer in a local league.
Darnaby also believes the bar’s European influence lent itself to eventually becoming a soccer bar — she says they were the first in Tulsa to serve Guinness on draft.
Empire has been a soccer bar for decades, but its reputation and popularity took off during the 2010 World Cup with the help of social media, Darnaby said.
Today, the bar is adorned with soccer jerseys, team scarves and flags hanging from the ceiling, an inflatable soccer ball and European beer signs. The flags of the countries competing in the World Cup fly from the facade during the tournament.
And when the World Cup is on, it shares similarities with neighborhood pubs in England, Brocks said.
“Pubs are closer to their neighborhoods, so people have locals where they’ll go two or three times a week to watch football in general. So then when the World Cup comes around, everyone goes to someone’s local to watch the football, right? And then it becomes more packed, because more people are in there,” he said. “This is similar, in a sense, that Empire during the week for regular premier league games doesn’t have a ton of people but when the World Cup comes on, everyone comes out to watch it.”
‘It’s like time didn’t lapse at all’
The bar has been a soccer destination for years, but Darnaby says Empire’s reputation has risen to a new level during the 2022 World Cup.
The U.S. team’s presence in the tournament has driven up attendance, Darnaby said. She also said the fact that the tournament is held during a different time of year than it usually is could have also helped.
The bar’s popularity for watching soccer was especially obvious Nov. 26, when the U.S. played England. During that match, fans were packed out onto the patio, where the bar had set up a TV for viewing.
“It was shoulder to shoulder. There are some videos out there. It was crazy. It was electric for sure,” said Darnaby.
The bar also made shirts with Queen Elizabeth II and Betty White going head to head for the event.
Darnaby looks forward to continuing Empire’s legacy as a soccer bar for years to come. She said regulars who had small children are now bringing them to the matches, where they sit and watch with their parents on the patio.
And during the World Cup, the bar will bring people together who hadn’t seen each other in four years.
“It’s like time didn’t lapse at all. Nothing’s changed,” Darnaby said. “You still have this jovial spirit in people, and it’s great.”