In 2018, Allianz Field was being built in St. Paul. The soccer-specific stadium would be home to Minnesota United FC – but there were no sports bars in the Midway neighborhood for fans to gather.
Wes Burdine was a longtime writer and editor for local soccer publications. He was born in Texas, grew up in Pennsylvania, but stayed in the Twin Cities since earning a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota.
Though he came to soccer late – he considered himself a musician and writer, not an athlete – he had fallen deeply in love with the sport. “I spent years waking up every Saturday morning and going to a bar, to watch Tottenham lose.”
He had worked in restaurants and coffee shops for years. He knew the area. He knew the MLS team would need a sports bar in his new home.
Burdine knew nothing about opening one, however. He did not have a business plan, or even know how to create one. Nor did he have any money to invest.
None of that stopped him.
He approached existing bar owners in the area, and asked what it would take to buy them out. No one wanted to sell.
There was one owner he had not even asked. The Town House was just 1,000 feet from Allianz Field. But it was a gay bar, with very popular bingo, karaoke, dance parties and drag shows. Burdine figured he’d be “tarred and feathered” by the LGBTQ community if he bought it for sports.
As a Hail Mary, he spoke to the owner. He loved the idea. Together, they talked about how a gay bar and sports bar could co-exist.
Burdine found six investors. After the deal was done, he showed up regularly, to drink with patrons.
“I was a straight white cis man, buying the oldest gay bar in St. Paul,” he says. “It was very trans and lesbian friendly. I let them ask questions.” Gradually, he earned their trust.
The Black Hart – its new name – kept its queer traditions. Kickoff for the opening match at Allianz Field was 7:30 p.m. At 9:30, Minnesota United fans were still drinking there. Others were just arriving, from the nearby stadium.
That was the same time the drag show always began.
Burdine had no idea how soccer fans would react – or how the bar’s queer customers would respond to the soccer crowd.
The night went great. Soccer fans “climbed over themselves” to see the show, and applaud. The regulars welcomed United’s supporters. Burdine’s dream – to offer a place where soccer could bring a community together, “celebrating something different and being part of emerging change” – became a reality.
It helped that Dark Clouds – United’s primary supporters group – are “funny, self-deprecating and joyful,” Burdine says. “They’ve developed a unique culture. Lots of (soccer) places are all about macho culture. There’s something celebratory about Minnesota soccer that lets us do this.”
Twin cultures co-exist at the Twin Cities bar. Black Hart displays religious-like figures of local soccer icons like Buzz Lagos, and national ones like the late journalist Grant Wahl (despite his famously incorrect prediction Minnesota United would be the worst team in MLS history).
Alongside them are icons of the bar’s favorite drag queens.
Black Hart walls are “not just soccer scarves or photos of White Hart Lane,” Burdine says, in a nod to his favorite side, Tottenham Hotspur.
Wes Burdine with Minnesota Aurora co-founders Elisa Vicuña and Andréa Carroll-Franck, and Megan Rapinoe, who's depicted on the mural on the side wall of The Black Hart of Saint Paul.
But the soccer/gay bar is not his only sports venture. Burdine also sits on the board of Minnesota Aurora, a women-led, community-owned USL W League team.
Aurora is “dedicated to the dismantling of racism, misogyny and bigotry of all kinds (and) to using soccer to bring together communities and lift up women and girls from marginalized communities.”
The concept appeals to his belief that soccer is for everyone. “The NWSL markets itself to dads with daughters,” Burdine says. “I get that. But what about a 28-year-old without kids? Or a lesbian couple in their 50s who just want to support women’s soccer?”
He helped put together a management team of women, then helped raise $1 million from 3,080 people. “They’re not millionaires,” he notes. “Just community owners of a soccer team.”
Led by an all-female coaching staff, Aurora draws up to 6,000 at their stadium in Eagan (the same facility used for practice by the Minnesota Vikings). Their merchandise sales would put them in the top third of NWSL teams, Burdine says.
“There is amazing power in soccer. But a community must see it as a collection of passions, as opposed to a business.
“Business is fine,” he clarifies. “It pays the bills, and people need health insurance. But soccer can also create new spaces for people to thrive. There can be a melting pot of players and fans – a place where trans people lead chants!”
Top photo: Wes Burdine brought Minnesota Aurora's colors to the 2022 NWSL final in Washington, D.C., via @MnNiceFC.