Wes Burdine hasn’t always been a sports fan. As a teenager and young adult, he never watched games regularly or kept an eye on league statistics. It wasn’t until his mid-20s that soccer started to pique his interest. “I was working at Starbucks and it was the 2006 World Cup, so I would get off my shift and just go watch the World Cup all day,” Burdine says. “I kind of became accidentally obsessed with soccer, and then just started watching it all the time.”
A few years later, Burdine’s obsession with the sport carried over into many professional endeavors. He moved to Minnesota to pursue a doctorate in English literature and started writing annual reviews of the Minnesota Stars, the team known today as Minnesota United FC. Burdine helped launch FiftyFive.One, an online magazine covering soccer-related news and culture, which later became a podcast. Additionally, he formed a group of local soccer supporters and is a co-founder of Minnesota Aurora, the state’s community-owned women’s soccer team.
Upon learning that St. Paul’s Allianz Field would open in 2019, Burdine realized that fans needed a dedicated space to come together. “We don’t really have too many places that don’t give you a hard time when you want to turn one of the TVs to a soccer game,” he says. A resident of St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood himself, he started talking to local business owners about the prospect of creating a soccer bar in the area.
Burdine eventually connected with Holly Monnett, longtime owner of the Town House Bar—St. Paul’s oldest LGBTQ+ bar and a well-known drag show destination. The idea of turning a historic gay establishment into a sports bar was not of interest to Burdine at first. But he later realized that continuing to serve the local queer community while adding elements for soccer fans could make for a one-of-a-kind space.
The Black Hart of St. Paul took over Town House’s long-standing location in 2018, a few thousand yards away from Allianz Field. The neighborhood, queer, and soccer bar offers drag and burlesque shows, trivia, and karaoke, and serves as a home base for all kinds of soccer fans.
We spoke with Burdine in mid-January about maintaining Black Hart’s niche, the 2022 World Cup, soccer’s inherent relationship with building community, and his plans for the upcoming year.
Black Hart occupies such a unique niche. How would you describe its role in the Midway neighborhood and surrounding community?
Whenever I talk to a new employee, or anyone else who wants to understand the basics of Black Hart, it’s that we have three central pillars. This is a queer bar; we have drag shows, we go out of our way to really think about catering to queer events and patrons. We are a neighborhood bar; we’re one of the only real places in Midway to just go walk over and get a drink. And then we have the third part, which is a soccer bar; on Saturday mornings, people wander in at 8:30 a.m. to watch Wolves versus Liverpool, or something else. Before a Minnesota United match, we get together and drink, we go to the game, and then afterwards we come and watch a drag show.
Why is this intersection something you wanted to explore?
One of the factors is that there are quite a few overlaps of the queer community and soccer fans. So, to me, it wasn’t necessarily like mixing oil and water. It was really just kind of recognizing that there’s already this overlap. When I created this Venn diagram of those three pillars, we’re not trying to cater to the queer soccer fans who live in Midway. Instead, we’re trying to create a unique identity that people want to be a part of because it’s something they couldn’t see somewhere else. We want to cater to those people who really just want a space where they can be themselves.
Did you face any challenges or backlash in adding this new soccer element to a historically queer space?
I was fully prepared for a mess of backlash because I’m a straight, cis man, and the idea of a straight, cis man buying the oldest gay bar in St. Paul and adding sports to it—there’s nothing about it that feels comfortable for anyone. Before I even purchased the bar, my job for six months to a year was coming every other night and drinking with regulars. Just chatting with them and really listening to what’s essential about the bar and what can’t change. It was about getting people to feel comfortable with who this person is, that I was not a faceless person to be afraid of, but someone you can ask questions to.
After getting their input, what does the reimagined space look like now?
It took me a while to really settle on what the concept of a queer soccer bar would entail. One of the easy parts about combining all of these things is that most of our programming, like a Minnesota United game or a drag show, often doesn’t overlap. I’m very sensitive to events when people are there for very different reasons. If you’re there for a dance party or a drag show, you don’t want people cheering for a soccer game at the same time, so I’m hyper aware of that.
The recent World Cup took place near the end of 2022. Can you set the scene of what a typical game day looked like at Black Hart?
There were eight days in a row of 4 a.m. games, and I think we were the only place open for all of them. I thought we were going to have three people watching the games, and maybe a few random people on University Avenue who walk in. But one Sunday morning, we had 35 people there for Japan versus Costa Rica. One of Costa Rica’s defenders is the former captain of Minnesota United, who a lot of fans really hate, so it was basically 35 people who just wanted to wake up and have fun yelling and praying that he would get a red card, and that was such a blast. We would have days where we had to turn people away because we were at capacity. It was a whirlwind month that I’m not sure if I’m fully recovered from, but it was great.
Some of your professional pursuits, like Black Hart and your involvement with Minnesota Aurora, seem similar in the fact that they’re community-oriented and dedicated to uplifting marginalized groups. Would you say that has been your mission over the years?
I never wanted to just work a job. Being in academia, mopping floors, resetting registers, scheduling drag shows, and designing marketing for a soccer team are all fundamentally different, but they’re all pursuits that have a real, solid ethical grounding in thinking about community and about bringing people together to celebrate differences. So, I don’t know if it’s a mission, but it is a principle of how I view the world.
How does soccer lend itself to upholding that principle?
The game itself is 90 minutes of audience participation and pageantry. It’s about people coming together and not just passively taking in entertainment, but also creating the environment with banner displays and songs. It’s about culture being created together. We harness that passion and obsession to build community outside of it. How do we create soccer that benefits our neighborhood? How do we create soccer that benefits the East African community, who also loves soccer? How do we make this about more than just the game? That’s really baked into a lot of soccer culture in America, making it not just about the sport but about creating something fun, dynamic, and communal.
What’s next for Black Hart?
The major change is we’re expanding to build a patio next to the bar. We’ve had an empty grass lot next to us for over a decade, and it’s been the goal of my last four years to purchase it and build a patio there. We finally purchased it in the fall of 2022, and we’re hoping to open the patio this spring. The great part about that is it lets us massively expand our game day experience. But I also really hope that we create Midway’s patio, a little oasis on University Avenue where people can come sit outside after work on a Thursday in June and just relax with their friends.