It has to be sold, all of it, the Slap Shot Cage and the Power Pitcher Cage and the other primal cages that men gathered in to swing things at other things. The Nacho Cheese Dispenser must go, and the Keg Shelf, Kegerator, and the assortment of non-keg-related products that for a decade made the ESPN Zone a manly place, in the early 2000s version of manly.
The ESPN Zone in downtown Washington shuttered its doors in June 2010, along with restaurants in four other cities, a final shrinking that brought the once nine-store chain down to two. A year and a half later, they are auctioning off the stuff.
And what is the stuff of the American Man?
It’s all there for public consumption, on Rasmus.com, a local online auction site that specializes in selling pieces of Washington, when Washington goes bust. Rasmus Auctioneers does ultrasound machines, industrial refrigerators, designer office furniture. They are doing ESPN Zone. Behold the four air hockey tables. Behold the electronic scoreboard. Behold the 72 arcade games. The auction will run until Nov. 16. As of Thursday, the most expensive item was a foosball table going for $350; games and french fry fryers could be purchased for pennies.
“I see a lot of good things here,” says Mike Yost, who runs Man-Cave.org, to which men submit pictures of their personal lairs to be critiqued and voted on. Yost has just been telephoned and asked to comment on the quality of the available merchandise. “There are two tap systems,” Yost points out — one dispensing four kinds of beer and one dispensing six. “Those would be awesome. Guys do like to have a variety of beers.” He also appreciates the tall pub tables, going for a song. “People in man caves,” he explains, “like to sit high.”
Wasn’t ESPN Zone the ultimate man cave, for a full decade since the first one opened in 1998? The place of sports and whooping and crunchy crispies crushed underfoot? (Women came, too, we know, we know, talking stats and wearing caps with the best of them.) At one point, the chain’s largest claim to fame was its Ultimate Couch Potato Championships, a tournament that could only be won by malingering in a Barcalounger. Jeff Miller, a Chicago Web developer, was the thrice and final champion, numb-butting it for more than 70 hours in his final coup de grace. When reached by phone, he says: “The chairs are really comfortable. They have cup holders in the armrest.” Alas, none appear in this auction.
When ESPN, and owner Disney, announced the restaurants’ closing last year, the economy was to blame, sunken and changed as it was. But masculinity had changed, too. On television the lunky “King of Queens” gave way to “Modern Family’s” gooey, densitive Phil. Outside of the G4/Spike safety zones, men got gushier. Fashionabler. Even the fundamentalist Mormon dude-dad on “Sister Wives” affectionately proclaims himself “a metrosexual.” Earlier this fall, HGTV ran a special called “Mom Caves,” in which women efficiently stamped out any whiff of their husbands’ testosterone with a strong spritz of Glade and a sponge-stamped decorative pillow.
It’s not that the end of ESPN Zone represents the end of masculinity, but maybe it represents, in some small way, the end of a public version of it. Gone is the pilgrimage to the place of the dimly lit Zone Queso Chips. Gone is the location for the tired dads on the Mall to pause at, to say, “Go see the ruby slippers without me. I’m going to stay here.” Now it can only exist in dens, garages and basements around the country, where people can perch at their pub tables, which are currently being bid on for less than $15.
*A previous version of this story said Jeff Miller could not be reached for comment.