Businesses benefit from ESPN's star power

Southington (AP) - You have to have won a championship to get a signed ball on the shelf above the bar at Cava Restaurant on West Street. If every sports star who visited left signed memorabilia, owner Stavros Papahristou said, the restaurant would be full.

It's no surprise ESPN celebrities are commonly sighted at Cava. The restaurant, about a quarter of a mile south of ESPN's campus on the Bristol-Southington line, was built to resemble the big-city restaurants to which visiting sports figures are accustomed.

But it's not only Cava that benefits from ESPN's employees, commentators, analysts and guests. Other Southington restaurants and hotels along with Mickey Blake's Cigars and Golf see their share of sports figures.

The cigar lounge on Spring Street is the only one of its kind outside the major cities, according to tobacconist John Ryan. It draws a number of ESPN personalities such as hockey analyst Barry Melrose, former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi and golf commentator Ahmad Rashad, but it's Mike Ditka who's the regular.

The former Chicago Bears coach has a locker at the lounge and during football season is there "almost every weekend," Ryan said. Ditka's so much a regular that other customers have gotten used to him being there and don't crowd him.

Last month, Mickey Blake's hosted Ditka to celebrate his new cigar line, Camacho Throwback Edition. He signed boxes of cigars that sit in Mickey Blake's walk-in humidor.

"The man's a walking brand," Ryan said.

Great Spirits, a liquor store next to Mickey Blake's, advertises Ditka's wine in its window and participated in the promotion last month.

"He'll sign a box of cigars and if you buy a box of cigars, he'll sign a bottle of wine too," said Nancy Berggren, Great Spirits manager. "You're going to get the wine and the cigars if you're a fan of Ditka."

Spring Street's easy access to the highway and its proximity to ESPN led the owners to start the business in Southington, Ryan said.

Mickey Blake's has established a reputation among ESPN commentators and visitors since sports and cigars tend to go together. The smoke and golf shop opened three years ago.

"Word is definitely getting out," Ryan said. "We get a number of people swinging by to check us out."

Of ESPN's 4,000 Connecticut employees, about 200 live in Southington, according to spokesman Mike Soltys, himself a town resident. While the ESPN campus has a cafeteria, local restaurants such as Buffalo Wild Wings and Moe's on Queen Street benefit from the sports network's employees.

"People make jokes that Moe's at lunch time looks like ESPN's cafeteria," Soltys said.

Even with two Starbucks on the campus, ESPN employees still visit coffee shops around town, according to Soltys.

In addition to the employees, ESPN hosts about 15,000 visitors a year. They stay at area hotels and eat at area restaurants, according to Soltys.

Art Secondo, Southington Chamber of Commerce president, said it's mostly Cava that benefits from the sports stars at ESPN. Usually, guests at the Bristol campus don't come to Southington's downtown despite a number of restaurants.

"(Cava) is the kind of place these overpaid guys like," Secondo said. "It's like the places they're used to in the big cities."

One of the footballs on the Cava shelf is signed by Justin Tuck, who came into the restaurant two years ago to celebrate his wife's birthday.

Papahristou said his restaurant is a quiet place to have dinner or a drink after a show at ESPN. There's little fine dining in the immediate area so he gets the bulk of ESPN's guests. He spent $2 million on the restaurant.

"I can't even remember the names, there have been so many," Papahristou said. "All the commentators at ESPN, after the show they come here to dinner."

"They come in and say, 'It looks like a place on the New York harbor,' " he said.

Interviews with national media are sometimes held at Cava.

Sports analyst Jalen Rose had an interview with Yankees magazine at the restaurant, Papahristou said.

In the six years he's been open, Papahristou has gotten to know a number of sports celebrities rather well.

Different sports stars and commentators visit at different times of the year, and Papahristou knows some well enough that they'll call each other in the off-season. He's got a collection of photographs with well-known sports figures he's taken at the restaurant.

"You build up a relationship," he said. "Tedy Bruschi comes in and he talks about his kids.

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