At first glance, Sports Bra may seem like a typical neighborhood sports bar, but guests will soon notice that its posters and televisions exclusively feature women's sports and realize it's anything but your average watering hole playing live games.
That's exactly what the pub’s owner, Jenny Nguyen, intended.
“Ultimately, my mission is to expose as many people as possible to women’s sports, give people access,” Nguyen, 42, told NBC News.
The bar, which opened in Portland, Oregon, just last month, has already become a popular haunt for women and the LGBTQ community, especially since the city has lost all of its lesbian bars, a trend that has grown across the United States over the last several decades. There are only about 20 lesbian bars left in the country, compared to about 200 that existed in the 1980s.
But Nguyen, who is gay, stresses that the bar is welcoming of everyone. While a majority of its patrons are women, she said, the Sports Bra is an inclusive space that also attracts a large number of families and even quite a few men — many of whom, according to her, say they prefer watching women’s sports because female athletes “give 110 percent all the time.”
Nguyen, a Portland native and avid women’s basketball fan, opened the Sports Bra near the corner of Northeast Broadway and 25th Avenue to jampacked crowds April 1, the launch of the NCAA women’s Final Four basketball tournament, and has kept busy since. On any given day, patrons might catch a game of college softball, volleyball or soccer. But the bar features plenty of other women’s sports including football, tennis, golf, swimming and even those not typically seen in sports bars, such as gymnastics, cheerleading and ultimate frisbee.
“Basically, whatever we can get our hands on, we will play it,” Nguyen said.
Aside from its exclusive focus on women’s sports, the bar has some other feminist features. Its 21 taps all come from local women-led breweries and cideries, and its outdoor picnic tables were made by Girls Build, a local nonprofit that teaches girls construction skills. Then there’s the drink menu, featuring signature cocktails such as Title IX and the Triple Axel, named after former U.S. figure skater Tonya Harding, a Portlander. The food menu includes various vegan and vegetarian options containing ingredients from women-owned businesses. It also features some Vietnamese family dishes from Nguyen, whose parents immigrated from Vietnam.
The idea for the Sports Bra was born out of a crucial need for spaces to watch women’s sports, Nguyen said. She added that she first thought of the concept while watching the 2018 NCAA Division 1 women’s basketball final in a local pub with friends on a single, muted small screen, which a server put on at their request. As Notre Dame narrowly defeated Mississippi State, winning by 3 points in the final two seconds, she and her friends “went nuts,” Nguyen recalled. But she also realized no one else in the bar was paying attention.
“The only way we’re ever going to watch a women’s game 100 percent is if we had our own place,” she remembered thinking at the time. She said she even came up with the name — the Sports Bra — a “funny” pun that captured the bar’s mission.
She added, “The idea just lived in my brain and in my heart, and I couldn’t get rid of it."
But the Sports Bra remained just an idea, she said, until 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic swept through Portland, and Nguyen, an executive chef at the time, lost her job. With encouragement from her girlfriend, Liz, she said she decided to go for it.
“The more we talked about it, the more it kind of unraveled,” she said.
But Nguyen did not have enough money to open the bar. She went to multiple banks and lenders in search of a loan, she said. While many seemed “really jazzed” about the idea, she said, they told her that loaning her money to open a bar during the pandemic was too risky.
“I basically got denied by every single one,” she said.
Undeterred, Nguyen launched a Kickstarter campaign to open the country’s first sports bar that would only play women’s sports. The campaign was quickly shared and eventually picked up by the media, she said, generating more than $105,000 in donations in under a month.
“Oh, man, I mean, it blew me away,” Nguyen recalled of the donations, which, combined with her personal savings, were enough to open the Sports Bra. “I was literally floored.”
She said the fact that so many strangers were willing to donate to the bar demonstrated just how much people wanted a space where they could watch women’s sports.
“They crave a space to feel represented and a sense of belonging,” she said. “And even in our first month of being open, we’ve had people come in here and cry.”
But with one dilemma solved, she soon faced another: With major sports networks rarely featuring women’s sports, how was the Sports Bra going to show them? She discovered that there were plenty of women’s sports on streaming services, she said, but that most did not have commercial use in their terms.
So, Nguyen reached out to numerous women’s sports leagues and streaming networks to get permission to play their content in her bar, forming various agreements, including with the Portland Thorns FC; Just Women’s Sports, a national sports media company; ESPN3, an on-demand sports channel; the Oregon Ravens, a Women’s National Football Conference team; and ATA Football, a service that provides live and on-demand streaming of women’s football.
She wanted to make sure she was “doing things by the book,” she said, while also amplifying the bar’s mission to prove there is an audience for women’s sports.
That mission has paid off, with women’s sports aficionados filling the small space on a regular basis to grab a drink and enjoy a game with family or friends.
“People cry, and people hug me, and they say they’ve been waiting their whole life for a place like this,” Nguyen said.
Another important mission, she said, is for children to see that women’s sports are valued. For that reason, Nguyen has made the Sports Bra, which allows minors until 10 p.m., a family-friendly pub where people can bring their kids to watch the games.
“Seeing little girls come in and just stare at the TV, or like, point and be like, ‘Mom, she’s playing basketball,’ you know, those little ones really catch me off guard,” she said. “There’s barely a day where I don’t tear up.”
Nguyen said she hopes to expand the business and possibly even turn it into a franchise. But she said she doesn’t mind if other bar owners mimic the idea.
“I don’t want to monopolize it,” she said. “I want it to be the jumping-off point for folks. Or, if regular sports bars changed one TV, I mean, that would be a win.”