The Sports Bra supports women on the flat screen and at the bar

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With 21 beers on tap, everything served at The Sports Bra is either owned, operated, or made by women. Photo by Dorothy Wang

With a modest Kickstarter campaign, bar owner Jenny Nguyen flipped the script on the traditional watering hole dedicated to athletics. She opened The Sports Bra in Portland, Ore. for people to watch women’s sports. There you can order a pint from a female brewer, tune into a women's soccer match, and know that your burger came from a woman-owned ranch.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

KCRW: When did you conceive of the idea to open a sports bar devoted to female athletes and women's sports? How successful was this Kickstarter campaign?

Jenny Nguyen: I think that there is a universal experience among women's sports fans. It's always been this very commonplace feeling of not being able to watch women's sports outside of an arena where you purchased a ticket, or to go see a live game, or outside of social media, or following it on your computer on your phone. My friends and I constantly went out to bars and restaurants to find these games. It was always an inconvenience, anywhere from an inconvenience to impossible. There were times where everybody was there for a big game, and it was a men's sports game. They wouldn't change the channel, because everybody was watching something else. We'd almost always have to ask to have the channel changed. These spaces have been predominantly male, or seemingly made for men, and people can feel underrepresented or not included in the fandom. 

The seed for the sports bra was actually planted in 2018. When my friends and I went to go watch the NCAA women's basketball finals. We roll into the sports bar, and there's probably 32 to 48 TVs in there, from small to large. None of them had the game on. To me, this is the biggest game of the year – I’m a huge basketball fan. We asked if they could change the channel, and they said, “Sure, absolutely.” We all sit down, it's probably a dozen or more of us. And we proceeded to watch what ended up being one of the best games in NCAA history, men's or women's, in my opinion. It was a comeback from behind a last second three pointer to win it. It was marvelous. It was like a magical moment in time. We looked around and no one else was watching this game. Here we were a table of women just losing it over this incredible game. And we were celebrating by ourselves in the space. 

When viewing women’s sports outside of an arena became “anywhere from inconvenience to impossible,” Nguyen decided to open her own bar. Photo by Sara Sorbo.

As we were leaving, we were all hugging, and talking about how great the game was. One of my friends said that it would have been better if the sound had been on. And right then, out of frustration, I basically said, the only way we're ever going to have the opportunity to watch women's sports and its full glory is if we had our own place. The very first name that popped into my mind was The Sports Bra. It made a lot of sense, because to me at the time, all we would do is change the channel. And so all I would do is take a sports bar and switch two letters around, make it the sports bra. And then just a few days later, I thought oh, and the motto could be we support women, which I also think is hilarious. That just became  a running joke between my friends and I – something that we would bring up whenever we were frustrated, because we oftentimes would go out and be like, this game would be on at The Sports Bra. If there was a cheerleading competition that we knew was on, we'd say that it would definitely be on at The Sports Bra.Or, gluten free buns would be at The Sports Bra. Or, the women's restroom would always be filled with toilet paper and clean.

What was it that pushed you to go from just having it be a running joke to actually create this Kickstarter campaign?

What really did it was the pandemic. In 2016, I quit my job as a chef. I didn't really have a plan. I had been a chef cooking and as a chef for about 15 years. It was my career. In 2015 I took a trip to Vietnam with my parents, which kind of changed my worldview. And I knew that I needed to do something different, but I wasn't sure what it was. And so I quit my job with no plan, and I actually was semi unemployed for about five and a half years. I went from unemployed to opening The Sports Bra – I wouldn’t recommend ibut it’s what worked for me. During the pandemic, I'm sure there were millions of people who had the same feeling as me, which was, “What am I doing with my life? How am I going to reorganize my world? How can I make a difference? How can I reprioritize what is most important to me?”

From a quiet Kickstarter campaign to an interview with Eater PDX that spiked donations, The Sports Bar opened to fanfare in Portland. Photo by Dorothy Wang.

Are you working with a lot of female purveyors and distillers?

Yes. At the very beginning, the genesis of the idea was just changing the channel and leaving everything the same. What happened was when I started to write the business plan, I started to break things down into these fine details. It occurred to me that our motto was that we support women. Why don't we try to see if we can just filter everything through that lens? So when it came to writing the menu, or bringing in beer, and wine, I wanted to see how many women we can support. All the beef that we serve is 100% grass-fed beef out of Halawa, OR, and it's from a third-generation rancher. Her name is Corey Carmen. And the beef is top-notch. We have 21 taps, every single thing on the tap menu is owned, operated, or made with women in the brewhouse. For our cocktails, we partnered up with Freeland Spirits, which is a women-owned and operated distillery in Portland. It’s one of only a handful of distilleries in the country that are like that. And we have it right in our backyard. 

I'm so curious about who comes to The Sports Bra? Is it overwhelmingly just women, or men who are like-minded and enjoy watching women's sports?

I would say for the first month, it was a majority of women and hardcore women's sports fans and athletes. But since then, it’s been such a diverse group of people – even people who don't even like sports come here. It was one of the biggest surprises to me opening The Sports Bra. In my business plan, I'd written that I felt like my target demographic were women's sports fans, and that there are lots of them. And that was kind of who I thought was going to come through the doors. What ended up happening after we opened was that The Sports Bra has really resonated with way more people on all different levels than I ever could have imagined. That has brought in an extremely diverse group of people anywhere from like newborns to 95-year olds.

“Oftentimes people can feel underrepresented or not included in the fandom of the space,” says Jenny Nguyen, so she decorates the walls of The Sports Bra with paraphernalia honoring female athletes. Photo by Dorothy Wang.