Introducing the all-women’s sports bar

Jenny Nguyen opened the Sports Bra, an all-women's sports bar, in Portland in XXX. (Photo courtesy of Jenny Nguyen)

Jenny Nguyen opened the Sports Bra, an all-women’s sports bar, in Portland in 2022. (Photo by Dorothy Wang courtesy of the Sports Bra)

Jenny Nguyen recalls feeling like an outsider when she walked into a Portland sports bar six years ago.

She had to ask a bartender to put on the NCAA women’s basketball title game because not one TV was showing it.

Holed up in a corner of the bar watching the game on a tiny screen with the volume off, Nguyen and her friends leaped out of their seats and screamed when Notre Dame won on a last-second 3-pointer. They were met with quizzical stares and confusion from fellow customers oblivious to the dramatic finish.

On their way home, a frustrated Nguyen vented to her friends, “The only way we’re ever going to get to watch a women’s game in its full glory at a sports bar is if we open one ourselves.” They even came up with the name “The Sports Bra” for their make-believe bar. The cheeky double-entendre slogan? “We support women.”

“It became a running joke,” Nguyen told Yahoo Sports. “Anytime we became disgruntled with our sports bar experience, we’d be like, ‘Oh, this would never happen at The Sports Bra.’”

What began as wishful thinking is now a brick-and-mortar monument to the fight for gender equality across sports. Nguyen emptied her life savings in April 2022 to open what she believes is the world’s first bar that shows exclusively women’s sports.

Nguyen wasn’t certain The Sports Bra would stay afloat more than a few months, but the cozy 45-seat Portland bar has tapped into the surging popularity of women’s sports and become a destination for fans who previously felt marginalized. There’s often a line out the door to get into a women’s sports oasis plastered with jerseys and memorabilia from well-known female athletes and featuring signature cocktails with names like “The GOAT” and “Title IX.”

Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi are among The Sports Bra’s many famous visitors. The bar has even become the answer to a Jeopardy! question and a New York Times Crossword clue.

The startling success of the Sports Bra has inspired other entrepreneurs to try to fill the same hole in the marketplace. Bars dedicated primarily to women’s sports have opened in the past two years in Seattle, Minneapolis, Toronto and London. More are on the way in Denver, New York City and Long Beach, Calif.

In late April, Nguyen announced a partnership with investor Alexis Ohanian, Serena Williams’ husband and the co-founder of Reddit. Nguyen and Ohanian intend to take The Sports Bra nationwide by franchising in major cities across the country.

The outlook for these bars is bolstered by the soaring attendance and viewership numbers for women’s sports over the past two years. The 2023 Women’s World Cup was the most attended in history. More than 90,000 fans packed Nebraska’s football stadium for a volleyball match last fall. Caitlin Clark helped smash numerous TV viewership records during her senior year at Iowa and she is expected to do the same as a rookie with the WNBA’s Indiana Fever.

Is there enough interest to support bars dedicated exclusively to women’s sports? Is this a trend with staying power? That’s the gamble that Nguyen and others are taking.

Says Jillian Hiscock, owner of the newly opened “A Bar of Their Own” in Minneapolis, “More people are realizing this is a market that has been completely untapped and underprioritized.”

The Sports Bra is a 45-seat establishment that has drawn the attention of Alexis Ohanian, who has partnered with Jenny Nguyen. (Shannon Dupre/Courtesy of the Sports Bra)The Sports Bra is a 45-seat establishment that has drawn the attention of Alexis Ohanian, who has partnered with Jenny Nguyen. (Shannon Dupre/Courtesy of the Sports Bra)

The Sports Bra is a 45-seat establishment that has drawn the attention of Alexis Ohanian, who has partnered with Jenny Nguyen. (Shannon Dupre/Courtesy of the Sports Bra)

The Sports Bra’s evolution from running joke to reality began during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nguyen, a restaurant industry veteran and former executive chef at Reed College, was out of work and searching for a way to make a meaningful impact in the Portland community.

“You know how you always joke about The Sports Bra?” the woman who Nguyen was dating at the time asked. “Why don’t you do that?”

At first, Nguyen laughed and said, “Get out of here with that!” The Sports Bra, after all, was just a far-fetched fantasy to Nguyen at that time.

Then Nguyen considered how she and her diverse friend group rarely felt welcome at traditional sports bars and how women’s sports fans lacked a place of their own to watch their favorite athletes and teams. Pretty soon, Nguyen found herself conceiving of a menu and a drink list and scouring Portland for a potential location to lease.

About the same time that Nguyen began putting together a business plan to open the Sports Bra, a Seattle woman found inspiration to create something similar 200 miles to the north.

For Jen Barnes, the catalyst was the struggle to find a Seattle soccer bar that was willing to show the hometown Reign FC’s 2021 NWSL semifinal match. She recalls calling place after place that had either never heard of the Reign or would not devote even one TV to women’s soccer on an NFL Sunday.

“I just kept getting more and more frustrated and astonished and appalled that this is where things were at in 2021,” Barnes said.

When she ranted to her partner Joe, he said, “Well, why don’t you do something about it? Open a place that shows women’s sports.”

“It was very much a lightbulb moment,” said Barnes, who had a background in hospitality and corporate management.

Securing funding was challenging for both Nguyen and Barnes because their concept was so unproven. They had no women’s sports bar prototype to show potential investors, no previous success story to present to banks when applying for loans.

Undaunted by a flurry of rejections from traditional lenders, Nguyen scraped together what little money she had and plowed ahead. She launched a Kickstarter campaign seeking $49,000 to put toward securing a lease and covering four months of salaries and expenses.

At first, donations trickled in slowly — $25 here from a former coworker, $50 there from a longtime friend. Then Eater did a quick five-paragraph story introducing The Sports Bra as a groundbreaking new place for Portlanders to watch women’s sports.

Nguyen didn’t even know the piece had been published when she received a text from her mom asking her if she had checked her Kickstarter that day. So many people had given money that day that the slope of the line graph displaying her donation rate was near-vertical.

“It was at that moment, when I looked at that graph going straight up and down, that I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, maybe this can work!”

Soon emails were flowing into Nguyen’s inbox from all over the world and local and national media were at her doorstep. By 11 a.m. on opening day, dozens of women lined up at the door to sip craft beer, to sample Vietnamese-style chicken wings and baby back ribs and to watch NCAA softball or LPGA golf on the bar’s five main screens.

Eight months later, on December 9, 2022, the opening-day scene at Barnes’ Rough and Tumble pub in Seattle was even more enthusiastic. There was a five-hour wait to get into the spacious 18-screen, 250-seat women’s sports haven that originated as a 1920s-era sawmill.

Rough and Tumble and The Sports Bra have similar origin stories, but there is a key difference between the two bars.

While Barnes markets Rough and Tumble as “Seattle’s home for women’s sports,” she will also accommodate people who want to watch men’s games. Seahawks fans — especially female Seahawks fans — pour into Rough and Tumble on NFL Sundays. The pub was so packed for the Super Bowl this past February that it turned away dozens of customers.

It’s very different at The Sports Bra, where they wouldn’t show men’s sports even if the Trail Blazers made the NBA Finals. Nguyen said that the longest men’s sports have played at her bar was during NBA All-Star weekend when they were waiting for the Steph-versus-Sabrina shooting competition to begin.

“People started to get a little disgruntled,” Nguyen said with a laugh, “but I told them that as soon as we changed the channel, it was bound to come on.”

Either way, primarily women’s sports or exclusively women’s sports, both bars have carved out a niche in their respective markets. Nguyen said The Sports Bra did nearly $1 million in sales in its first eight months open. Barnes said Rough and Tumble has done more than $3 million in sales in a year and a half and more than $250,000 in sales in March 2024 alone.

“There are regular old Wednesdays when there isn’t a particularly big game on but the place will be full of people who have a place that they love to go,” Barnes said. “That consistent patronage is probably the best proof of concept.”

(Courtesy of Jen Barnes)(Courtesy of Jen Barnes)

Rough and Tumble opened in Seattle in 2022. (Courtesy of Jen Barnes)

The success of The Sports Bra and Rough and Tumble has emboldened women’s sports fans in other markets to attempt something similar. Nguyen in many ways has become the movement’s pied piper, sharing her story and patiently answering questions from other would-be bar owners.

Reading an article about the Sports Bra was Jillian Hiscock’s inspiration to open “A Bar of Their Own” in Minneapolis earlier this year. Hiscock instantly identified with Nguyen’s story, having felt marginalized over and over when attempting to get Minneapolis sports bars to show University of Minnesota softball games.

“Um, I’m not sure we can find it,” bartenders would tell Hiscock.

“Yes, you can,” she’d fire back. “You have ESPN2.”

When Hiscock first learned about The Sports Bra, she merely hoped that someone would open a similar bar in the Minneapolis area. By last spring, Hiscock contacted Nguyen and asked her to talk Hiscock out of doing it herself.

“Minneapolis is a perfect market for this,” Nguyen told her. “You should absolutely do this.”

That was the push Hiscock needed to open her own bar showing nothing but women’s sports. She stopped taking clients at her consulting firm in May 2023 and started working full-time on a business plan. Buoyed by a crowdfunding campaign that raised more than $200,000, “A Bar of Their Own” opened March 1 to lines around the block.

NBA fans occasionally come in and ask to watch the Timberwolves, but even at the height of the playoffs, Hiscock always says no. She directs those customers to one of the 31 traditional sports bars within a five mile radius.

“I think it’s a slippery slope,” Hiscock said. “Somebody comes in and wants to watch the Twins game. And then somebody comes in and wants to watch a Brewers game. And then somebody comes in and wants to watch the Timberwolves playoff game. Pretty soon we have men’s sports on all our TVs. So I think it’s just easier for us to manage this way and quite frankly this is the hill we wanted to die on.”

Jackie Diener originally had the idea in her mid-20s to open an elevated sports bar where women could feel comfortable, but insufficient money led her to put the plan on hold. Only after she learned about The Sports Bra did Diener find the courage to reach out to Nguyen for advice and revive an updated version of that dormant dream.

“Watch Me Sports Bar” is tentatively scheduled to open later this year in Long Beach, Calif. — maybe even in time for the start of the Summer Olympics. Diener and her wife Emme are digging into their own savings while also raising money through crowdfunding and by holding pop-up events in partnership with the LA Sparks and Angel City FC.

Asked what ratio of women’s to men’s sports she intends to show, Diener said she intends for “Watch Me” to be dedicated primarily to women’s sports yet also to cater to their customers if the Lakers are in the NBA playoffs or the Dodgers make the World Series.

“Right now if you go into most sports bars, it’s probably 95% men’s sports and 5% women,” Diener said. “Our theory and concept is to just flip that.”

The rise of bars catering to women’s sports fans is “long overdue,” said Colleen Bee, sports business professor at Oregon State. The way Bee sees it, the surge in interest in women’s sports will have staying power if networks devote more premium airtime to them and the media as a whole covers them more thoroughly and more seriously.

“Networks have been hesitant because they need eyeballs and they don’t think women’s sports can deliver them,” Bee said, “but they haven’t really given women’s sports a chance to show they can be profitable. The more we expose people to women’s highlights and sports stories, the more they’re going to gain interest in the sports.”

That observation from Bee jives with Ohanian’s investment strategy in recent years. The Reddit co-founder has invested in Angel City FC of the NWSL. He has organized a prestigious women’s track meet with unprecedented prize money. And now, after discovering The Sports Bra while browsing Twitter, he is helping fund its nationwide expansion with the promise that all returns “will be reinvested into girls’ and women’s sports.”

“As soon as I clicked, and learned more about Jenny and her vision and what she’d built, I reached out via DM to ask her if I could invest,” Ohanian told Yahoo Sports.

Nguyen has always been interested in expanding The Sports Bra’s footprint beyond its original tiny Portland space, but at first she staunchly opposed the idea of franchising. She thought of it as “this soulless, heartless box that gets repeated without feeling” — pretty much the exact opposite of the ethos Nguyen has sought to foster.

As Nguyen explored the idea of franchising further, she realized it would actually be much more authentic than Nguyen trying to replicate The Sports Bra in communities where she didn’t live and didn’t know anyone. Franchising, she said, allows her to “package up the most special, most important parts of your brand, give that to somebody and empower them to turn that space into something great for them and their community.”

Only two years ago, when Nguyen drained her bank accounts to open The Sports Bra, she hoped to provide her community a safe, welcoming space to watch women’s sports. Now she hopes to do the same all over the country and beyond.

Says Nguyen proudly, “We’re growing faster than I ever expected.”

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