By 11am on opening day at Portland’s The Sports Bra, billed as the world’s first sports bar showing only women’s sports, a bustling queue had already filled the sidewalk. While members of the Pride Cheerleading Association shook pompoms in the parking lot, dozens of women – fans and athletes alike – waited to grab a seat and reach a milestone together.
“I actually got emotional and cried when I walked in,” said Leslie Melin, who sat at the bar with a signature cocktail. “I’m so proud to be here.”
The Sports Bra, which opened its doors in Oregon on 1 April, seeks to address a glaring gender imbalance in sports coverage. Although 40% of professional athletes are female, women’s sports make up only 4% of all sports media coverage, according to a Unesco study on gender equality.
“Our approach is to take that 4% that is showing and put it on blast,” said Jenny Nguyen, the bar’s founder and owner.
That message resonated with those who showed up for the kick-off. Jamie Orr – one of hundreds of backers who raised more than $100,000 on The Sports Bra’s Kickstarter campaign – made history by becoming its first customer. “To have a sports bar where you’re not going to have to fight to get the back TV turned on to a women’s game, it’s just great,” she said.
“Hardly anyone knows the history of women’s football,” said Leah Hinkle, general manager of the Oregon Ravens, a team of the Women’s National Football Conference, whose games will be streamed at The Sports Bra.
“But equity isn’t just about divvying up screen time,” added Hinkle. “Equity is about having what you need to succeed. Women’s sports need a movement and The Sports Bra is making a statement.”
The statement starts with five television screens, mounted on walls adorned with framed jerseys and memorabilia from a swath of women’s teams. The bar has partnered with ESPN3 and media company Just Women’s Sports to stream a variety of programming, from games to original content. And during times when there are no women’s sports to broadcast or stream, the bar plans to turn the TVs off, to highlight the lack of coverage.
“We use that weakness as a talking point to draw attention to it,” Nguyen said. “I would love to play 24-7 women’s sports in here, but it’s just not possible.”
Opening weekend offered a host of matches, from pro golf to college softball. The bar also showed two games of the NCAA’s March Madness, the first since Sedona Prince’s viral TikTok video highlighted shocking inequality between men’s and women’s weights rooms, leading to an equity review and a host of changes at the college basketball tournament.
For Sivan Nadler, head of strategy at Just Women’s Sports, Nguyen’s concept gets to the heart of the matter. “There is a lot of language and marketing linked to empowerment and social good around women’s sports,” said Nadler. “And both of those things are important, but there’s not enough about the fact that these women are ballers. We want to see them play.”
The seeds of The Sports Bra were planted four years ago when Nguyen and some friends watched a killer NCAA women’s championship at a local bar, on mute.
Afterwards, Nguyen made an off-the-cuff remark: “You know, the only time we’re ever going to be able to watch a women’s game, with the sound on and all the fanfare, is if we had our own space.” A few days later she came up with the name and a cheeky slogan followed: We support women.
Yet for years, The Sports Bra would remain a running joke among Nguyen and her friends. Whenever they found themselves frustrated by the lack of representation of women’s sports, they’d return to the safe space in their imagination and curate a playlist of games and even menu ideas.
Eventually, as Nguyen faced a period of personal frustration marked by the Covid-19 pandemic and George Floyd’s murder, her girlfriend suggested she turn her dream of The Sports Bra into a reality.
It was a risk, as droves of bars and restaurants were shuttered during lockdown, while new businesses were competing to snatch up hot real estate from the ashes. Rejected by the banks, Nguyen persevered with Kickstarter pledges and seed funding from friends and family.
Food is an important part of the bar’s identity, and Nguyen’s too. It saved her life, so to speak, when her athletic career ended abruptly after she ruptured her ACL playing college basketball. Devastated, she turned to cooking and for the next 15 years worked her way up through Portland’s renowned culinary scene.
The Sports Bra menu contains traditional pub grub with vegan-friendly options that uplift Nguyen’s Vietnamese heritage, including her mother’s famous clay-pot pork ribs and her aunt’s glazed chicken wings.
Its message carries over to its vendors, sourcing beef, beverages and produce from women-owned companies in the community. Even its cocktails give a wink to women’s sports, including a gin drink called “Triple Axel” – a salute to Portland’s own Tonya Harding.
Fixing the gender problem in sports coverage is bigger than simply opening a bar, but Nguyen hopes their mission can make a dent, one game at a time. Experts say building visibility is a key part of increasing young women’s participation in sports. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, by the time a girl reaches 14 years of age, she’s twice as likely to drop out of sports compared to a boy. And if she’s LGBTQ+ or a person of color, the dropout rates double.
It’s one reason why The Sports Bra is allowing minors into the space. Ngyen hopes that in the coming years, there might even be potential to franchise and expand.
“I think that by giving women’s sports fans a physical location to celebrate, we can show the general public and mainstream media that there’s huge potential for growth and investment in women’s sports.”