Spotlight: The Wide(ning) World of (Women’s) Sports

Jason E. Kaplan
Jenny Nguyen, the founder and owner of Northeast Portland’s the Sports Bra

Historically sidelined, interest in women’s sports is surging. Jenny Nguyen, owner of the Sports Bra, looks ready to ride the wave.

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You’ve probably heard of The Sports Bra by now. Located in Northeast Portland, the two-year-old pub with the cute, punny name is the first of its kind: a women-owned sports bar, featuring food and drink from women purveyors and dedicated to showing only women’s sports. Since its meteoric rise on Kickstarter (more on that later), stories about “The Bra,” as owner Jenny Nguyen affectionately calls it, pop up on the most disparate news venues. Local, national and international publications, mainstream outlets, LGBTQ+ sites, vegetarian blogs, travel newsletters and business journals alike have profiled Nguyen and her restaurant. 

After two years, the flurry has yet to die down. The attention still makes Nguyen, a self-described introvert, uncomfortable. 

“Running a business is hard, and doing all of this press is hard,” she admits. But Nguyen keeps powering through. Why? “In the beginning we saw ourselves as a novelty, a new thing. Now we are starting to see ourselves as ‘becoming what is possible.’”

And for the world of women’s sports, that untapped possibility looks endless. Men’s sports, of course, are big business, making gobs of money for owners, players, broadcast networks, merchandisers and more.  Women’s sports, not so much. Quantifying the value of a concept as big as “sports” is tricky, but focusing in on one sport — say professional basketball — lays out the common thread. In 2022, according to the World Sports Network, the NBA generated $10 billion in revenue compared to just $60 million for the WNBA. 

This disparity drove Nguyen from the start. Her idea was born in 2018 after she and some friends visited a traditional sports bar to watch the NCAA women’s basketball championship game. After pleading with the bartender to switch one screen to the broadcast, the group watched a nail-biter of a contest in the corner on a tiny television with no sound. 

The unfairness of the experience stuck with Nguyen. While musing about creating a welcoming space that centered women’s sports, the jokey name popped into her head. For years she and her friends kept the bit alive, laughing about the Sports Bra until Nguyen was ready to make it happen. 

The idea, while novel, was not too far a stretch for Nguyen. As the executive chef for Bon Appétit Management Company — a restaurant management company that provides cafe services and catering to colleges and other large institutions — she knew her way around a commercial kitchen. But overseeing the food-service operations for Reed College is one thing; running an untested concept bar is another. The idea was so unique that when writing her business plan the question, “Who is your competition?” stumped Nguyen.

“I wrote one sentence and it was: ‘The only competition is the status quo,’” she revealed during a CNBC’s Make It virtual event. 

Two years in and the Sports Bra is kicking the status quo’s butt. From the frenzy of that initial Kickstarter campaign — the original ask for $48,000 was soundly crushed by over $105,000 worth of pledges — to a line out the door on opening day, the Bra punches far above its weight. Portland Thorns fans pack the place on game days, but volleyball, softball and basketball games also draw people in. The Bra has become such a destination that they offer to store luggage for out-of-state fans stopping in on their way from or to the airport. 

A crowd gathers in the early evening to eat and drink while watching college basketball. Photo by Jason E. Kaplan

“The demand to watch women’s sports has always been there,” insists Asia Wisecarver, general manager of the Oregon Ravens, a competitive member of the Women’s National Football Conference. “The Sports Bra gives exposure to the content that’s out there. It’s hard to capture what that means to women in our community and beyond. The Sports Bra is a small place with huge energy. And the dream is not yet fully realized.”

Nguyen confirms that the scrappy little 40-seat venue pulled in $944,000 in its first eight months of operation and continues steadily on that trajectory today. Ten percent of those earnings come from merchandise, an impressive number considering the Bra’s tiny merch display tucked into a back corner. (The Sports Bra also offer merchandise for sale on its website; sales are split evenly between the site and the brick-and-mortar location, Nguyen’s press representative confirms.)

Brands, organizations, leagues and professional teams have noticed, rushing to support and work with the Sports Bra. Nguyen reports collaborating or doing events with the WNBA, Athletes Unlimited, Strava and Nike.  

“The Sports Bra’s success is a true testament to what is possible when women’s sports are a top priority in your business model,” said Women’s Sports Foundation CEO Danette Leighton  in an emailed statement. “We applaud Jenny Nguyen, for recognizing that girls and women in sport deserve equal and equitable airtime, and it is our hope that her unwavering commitment continues to inspire others, showing them that investing and showcasing women’s sports is indeed smart business!”

Yet no one seems more surprised by that success than Nguyen herself. “I opened the Bra thinking it was something that was wanted and saw, even before we unlocked the door, that it was something we needed,” she says. 

But who is “we?” The Sports Bra is not a strictly lesbian or gay bar, although Nguyen is quick to acknowledge the importance of LGBTQ+ safe spaces, especially as they continue to disappear throughout the United States. While she reports that it “seemed like every queer person in Portland came through the doors when we first opened,” Nguyen envisions the Bra as something bigger: “A place for everybody to feel safe, heard and represented. Sports fans, non-sports fans, families with kids, families with no kids — no matter how you identify — come on in. Just no haters.”

Sachie Hayakawa and Jess Grady-Benson are regular customers at the bar. “It can be hard to get a table,” says Grady-Benson. Photo by Jason E. Kaplan

That’s a pretty big pool, and Nguyen is ready to dive in. When asked what’s next for the Bra, she answers, “World domination would be ideal.” A joke, for sure, but she is getting ready with trademarks and service marks in place, more collaborations set up, and a growing merchandise line. 

And don’t be surprised if (when?) new Sports Bra locations show up in other cities. “We would love to expand,” Nguyen says, “but we want to do it sustainably and in a way that pushes the agenda of women’s sports forward.” 

Pushing that agenda forward is something Nguyen cannot do alone. Her bar is an unqualified success, and she is constantly fielding calls from other entrepreneurs looking to start a similar business. But right now, only 15% of female athletes are given airtime, appearing on a combination of broadcast and cable television, streaming services, and online access. That is barely enough to fill the Sports Bra’s five screens every day. If there are no women’s sports to show, the screen is blank.

Still, Nguyen believes change is coming. “In 2023 alone, every day was a record-breaking day for something in women’s sports — viewership, ticket sales, merch sales, game attendance or salaries. How quickly networks make the shift to showing more women’s and girls’ sports is to be determined, but if it does not scale, there will be billions of dollars left on a table somewhere. The trajectory is a space rocket.”

The numbers bear her out. Front Office Sports reports that WNBA midseason viewership was up 46% on ESPN platforms last year. The expansion of legalized sports betting promises to add more fuel. “Sports betting and women’s sports are two of the biggest areas of growth in the sports industry, and we’re only scratching the surface for both in the U.S.,” WNBA chief growth officer Colie Edison told Front Office Sports in an article. “Betting and viewership [feed] each other.”

Even with this billion-dollar rocket within reach, Nguyen remains firmly grounded in her original idea. Designs will morph to suit their surroundings. A St. Louis, Los Angeles or Las Vegas Sports Bra should look different than the original Portland location. But not much else should change. “At its heart, soul, and core, the Bra has a mission to serve the community and push the agenda of women’s sports. I would rather not expand if any of that is lost in translation.”

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