PORTLAND, Ore. — An hour-and-a-half before the USA opens its 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup campaign against Vietnam, a staff member at a sports bar in Portland places an “at capacity” sign in front of the door. Dozens of people continue to peek into the bar anyway, hoping beyond reason that a spot will open up.
Inside, it feels in many ways like a typical sports bar. Throughout the night, fans who arrived early enough to snag coveted seats chow down on burgers and fries and drink pints of beer as they cheer and yell at the bar’s five TVs. Many wear scarves or jerseys with the names of their favorite athletes plastered on the back. Some are regulars who have come from down the street to be in a place they now consider a second home. Others, however, have traveled from far-flung places across the United States to be at this bar, on this day.
They’re here because of one key difference: At the Sports Bra, the only thing playing is women’s sports.
“The idea that there’s a sports bar out here dedicated to supporting women, you just don’t see that in other places,” said Paule Voevodsky, 29, who traveled from Chicago specifically to watch the USA’s 3-0 win over Vietnam at the Sports Bra with another friend who traveled from Houston. “And there’s clearly a market for it. People got here way early because they want to be in a space like this. There should be more spaces like this.”
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It’s a simple, yet seemingly unprecedented idea. Owner Jenny Nguyen believes the bar might have been the first of its kind when it opened in 2022. Now, there are at least two other Pacific Northwest bars dedicated to women’s sports — Rough & Tumble in Seattle and Icarus in Salem, Oregon — and Nguyen has fielded calls from entrepreneurs in places like Chicago, Minneapolis and Tampa, Florida, who are looking to open women’s sports bars of their own.
“When we built this place, it opened up people’s eyes to the possibilities of what fandom, spectatorship and the love of women’s sports really is about. It took it out of hiding,” said Nguyen, 43. “There’s a common refrain that people aren’t fans of women’s sports. It’s really just a fallacy, but it’s not helped when you don’t have spaces to see people enjoying it.”
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The idea for The Sports Bra was born in the back of another Portland sports bar during the 2018 NCAA women’s basketball championship. The bar had maybe 30 TVs, but not one was showing what would turn out to be an iconic NCAA title game between Notre Dame and Mississippi State.
Nguyen and her friends convinced the bartender to switch on the game on one small TV. Congregated in a corner of the bar, the group went wild as Arike Ogunbowale hit the buzzer-beating shot to give the Fighting Irish the title. Nguyen was still reveling in the excitement of the win when a friend turned to her and said, “That would have been better with the sound on.” She realized she had become so accustomed to watching women’s games without sound in the back of sports bars that she had barely noticed.
“I thought ‘the only way we’re going to watch a women’s game in its full glory is if we had our own place,'” Nguyen said. “The way I thought of it was that it would just be a regular sports bar, everything would be the same, except that we would change the channel.”
She envisioned a welcoming spot for people of all backgrounds, a haven for her group of queer and diverse friends who had always felt a bit like outsiders in traditional sports bars. Once the name — The Sports Bra — popped into her head, Nguyen said there was no turning back.
She still had no clue, however, whether the community would buy-in.
The former executive chef at Portland’s Reed College, Nguyen had plenty of experience in the food industry but had never owned a business. She was denied loan after loan when she applied during the height of the pandemic. She emptied her savings account and begged friends for money, but it still wasn’t enough. So, in February 2022, she launched a Kickstarter hoping to raise what felt like a preposterous $49,000.
Her timing couldn’t have been better. Reports showed interest in women’s sports skyrocketing as sponsors and broadcast networks put more resources toward the women’s game, increasing visibility, and fans wanted a space to watch those games. In a month, Nguyen’s campaign raised more than $105,000 — “That was the moment I realized that maybe we were onto something,” Nguyen said.
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Unlike many restaurants, The Sports Bra hasn’t struggled to turn a profit since it opened its door just in time for March Madness in 2022. In just over a year, the small 40-seat bar with 10 indoor tables and eight bar stools has become so much of a Portland institution that Nguyen and her staff had to set aside a spot for luggage to accommodate the tourists who come directly from the airport. The beers on tap have names like Bra Code and Queer AF and many come from women-owned breweries. The beef in the pub burger is sourced from a women-owned farm. The drink list features a bourbon and peach liqueur cocktail called Title IX, in honor of the law that gave women athletes an equal opportunity to athletic programs in schools.
Every wall in the bar is covered with women’s sports memorabilia, even in the two all-gender bathrooms. On one side of the bar, an embroidered quilt pays homage to Brandi Chastain’s iconic penalty kick that gave the USA the 1999 Women’s World Cup title. Nearby hangs a signed photo of Billie Jean King. Floating shelves hold signed balls and donated trophies from youth athletes. There are framed signs that say, “Feminist” and “Protect Trans Rights.” A rainbow-haired unicorn wearing a sports bra hangs from the ceiling surrounded by strings of LGBTQ+ flags.
And of course, women’s sports are always playing. On many nights, every TV in the bar shows a different game, from the WNBA to women’s college softball to professional soccer from the U.S. to Mexico and beyond.
For the next month, the Bra will be the premiere destination for Portland women’s soccer fans looking to cheer on the USA and the five Portland Thorns competing in this year’s Women’s World Cup. Nguyen knew it wouldn’t be easy for fans to snag a seat in the bar, which is why on Friday she co-sponsored a watch party in downtown Portland for the USA-Vietnam game. The all-day event drew well over 1,000 people, featuring several local Asian American food carts and a showing of the 2002 movie “Bend It Like Beckham.”
Many fans, however, couldn’t pass up the chance to try to watch Friday’s game at the Sports Bra itself.
Portland resident Katie Sullivan, 51, has become a regular at the bar, which she called a mecca for her and other queer mothers in the neighborhood who are allowed to bring their children to the family-friendly Sports Bra before 10 p.m. Sullivan said she worried other sports bars would feature Lionel Messi’s debut for Inter Miami on Friday over the Women’s World Cup. So she showed up two hours early to make sure she got a seat at the Bra.
“I know if I went to any other sports bar I would have to contend with Messi taking up a lot of space because he’s having his moment in Miami,” Sullivan said. “Good for him, but come on, this U.S. team is legendary.”
Nearby, Gary Hirsch, 58, and his daughter Emma Hirsch, 23, sat together in a booth. Gary Hirsch didn’t closely follow women’s sports until his daughter introduced him to women’s soccer. Both now attend Portland Thorns games regularly. They’d never been to the Sports Bra but couldn’t think of a better place for a father-daughter Women’s World Cup outing.
“Growing up, we would never have had a place like this,” Gary Hirsch said. “It’s wonderful to have a place that’s open, accepting and focused on a whole area that’s not getting enough attention. Women’s sports are amazing.”
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When Nguyen opened the bar, she didn’t expect it would have this kind of immediate success. But perhaps even more surprising to her is the impact the bar has had on the Portland community, and the way it has developed into a central gathering place for people to come together to support women.
The bar played an instrumental role in helping Portland win its bid to host the NCAA Women’s Final Four in 2030, welcoming a group of committee members deciding the venues for the tournament. And earlier this year, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chose the bar for a roundtable event to pitch WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert on expanding to Portland.
In recognition of Juneteenth, Nguyen and staff pulled down the jerseys and memorabilia that line the bar’s walls and replaced them with an exhibit of sports photos taken by Black female photographers. On another night, the bar held a letter-writing campaign for Brittney Griner. It has hosted fundraisers for a local high school’s women’s wrestling team and a girls soccer program in Cameroon and raised money for non-sports specific organizations, including Planned Parenthood and Basic Rights Oregon, which promotes LGBTQ+ rights.
The bar has also become a haven in times of mourning. After the 2022 mass shooting at Club Q in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Nguyen held a candlelight vigil at the Bra. An impromptu dance party broke out as people grieved together on a makeshift dance floor. After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the bar slowly filled up throughout the day. It became a meeting point for people before and after they went downtown to protest the decision.
“I didn’t have any visions of that happening when I sketched out the plans for the Bra,” Nguyen said. “I thought I was just creating a space for people to come celebrate women’s sports. … But creating a space that had never really existed before opened up the possibilities for things that nobody expected, including myself. That’s been the wonderful surprise of it all for me.”
Nguyen has been approached numerous times by people who have told her she should franchise. While she said she plans to expand, franchising isn’t in the cards yet. That’s because for her the Bra has become much more than a bar, and she doesn’t want it to lose its soul.
“You give people a physical space to be in that has never existed before and it kind of becomes a vacuum where it sucks in ideas, dreams and possibilities,” Nguyen said. “I think that is the epitome of what we do, we give space to all of these things that it felt like didn’t have a really good physical location to be before.”
It’s that environment that compelled Molly Gallagher, 29, and Eric Trippe, 31, of Baltimore to schedule a stop at the bar during their Pacific Northwest honeymoon this week. Gallagher, a huge Angel City FC and U.S. Women’s National Team fan, said she discovered the bar on social media last year and had wanted to visit ever since.
The newlyweds sat in the corner of a communal table Friday night, laughing and drinking alongside four other patrons they had just met. They screamed and cheered with the rest of the group when Sophia Smith gave the USA the lead in the 14th minute, and clinked plastic cups with their tablemates after waiters came around to hand out free vodka and blueberry cocktails and T-shirts with the slogan, “Love who you want and watch women’s sports.”
“I wish we had something like this in Baltimore,” Gallagher said. “You just feel like you belong here. You don’t feel judged. It’s a community of people who support the same things we support.”