When Jenny Nguyen signed the lease to create her dream bar, she wasn’t sure it would stay open for more than a few months.
But earlier this month, 43-year-old Nguyen’s first-of-its-kind establishment in Portland, Oregon, celebrated its one-year anniversary. Aptly named The Sports Bra, it’s a sports bar where only women athletes appear on the TVs.
Business has been good, despite the niche business model and record inflation sending food and beverage prices soaring. The Sports Bra brought in $944,000 in revenue in the eight months it was open in 2022, according to documents reviewed by CNBC Make It.
It was profitable in that first year of business, Nguyen adds.
“It turns out, it’s pretty universal — that feeling of being a women’s sports fan and going into a public place, like a sports bar, and having a difficult time finding a place to show a [women’s] game, especially when there are other men’s sports playing,” Nguyen says.
Initially, she wasn’t sure the idea would work at all. The vast majority of money and attention historically goes to men’s sports only — a big reason why The Sports Bra was reportedly the country’s first bar to only play women’s sports on TV.
It’s also not the kind of thing Nguyen would ordinarily do: She describes herself as “very cautious, risk averse.” But her obsession with women’s sports and frustration with its lack of representation on television screens drove her to empty her life savings — about $27,000 — and give it a try.
“Me, personally, I thought the idea was brilliant and that [it was] what the world needs,” Nguyen says. “But I had no idea that the world would want it. I just wanted to give it a shot.”
How The Sports Bra went from running joke to reality
Nguyen is a lifelong basketball fan who played the sport at Clark College in Vancouver, Washington, before tearing her ACL. She’s also a longtime restaurant worker who spent three years as Reed College’s executive chef.
In 2018, Nguyen and a group of friends wanted to watch the NCAA women’s basketball championship game. They went to a mostly empty sports bar and still had to plead with a bartender to switch one of the smallest TVs — which played without sound — from a men’s sport to the women’s championship game, she recalls.
Together, they jumped up and down celebrating “one of the best games I’ve ever seen,” Nguyen says, as a buzzer-beating three-point shot sealed the championship title for Notre Dame. Afterward, she was struck by the normalcy of her situation.
“[We’d] gotten so used to watching a game like that in the way that we did,” she says, adding that they’d only find better viewing conditions “if we had our own place.”
Days later, she channeled her disappointment into a hypothetical: What would she name her bar? “The very first thing that came into my mind was The Sports Bra,” Nguyen says. “And once I thought it, I couldn’t un-think it, you know? It was catchy. I thought it was hilarious.”
For years, she joked about it. Then, the fallout from social justice movements like #MeToo and the country’s racial reckoning after George Floyd’s murder left her wanting to make a meaningful impact on the world and her community.
Nguyen, who came out as a lesbian at age 17, says she doesn’t always feel welcome at most traditional sports bars. The Sports Bra could help her, and anyone else who’d rarely felt accepted in other sports establishments, feel like she belonged.
“I thought about, if we can even get one kid in here and have them feel like they belong in sports, it’d be worth it,” she says.
Helping other women’s sports bars get started
At first, Nguyen had her savings, and $40,000 in loans cobbled together from friends and family. That would keep The Sports Bra afloat for three months, based on her cost estimates for labor, inventory and other overhead.
In February 2022, she launched a Kickstarter to raise $48,000 — enough money for an extra six-month financial cushion, to build up the sort of regular clientele any bar or restaurant needs to survive long-term.
To Nguyen’s surprise, the campaign raised more than $105,000 in just 30 days, thanks to a viral article in online food publication Eater. “At that moment, when I was looking at that Kickstarter graph, I thought to myself, ‘This might work,'” she says.
But the money, which came from around the country and world, was no guarantee of success. Actual people in Portland still needed to frequent the bar.
Today, there’s often a line out the door. Women’s basketball icons like Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi showed up, for an event sponsored by Buick, earlier this month. Ginny Gilder, co-owner of the WNBA’s Seattle Storm, has even waited in line to watch her team play on The Sports Bra’s TVs, Nguyen says.
That’s a far cry from the Kickstarter days, which Nguyen says only happened after she was denied business loans by multiple banks and small business associations. The denials commonly cited the high risk of a unique concept run by a first-time entrepreneur during a pandemic, she adds.
Even the bar’s core concept is a struggle: It’s hard to find enough women’s sporting events to fill up the televisions. Only about 5% of all TV sports coverage focuses on female athletes, according to a 2021 University of Southern California study.
Nguyen says she’s taken to reaching out directly to sports networks and streaming services, some of which have hooked her up with access to more women’s sports content. She also spends an inordinate amount of time “scouring” TV listings, a process she likens to “taking a machete and chopping through a jungle.”
But she’s no longer alone. Another bar specializing in women’s sports has opened in nearby Seattle, and Nguyen says she’s in touch with a handful of other prospective entrepreneurs asking her for advice on opening similar visions in other cities.
“I would love to have as many people experience the feeling people experience when they walk through these doors,” she says. “It feels very selfish to keep it to this one building that holds 40 people at a time.”
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