For years, former executive chef Jenny Nguyen would joke with her girlfriend, Liz, about opening a bar called The Sports Bra. The imaginary venue would be dedicated to one of their shared passions: women’s sports.
“We had always joked about it. But one day I was trying to think of ways that I could give back to the community. My girlfriend said, ‘you know, we’ve always joked about The Sports Bra. You could go for it,’” Nguyen recounted to Know Your Value. “Never in my wildest dreams would it become the success that it has.”
On April 1, Nguyen opened The Sports Bra, the first bar in Portland centered around women’s sports.
“We’re a sports bar like any other sports bar. We serve pub fare and drinks. It’s just that when you pay close attention, there are women athletes hanging on the walls, and on TV,” Nguyen said.
The bar also features alcohol and beef from women-owned, operated, or created companies, largely from the Oregon area. Some of the bar’s furniture was built by Girls Build, a local nonprofit for young girls.
Men and women have been flocking to the 40-seat location on NE Broadway in Portland in order to grab a drink and socialize over women’s soccer, golf, track, and more. The Sports Bra has received national media coverage and warm community support, said Nguyen, 42.
The rise of women’s sports in the media has helped the bar’s mission. Nguyen said she doesn’t remember women’s sports getting any airtime when she was young. But, as millions of viewers tune in to women’s sports, there are more options to choose from on TV and other platforms. The Sports Bra is ready to deliver it all.
“Women’s sports is getting more airtime than it has ever gotten before. And also, there is a fanbase that has been in the shadows for so long,” said Nguyen. “Honestly, I’m starting to wonder if I should have built a bigger bar,” she said.
A passion since childhood
Nguyen grew up playing basketball in Portland, where the sport became an entrenched part of her identity. Not only did she love playing, but it provided a smokescreen for anyone who questioned her sexuality.
“I’m gay, and I wasn’t out yet. Off the court, people would ask me when I'd get a boyfriend, but once you stepped on the court, nobody cared. I was popular because I was an athlete, and I could always say I was too busy to date boys,” Nguyen said.
However, Nguyen’s dream of playing basketball professionally was cut short at age 19 when she ruptured her ACL. Crushed, she had to find a new path.
Nguyen decided to pursue cooking, a skill she learned from her mother. She took a job as a fryer at a local Red Robin restaurant. Over a 15-year career, she eventually became executive chef at Reed College through Bon Appetit Management Company.
But Nguyen always harbored a love for women’s sports. Among her friends, The Sports Bra concept loomed large—but only as a dream. In 2018, Nguyen and her friends themselves at a local sports bra watching an NCAA tournament between Mississippi State and Notre Dame - what Nguyen calls one of the best games in history. But, they were all crowded around a tiny TV with no sound on.
The concept of The Sports Bra “started as a joke, and in my head it’s a place where my friends watch sports,” said Nguyen. “But when it came time to open a real space, I wanted to have more impact than that.”
A bold business move
Nguyen left Bon Appetit after three years, saying she wanted something less “corporate.” She gigged around for a while before finally deciding to launch the bar in 2020. Not only would it broadcast sports, but it could also serve as an event and meeting space.
“I wanted the space to take care of the community, and for it to be a safe place. I needed to be intentional about it, which makes it harder, but I knew it would be worth it in the end,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen knew nothing about finances or launching a business at the time—in fact, she didn’t even own a credit card. But when she began discussing her plans with the wider Portland community, she found a trove of like-minded supporters. She initially felt sheepish posting a Kickstarter asking for $48,000 for initial business expenses— but wound up raising $105,000. She could finally open the bar’s doors.
The Sports Bra has since attracted members of the LGBTQ community and sports-lovers who were craving a space to congregate, but it’s certainly not exclusive.
“It resonates with so many people who are looking for space and community, not just sports fans, and not just women,” said Nguyen. “We just put out the welcome mat.”