It was a simple yet unprecedented idea: a sports bar that featured only women’s sports. Portland chef Jenny Nguyen created The Sports Bra because it was a place she had wanted her entire life, an inclusive space where women athletes are celebrated, and all of the screens play live women’s sports events.
A 2021 study, which has tracked mainstream sports for 30 years, reported that just a mere 5% of television coverage focuses on women’s sports. By making a few small changes — like flipping a couple of letters in “sports bar” and ensuring a schedule of live sports often ignored at other bars — Jenny and her team are making history with the first and only sports bar highlighting women’s sports in the U.S.
From celebrating Serena Williams’ last tennis match and hosting the WNBA commissioner to building community and giving back during the holidays, Nguyen shares some of the most memorable moments since the 2022 opening of The Sports Bra, where the motto is “We support women.”
Editor’s note: Jenny Nguyen’s comments below have been edited for brevity and clarity.
The very first thing I did when I thought about opening The Sports Bra was I wrote the menu because that’s where I was most comfortable. I felt it should look like a sports bar or pub menu, but with small tweaks. The menu has burgers, nachos, wings, salad, all that stuff, but I wanted to highlight my Vietnamese upbringing. The first two items on the menu are mom’s baby back ribs, which is her thịt kho (Vietnamese caramelized braised pork) recipe word for word. The second one is Aunt Tina’s Vietnawings, which is a fish sauce wing recipe. Those are a shout-out, a little Viet love.
Having a culinary background, I knew that serving people with dietary restrictions was not as difficult as some places make it seem. We have gluten-free, dairy-free and vegan options. We try to be inclusive in every aspect of our business, so why would the menu be any different?
We’re also conscientious about where we source from. We get all of our 100% grass-fed beef from Cory Carman’s Carman Ranch, a woman-owned ranch out in Eastern Oregon. Our drinks menu features women-owned Freeland Spirits in our signature cocktails, like the Title IX with bourbon, peach liqueur, simple syrup and mint. We also serve gluten-free beer, non-alcoholic beer and zero-proof cocktails.
Courting WNBA Expansion
The most high-profile event we’ve hosted at The Sports Bra was a panel set up by Senator Ron Wyden. Out of the blue, I received a voicemail from Senator Wyden asking if I’d be interested in helping with an event to amplify why Portland is the place for a WNBA expansion team. When we chatted on the phone, he let me know the date and I agreed without even looking at our calendar. I had to make it work!
The panel was full of basketball all-stars, the most important people in girls’ and women’s basketball in Oregon, and they were all at The Sports Bra along with WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert. It was amazing and felt like such a privilege to have them in our space.
Often, when people hear about The Sports Bra, they have an idea of what the place will feel like. But I’ve heard from a lot of people that when they step through that door, it feels transformative for them. People bring their past, their present, their future, their stories, their hopes and dreams. And so on that night, we had so many people here who have lived and breathed basketball their whole life — they were tearing up seeing their poster up on the wall.
Giving Back During the Holidays
For the Thanksgiving holiday, we did an event I called “Gracegiving.” It was at this time that I was kind of going through a lot of things in my personal life. I feel like most people are really good about giving grace to other people, but then when it comes to yourself, you’re just really hard on yourself all the time. And maybe that’s particular to women. I feel like a lot of women I know are very forgiving of other people’s mistakes and then completely unforgiving of their own. It was during this time where I suggested to my chef that we donate meals to the community for Thanksgiving, as a way to show how when we give grace to ourselves, we’re also serving our community.
We had some employees who volunteered to cook and we borrowed a commissary kitchen from Feed the Mass, a downtown nonprofit. We cooked 200 meals and coordinated with local organizations Sisters of the Road, Street Roots and the 107ist, a group of Portland Thorns and Timbers fans who volunteer for community service. We rallied with a few more organizations who brought hygiene kits and warm clothes for people to pick up along with their meal. It was one of my most favorite events here at The Sports Bra. The way everything came together was very grassroots and organic, and just another way to show how we fit in in Portland.
Celebrating Women in Sports
During Serena Williams’ last match at the US Open in September 2022, it felt like a moment that was not happening anywhere else on the planet except here at The Bra. We had this place absolutely jam-packed. People were cupping their hands on the windows to watch the TV inside the restaurant.
When there was intense volleying back and forth between Serena and Ajla Tomljanović, you could have heard a pin drop because it was so quiet. When Serena would win a point, my eyes were rattling in my skull because everybody was cheering so loud. The glass [of the windows] was shaking. When the match was over, there wasn’t a dry eye in this place.
Another huge moment was the Portland Thorns’ 2022 NWSL Championship game against Kansas City Current. I had been invited by the NWSL to attend the championship game in Washington, D.C. I knew it was going to be a busy weekend and the bar would be slammed, but my crew here is the best team I’ve ever worked with. After the Thorns won, I did a video call with the packed bar. I was standing with the Riveters, our huge Thorns die-hard team of 300-plus people who flew to D.C. for this game. From coast to coast, we shared this instantaneous moment of the championship.
A Space For Community
This is difficult to call a Top 5 moment, but it also is a reminder of the importance of our space in this community. There were two tragic events, the overturning of Roe versus Wade and the shooting at Club Q, that [were] just as important for us to mourn. After the Club Q shooting, my initial reaction was just pure white-hot anger. I absolutely hated myself for feeling so much hatred. So I got on social media and announced that The Sports Bra was hosting a candlelight vigil. It felt like the only thing that I could think of was to give us a space to grieve and be together. At the end of the night, we ended up having a spontaneous dance party. We’re not a dance club by any means, but people wanted to dance it out.
When Roe versus Wade was overturned, all of us were depressed and sad at The Sports Bra. Slowly, the entire restaurant filled up and we stayed full all day. It was people who wanted to be in community with like-minded people. There were people who came to The Bra to eat and drink before and after a protest downtown. When they returned after the protest, there was a sense of feeling empowered. The people brought that energy back to the bar.
When we opened, I did not see The Sports Bra becoming this kind of place, but it has just very organically grown into what it has. It just goes to show that spaces like this are not only wanted but they’re needed.
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