PORTLAND — A racerback bra is centered on a hanging sign off a busy northeast Portland street. Circling the image is “The Sports Bra” wording, a combination that would lure a sports fan inside.
The entrance might even go unnotified — a collage of athletic action shots and celebrations, the now iconic photo of youth basketball player Gigi Bryant smiling adds a welcoming touch on the door.
But the “R” in The Sports Bra is a clever riff from restaurant chains Hooters or Twin Peaks. The letter’s flipped position within the word “bar” undresses the long-accepted expectation when a person wants to eat, drink and watch a game in a restaurant. Often “the game” involves men and if the pub keeps the channel on ESPN, nearly 95% of filler programming revolves around men’s leagues and players.
But not here.
The Sports Bra opened in April and claims to be the first pub in the US that only televisions women’s sports. This winter, the movement will grow in Seattle with the Rough & Tumble, a planned sports bar and restaurant in Old Ballard that will prioritize television women’s athletics.
“The whole idea, the whole premise behind this is that it’s very traditional in a lot of ways and all you’re doing is tweaking the tiniest things,” said Jenny Nguyen, who’s chef and owner of what’s now dubbed The Bra. “In those small changes is where the big difference lies.
“You walk into the space and it feels like a sports bar, but you look closely, and we changed the channel. That’s basically it. Then we changed who’s represented on the walls. We took Jordan’s jersey and turned it to Sue Bird’s jersey. We took the Trail Blazers flag and put up the Storm’s flag. It’s these tiny changes that make all the difference.”
“Things that have stood in the way”
The revolution started because Nguyen and Jen Barnes, owner of Rough & Tumble, wanted to see something as basic as a playoff game.
It was the 2018 NCAA women’s basketball championship game between Notre Dame and Mississippi State for Nguyen. The former Clark College basketball player had to request the game be put on one of the smaller televisions in a popular sports bar in Portland. Nguyen and her friends were huddled around the screen, watching with the sound off as Fighting Irish guard Arike Ogunbowale nailed an off-balanced, game-winning three-pointer with 1.8 seconds left on the clock.
Barnes couldn’t see the full OL Reign semifinal match against the Washington Spirit on CBS Sports Network in November 2021 because it was wedged between two NFL games. Only one of the six known soccer pubs in Seattle that Barnes called was willing to put the Reign match on but cut it off once the Seahawks broadcast started.
Nguyen, who worked as a chef for 15 years, started kicking around the idea of an all-women’s sports bar and was encouraged to make it happen amid the fights for equality in 2020. Barnes, who’s spent the past 20 years in the corporate world , started laying the groundwork that November afternoon, securing a website domain and name by December.
“It was shocking to me that it hadn’t happened yet,” Nguyen said. “Then, as I started opening it, I realized all of the hurdles and all the things that have stood in the way for so long. I don’t think something like The Sports Bra would’ve been successful even five years ago let alone 10 or 15 based on the major hurdles that women in sports have had to overcome.”
Desire wasn’t among the obstacles. Nielsen conducted a study in eight countries in 2018 that found 84% of sports fans, regardless of gender, are interested in watching women’s sports. The research also showed 49% of viewers identify as women.
Visibility remains the problem. A USC/Purdue University research team has surveyed men’s and women’s sports media coverage every five years since 1989. In a report released in 2021 titled “One and Done,” the study found that in 2019 just 5.1% of TV news and 5.7% of ESPN’s SportsCenter covered women’s athletics. But if the FIFA women’s World Cup coverage, where the US women’s national team won the championship in France, is excluded from the data, the overall percentage in comparison to men’s sports coverage drops to 3.5%.
Finding a channel for the actual women’s sporting competition is even harder. Mega events like the Grand Slam for women’s tennis, World Cup, NCAA women’s basketball tournament or Olympics are aired on the major networks. But a regular-season game often isn’t, no matter the sport, professional or amateur.
The popularity of streaming amid the onset of the COVID pandemic in 2020 has helped women’s leagues get their product on screens. However, businesses can’t use personal streaming services like ESPN+, Paramount+, YouTube, FuboTV, Twitch, Sling or league apps — platforms that carry women’s athletics — to television games.
The workaround is getting permission for content, so Nguyen started emailing.
“It’s definitely grassroots, which is the nice way of putting it,” said Nguyen, who combs listings every morning to post what patrons can watch at The Bra. “For the WNBA, I straight up went to the WNBA website, tried to find contact information, just a straight up email and I got a response. They said they didn’t have it for businesses, but they gave us permission to use the League Pass.”
As word spread about Nguyen’s mission, sites reached out to her.
Ata Football, an American streaming service for the top global women’s soccer leagues that was launched in September 2020, offered a free subscription. The Portland Thorns FC helped The Bra get a Paramount+ pass to television NWSL matches. The Oregon Ravens, who play in the amateur Women’s National Football Conference alongside the Seattle Majestics, provided their streaming service.
The lively bar felt like a different galaxy in August as a mixed crowd noshed on innovative dishes like vegan Reuben sandwiches, Vietnamese-style wings and sipped throwback RC Cola. It was college football’s Week 0, where the hype was focused on Northwestern defeating Nebraska in Ireland, but none of The Bra’s five televisions aired a single game or men’s sports talk show.
Instead, the televisions showed an Italian women’s soccer league match, college women’s volleyball, women’s tennis, women’s golf and women’s gymnastics. And if there isn’t a women’s sporting event to show, The Bra loops Jane Fonda’s workout videos.
“It was emotional for me,” Barnes said of visiting The Bra in August to connect with Nguyen. “I cried probably more than I needed to, but I couldn’t help it. We were talking for maybe half-an-hour and all of a sudden I looked around and was like, wow, I need to acknowledge that this is the first time I had ever been to a space where I was surrounded by women’s games and I just started crying.”
“It’s just indoctrinated”
If comparing, The Bra is a straight shot while Rough & Tumble will be a mixed drink.
Nguyen extends the focus on women to more than just the sports on TV. She purchases meats from a local, third-generation woman rancher, she has women-sourced produce and everything on the tap menu is made, owned or operated by women.
Barnes, a former rower for Green Lake Crew, is renovating Sawyer in Ballard for her sports pub. The airy space opened in August 2018 and was nominated for a James Beard award for Best New Restaurant in the US but is closing Sunday, Oct 2.
The new look, which will be open to the public in December, will feature at least 15 televisions and seating for 160 people. The first piece of décor is Lauren Jackson’s Storm jersey gifted from Nguyen.
Rough & Tumble’s name is an homage to the Dick, Kerr Ladies FC, who were banned from playing soccer in the early 1900s in England and called “Rough Girls” as a pejorative for doing so anyway.
Barnes envisions her bar as a safe space for people to watch women’s sports and will have an all-ages section so young girl athletes can see a reflection of themselves on the screen while grabbing a bite to eat after a practice or game.
“It’s just indoctrinated at this point,” Barnes said of men’s sports being the default event televised at most sports bars globally. “(Parents say their) daughters are noticing that it’s just boys on the screen … It shouldn’t be like that and I’m changing that.”
To highlight equality across the pub, Rough & Tumble will television a women’s competition on the main screen with the sound on, but people will also be able to catch men’s sports, especially the Seahawks, Mariners, Sounders and Kraken.
“It would be a total bummer and it would eliminate a lot of sports fans,” Barnes said of restricting airtime to only women’s competitions. “I want a place that attracts sports fans and focuses on equality and equity across the screens. That’s where we (as a society) need to get to.”
Barnes has a sizable budget to pay for streaming services and plans to television winter sports like women’s pro hockey, women’s roller derby and women’s Alpine skiing. She’ll also show women’s white-water kayaking, women’s rock climbing and women’s UFC.
“If we take a look back at the decades that sports bars have been around, you can see how that has transformed how people consume sports,” Nguyen said. “Whether they’re buying merch or are invested in teams, stories and players. It’s hard to do that when you don’t have access to it, or you don’t know where to find it or you don’t have the community built around it.
“Now I feel there’s going to be a in-real-life culture of celebrating women’s sports, not just at the games where people have been doing that, but in this fandom way that men have typically been doing for decades through the sports bar. ”
“The Storm Effect”
Shelley Brothers, who co-owns The Wildrose, a lesbian bar on Capitol Hill founded in 1984, agrees that Rough & Tumble and The Sports Bra are the next step in growing women’s sports spectatorship. She hosts Storm viewing parties while The Royal Guard, the Reign’s supporters’ group, formally partnered with Rookies, a sports bar and grill in Columbia City owned by Heather Allard, as the flagship location to watch road matches.
But that’s appointment viewing. There’s proven interest to television women’s games simply because that’s the expectation of a sports bar.
“I call it the Storm effect,” the Brothers said of Seattle before the Storm won their first of three WNBA titles in 2004. “(They’ve) had a big impact on the city and people don’t even know it because we have customers and friends who’ve never been into sports, but they’ll scream and yell for the Reign or the Storm. It feels really good to see that.”
The shift was evident at Rookies when the Storm’s playoff game aired at the same time as a Seahawks preseason game in August.
“We were busier for the Storm game than the Seahawks,” said Rookies general manager Shantelle Knapstad, whose bar has 14 televisions. “Our whole dining room was all Storm fans and the bar area was Seahawks fans. It’s majority rules for sound, and that was the Storm.”
Greg and his son Matt Figueroa were curious when told about Barnes’ concept while watching Week 1 of NFL football at Buffalo Wild Wings in Tukwila. The chainhas 65 televisions, but none showed Game 1 of the WNBA Finals between the Las Vegas Aces and Connecticut Sun until asked.
The Figueroas — draped in Las Vegas Raiders gear — wanted to see the Aces game along with their Raiders. Greg is a bigger tennis fan, and guessed a place like Rough & Tumble would be a more ideal spot to feed his sports appetite.
“I would like to see it,” said Greg, who was visiting from California. “Then I could watch my Raiders and big events like the women’s US Open. With a sports bar, you have something in common with everybody — you want to watch a game.”