She got fed up with bars that didn’t play women’s sports and opened one that didn’t play anything else
At first glance, Jenny Nguyen’s sports bar in Portland, Oregon is like any other. There are rows of beer taps, autographed jerseys hanging from the ceiling, autographed posters on the walls and of course big screen TVs showing the latest game or match.
There is only one subtle difference. The sports bra — no, that’s not a misspelling — levels the playing field by showcasing female athletes. Since opening in April 2022, The Sports Bra, which bills itself as the world’s first women’s sports bar, has won fans around the world by uncompromisingly showing only women’s sports on its TVs.
“The only thing we’re changing is who’s on this poster? Who signed this ball? Whose jersey is that?” Nguyen said.
When there are no women’s games, the staff replay old games. Or, to protest the lack of coverage, leave the screens off. Nguyen says men’s sports are never shown in the sports bra because the space for women’s sports must be defended.
This sentiment is leading to very public discussions about equality in women’s sport around the world, with the Canadian women’s soccer team’s industrial dispute with Canada Soccer being a prominent recent example.
Players wore their shirts inside out during some training sessions this month to protest budget cuts affecting the women’s team and their coaches. The women want the same support and preparation as the men’s side before Qatar this summer’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
To put pressure on their board, the team and some of their opponents wore purple jerseys and armbands. a color associated with gender equalityfor games during the SheBelieves Cup.
In its 2018 budget, the Canadian government set itself the goal of achieving gender equality in sport by 2035. But studies show there’s still work to be done with current salaries and broadcasting opportunities.
According to studies by Canadian Women & Sport, women’s sport receives significantly less coverage than men’s sport across television, online and print media. In print and online stories alone, over 90 percent of sports coverage in Canada involves only male athletes, according to a preliminary 2022 study by the Sport Information Resource Center.
In the US, that figure is 95 percent, with a 30-year study finding “little change” in the proportion of coverage over that time, according to research from the University of Southern California and Purdue University.
Nguyen says persistent inequality could no longer be accepted in April 2018, when she and her friends crowded into a Portland bar to watch sports. She requested that a TV be switched from a men’s game to the NCAA women’s basketball championship. But the bar refused to put the women’s game on the main screen, so they had to watch it on a small TV in the corner.
Nguyen recalls that it was one of the best games she’s ever seen. “We just screamed and gave high fives. I remember grabbing my hat and throwing it over the bar because I was so excited.”
When the game was over, Nguyen and her friends realized they had watched the whole thing with no sound.
Nguyen says it was at this point that it became clear that the only way she could watch women play sports “in their full glory” was if she had her own sports bar.
But it wasn’t until 2020 that the idea finally matured. At the time, Nguyen, moved by the protests in the United States following the death of George Floyd, wondered if she could use her love of sports and training as a chef to create a space for more equality.
The sports bra was her answer.
Discussions about sports culture
It was only meant to be a bar for fans of women’s sports, but Nguyen says the creation of The Sports Bra sparked a conversation about how many feel left out because of the male-dominated sports culture.
Many tears flowed at the opening, she says. There is still. Especially for older female athletes in their 60s or 70s, some of whom have frequented the bar and told Nguyen that sports equality laws came too late to affect them positively.
“People come in and they cry and they’re embarrassed,” Nugyen said. “And I think, no, it literally happens all the time.”
ON PHOTOS | Step into the sports bra:
Regulars told CBC News that the venue, often referred to just as “the bra,” is an inclusive place where sports fans of all genders and sexualities can feel a sense of belonging.
Sabrina Domingo says she enjoys the camaraderie of watching women’s sports with other fans in an environment where she can feel “relaxed.”
“It’s important to be here because there are people who appreciate the sport and want to feel included.”
Challenge the system
For Nguyen, who is also a queer person of color, it was important to challenge the system, which has catered to a predominantly male audience.
Over the years, she says, she’s had experiences where her looks and sexuality have made her not feel comfortable or safe watching sports in bars, which often felt like man caves.
“When you think of traditional sports bars, you get the feeling that they were created for men,” she said.
Despite the very limited number of women’s sports Nguyen was able to find to showcase at The Sports Bra, she said she still received backlash online from people calling her bar sexist for choosing to be all women show athletes. The criticism was something she didn’t expect given the large number of sports bars showing men’s sports, but soon other fans defended their choice.
I realized that behind me and the mission is a whole community that will speak up. – Jenny Nguyen, owner of The Sports Bra
“I realized that there’s a whole community behind me and the mission that will speak up,” Nguyen said, noting that behind the scenes she’s still struggling to find broadcasters and streaming platforms to help able to fill the niche of their bar.
“We got the sports package via cable, but it’s still 95 percent male sports,” she said. “So our aim is to emphasize the five percent.”
demand is growing
According to Ashley O’Connor, senior director of programming and acquisitions at ESPN, the demand for women’s sports coverage is growing, and sports channels are slowly addressing changing viewer interests.
She says ESPN increased its coverage of women’s sports by 60 percent from 2021 to 2022, noting that the channel is “always looking” for ways to introduce different sports to new audiences, but also by space in is limited in its broadcasts and already has a very busy schedule for men’s sport throughout the year.
There are moments when women’s sport reaches a large audience.
4.4 million TV viewers watched Canada Women’s gold medal soccer final against Sweden at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Serena Williams’ last professional match this summer became the most-watched tennis broadcast in ESPN’s 43-year history.
Organizers of the Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand expect a record two billion people to watch the football tournament this summer.
The number of sports bars in the US showing women’s sports is also increasing after Jen Barnes opened Rough & Tumble in Seattle in December 2022.
Like Nguyen, Barnes says she was driven by an urge to bring women’s sports fans out of the shadows. Unlike the Sports Bra, Rough & Tumble doesn’t exclusively feature female athletes, instead trying to keep the coverage of men’s and women’s sports at 50-50 to send a message.
“My goal is to actually show what equality looks like on screens,” Barnes said. And given the restricted access to games on television or streaming platforms, there is still “a long way to go” when it comes to equality in reporting.
Still, Nguyen says she sees progress and is touched by moments like the time a father took his daughters to dinner at Sports Bra and shed a tear while watching a women’s game.
At a table with friends, sports bra patron Julia Paolo ponders how her love of basketball might have come from had she been exposed to more women’s sports in her youth.
She hasn’t managed to exercise, but says it’s nice to be in a place that celebrates women who have.
“It’s just cool to see women succeed,” said Paolo. “If one of us wins, we all win.”