Announcer 1: We will see Notre Dame sit in this zone a lot. They’re going to have to contest shooters. And they will look to bring a couple players to McCowan, if they can, on the catch.
In April of 2018, Jenny Nguyen got together with some friends — to watch the N.C.A.A. women’s basketball championship at a local sports bar.
Announcer 1: And we will see Mississippi State playing in the deny —
Announcer 2: These 2 teams, each of the last 2 years, defeated Connecticut to get to the national championship game.
But when they got to the bar, the game was nowhere to be found.
Jenny NGUYEN: We roll in there and there’s like 30 plus T.V.s. The game’s not on any T.V. On the projector there is a regular season baseball game. And there’s like one table of guys watching it.
She convinced a server to put the game on one of the smaller T.V.s., and watched with her friends, up until the dramatic end.
NGUYEN: I think there was like three — 3.2 seconds left or something. And Arike Ogunbowale gets the basketball at the three-point line on an in-bounds play, takes one dribble and launches it and the buzzer goes off — and the ball goes through the net. And I swear to you, we lost our minds. No one else knew why. Everybody in the bar was staring at us, because nobody was watching the same game we were.”
In the parking lot after the game, Nguyen couldn’t shake the feeling that the experience could have been better.
NGUYEN: I hug a good friend of mine and I was just like, “That’s the best game I’ve ever seen in my entire life.” And she goes, “Yeah, can you imagine if the sound had been on?” I said, “The only way we’re ever going to watch a women’s game in its full glory is if we had our own place.”
That thought sent Nguyen on a mission to create something America had never seen: A sports bar that plays only women’s sports. And, as it turns out, there’s a pretty strong financial case for doing it. For the Freakonomics Radio Network, this is The Economics of Everyday Things. I’m Zachary Crockett. Today: women’s sports bars.
* * *
From a young age, Jenny Nguyen was obsessed with basketball.
NGUYEN: I loved everything about it. The physicality, the beauty in the motion, the pace of it Basketball was really my identity.
She dreamed of playing professionally. But her parents wanted her to follow a more traditional path.
NGUYEN: My parents fled Vietnam during the war in ’75 Mom was a bank teller for many, many years, and then dad was a janitor. My mom was like, “Uh, you know, girls don’t play sports.”
Later, Nguyen discovered a second obsession: Cooking.
NGUYEN: I called my parents and told them that I wanted to be a chef. My dad, he gave me the best advice I think anyone could have given me, and I think he did it more to, like, scare me out of it. He goes, “Jenny, I want you to find the worst job in that field that you can find, do it for a year, and if after that you still want that to be your life, then go for it.
Nguyen took that advice and landed a job as a fry cook at a fast casual restaurant chain. The kitchen, she found, was kind of like playing a sport.
NGUYEN: I’m instantly hooked. The adrenaline rush, the being part of a team, timing, execution, being under a crunch. I thrived. So, a year went by real quickly and, much to my dad’s dismay, I was like, “I love it!”
She went on to graduate from culinary school. Then, over the next 15 years, she embarked on a successful career as an executive chef for Fortune 500 companies and universities. She was still a sports nut — especially when it came to women’s basketball. But finding those games wasn’t easy.
NGUYEN: I think that the experience for the women’s sports fan is universal in a lot of ways The inability to find a place to watch it, the inability to find it at all on TV. You know, a game is on on Thursday night and you look it up on the Internet, and you can’t find it.
COOKY: I’ve had this experience as well, going into a bar just trying to watch the women’s game. And, you know, it’s a struggle — “Oh, well, you know, we can’t change the channel because, you know, everyone’s watching this game.”
That’s Cheryl Cooky. She’s a professor at Purdue University, where she studies gender and sports. She’s been tracking T.V. coverage of women’s sports for 30 years. And she says the sports-bar issue is just part of the challenge that fans face.
COOKY: In 1989, when we were first collecting data, the percentage of coverage of women’s sports was around 5 percent. In 2019, we were at 5.1 percent on the local affiliates and 5.7 on ESPN’s SportsCenter. You don’t have to really try to be a fan of men’s sports. Our culture makes it really easy. It’s like the air we breathe. Even if you’re not a sports fan, you know when the Super Bowl is happening, right? You know when the N.F.L. football season starts. It’s constantly there. Whereas, as a fan of women’s sports, you really have to invest. You really have to dig deep and know, “Okay, where do I go if I want to watch this match?”
That’s what Nguyen was thinking about back in 2018 — watching the women’s N.C.A.A. championship without sound.
NGUYEN: I was driving home that night and I was just like, you know, “If we had our own place, what would we call it?” I was just like, “Oh, yeah, The Sports Bra.” And then a few days after that, I was like, “Ooh, I have a motto for it: We support women.”
The idea of the Sports Bra became a running joke among Nguyen’s friends — an imaginary place where women’s sports were always front and center.
NGUYEN: Like, if we wanted to watch the championship of gymnastics, nobody would put that on. And we’d be like, “Oh, at the Sports Bra, gymnastics would be on.” My friends and I would just, you know, have this make-believe land that was, like, perfect.
In 2020, Nguyen decided it was time to turn make-believe into reality. She applied for loans to get the business off the ground. But this was at the peak of the pandemic, when bars were going out of business left and right.
NGUYEN: These banks would always say, “There’s three main reasons we can’t do this. One, you’ve never owned a business before, so you’re completely inexperienced. Two, it’s the pandemic and you want to open a bar and restaurant during a pandemic? And then three, this is literally a concept nobody had ever done before, which is very, very risky for a bank.”
Every single bank turned her down. So, she cashed out her life savings — around $27,000 dollars — and cobbled together some more money from family and friends. And then, she launched a Kickstarter campaign. That’s when she knew her idea had struck a chord.
NGUYEN: We reached our goal of 49,000 in 9 days. And by the time it closed, 30 days later, it was over $105,000. I got thousands of responses. I got notes, letters, cards, things in the mail…
For Nguyen, it was a sign that she had tapped into something special. People were ready to show up. But finding the games to put on the T.V.s — well, that turned out to be the real challenge. That’s coming up.
* * *
The Sports Bra opened for business in Northeast Portland on April 1st, 2022 — the first day of the N.C.A.A. Final Four. Jenny Nguyen had always been told that she’d need to be patient, that it takes time for a bar to build a base of loyal customers. But at The Sports Bra —
NGUYEN: We opened to absolute media frenzy. There was hundreds and hundreds of people out front hours before we opened. I semi-blacked out that day because there was just so many feelings.
The Sports Bra looks pretty similar to any other sports bar. It’s an intimate space, with 5 T.V.s, 40 seats, and lots of dark wood. The walls are covered with sports memorabilia. There are 21 beers on tap — all from breweries owned, at least in part, by women. But according to Professor Cheryl Cooky, The Sports Bra is about more than just sports and beer.
COOKY: As a woman in this culture, there’s a song and dance that I have to do, just to go and watch a game — like, “Okay, who are we? Where are we going to sit?” The Sports Bra is unlike anything that I’ve experienced as a woman. It’s unlike anything that I’ve experienced as a sports fan. It is a space that is explicitly about women’s sports — in an unapologetic way.
Cooky says The Sports Bra has had to fight back against a common narrative she’s encountered in her work:
COOKY: That people just aren’t interested in women’s sports — that “the women’s game is not as exciting, it’s not as interesting, people just don’t want to tune in.” I think the idea that the demand or interest isn’t there is now being challenged by empirical evidence. The audience is there. It’s just the content isn’t always easily accessible in the kinds of ways I think that men’s sports are. If you make it easy for people to watch, they’ll watch.
There’s evidence to back that up. In a 2018 poll by Neilsen, 84 percent of general sports fans — women and men alike — said they were interested in watching women’s sports. This past Spring, the N.C.A.A. women’s basketball final was aired on network television for the first time in 28 years, and it attracted a record-setting 9.9 million viewers — about two-thirds the audience of the men’s final. It was also the most-viewed college sporting event on E.S.P.N.’s streaming platform. And yet —
COOKY: The ability to get content is really a struggle. You can’t just leave E.S.P.N. on, or Fox Sports. It takes a lot of investment and effort. It’s getting multiple subscriptions to multiple different platforms to try to fill in the gaps and put all the pieces together.
Luckily for Nguyen, there is a growing number of media companies focused on fulfilling this need. Networks and streaming platforms like: Just Women Sports, The Women’s Sports Network, and E.S.P.N.W. now feature around-the-clock coverage of more than a dozen sports.
Major cable providers generally charge by the number of seats, and the number of T.V.s, at a sports bar. For a 40-seat sports bar, the bill can easily run over $2,000 per month. Nguyen says the cost of utilities, which includes subscriptions and cable services, accounts for more than 50 percent of her expenses.
NGUYEN: We’ve played, I mean, obviously the big ones. So, soccer, basketball, tennis, softball, volleyball. We’ve done swimming, diving, gymnastics, cheer, pickleball, bowling, rugby, lacrosse, boxing, CrossFit, ultimate Frisbee, roller derby, the Special Olympics — we dedicated a T.V. to that.
And it’s not just women who are tuning in.
NGUYEN: A lot of the guys that come into The Sports Bra on the regular don’t watch men’s sports anymore, period. A lot of the men’s sports, to them, have gotten so convoluted with drama, ego, selfish play. Whereas, in a lot of women’s sports, it’s much more, like, classic fundamentals, and team-oriented.
Customers like this have been a boon for Nguyen. In the first year of business, the Sports Bra brought in over $1 million dollars in revenue — three times the earnings of the average bar in America.
NGUYEN: It has been profitable since that very first day. I paid off all the loans that I told people would take me five years to pay them. And then, I was able to pay myself from day one, which a lot of owners don’t for years.
Of course, Nguyen has the benefit of operating in Portland, which is known to be a progressive town. But she thinks the model can work anywhere.
NGUYEN: There’s been people all up in my email about investing in a franchise, investing in the spread of The Sports Bra as far and wide as humanly possible.
Recently, another bar focused on women’s sports opened in Seattle. It also plays men’s sports some of the time — but Nguyen is still encouraged.
NGUYEN: If other sports bars that are traditionally just playing men’s sports decide that, “Oh, we’re going to have a Women’s Wednesday where all the T.V.s are just playing women’s sports.” Oh, my God, that would be a W. The mission of The Sports Bra is to increase visibility, representation, and the culture of fandom for girls and women’s sports. Period.
Part of that mission includes exposing girls to women’s sports at a young age. The Sports Bra allows customers of all ages to watch games before 10pm. And for Nguyen, that kind of access is personal.
NGUYEN: I started to think about if I was nine years old and my parents took me to a place like The Sports Bra, what kind of an impact that would have had on my life, to be in a place that felt like I belonged. I thought about a little kid that could see a future for themselves represented on TV. And then, look around and be surrounded by people cheering for that person up there on the screen. All we’re doing is changing the channel — and it kind of changes everything.
And Nguyen’s parents? They are regulars, now, too.
NGUYEN: Mom is there every day. Dad’s there about twice a week — once to, kind of like, fiddle with things and then once to eat, drink, and watch sports.
* * *
For The Economics of Everyday Things, I’m Zachary Crockett. This episode was produced by Sarah Lilley, with help from Lyric Bowditch, and mixed by Jeremy Johnston.
CROCKETT: Do you ever have like an old school sports bar guy wander in and say, ‘What the hell’s going on here? Where’s my baseball game?’
NGUYEN: Absolutely. And they sit down and they’re like, “This is rad.”
- “There’s a Bar in Portland That Only Shows Women’s Sports — and It Made Nearly $1 Million in Its First 8 Months,” by Jordan Hart (Business Insider, 2023).
- “N.C.A.A. Women’s Tournament Shatters Ratings Record in Final,” by Remy Tumin (The New York Times, 2023).
- “Fans of Women’s Sports Walk Into a Bar Inspired by Women’s Sports,” by Katie C. Reilly (The New York Times, 2023).
- “One and Done: The Long Eclipse of Women’s Televised Sports, 1989–2019,” by Cheryl Cooky, LaToya D. Council, Maria A. Mears, and Michael A. Messner (Communication & Sport, 2021).
- “Global Interest in Women’s Sports is On the Rise,” by Nielsen (2018).
- “The Hidden Side of Sports,” series by Freakonomics Radio (2018-2019).