The Sports Bra.
It's a bold name, befitting a bold play from Jenny Nguyen, who, at 41, entered into unchartered territory by starting the sports bar of her dreams – an explicitly LGBTQ-friendly space dedicated to playing and watching only women’s sport.
As a pun lover and crossword fiend, Jenny says the iconic name – The Sports Bra – represents how tiny changes can result in a shift in perspective that makes all the difference over time. The Bra’s cheeky motto, which is “women supporting women”, flowed naturally from there.
The original idea for The Sports Bra started in 2018, as Jenny was venting to friends during a car ride home about the blokey and exclusionary state of traditional sports bars in America. Now, The Sports Bra is a real place in Portland, Oregon to have a cocktail and watch women’s sport.
Financially, the business was profitable in its first year. As a result, Jenny and her team are thinking about expanding into new locations in 2024, a mere eighteen months after The Bra first opened. But beyond proving to the world the commercial viability of a joint that only shows women’s sport, Jenny has also created a space that she and others can truly feel safe and good in – some for the first time in their lives.
“I’m queer, a woman, I’m part of the Vietnamese community, and a first-generation daughter to refugee parents. There are a lot of intersections in my life. In having this opportunity to build The Sports Bra, I’ve also had this opportunity to be intentional about creating a space that I felt good in, and that a lot of people want to be in … there’s been a lot of growth,” she says.
On the practical side, Jenny says starting The Sports Bra involved a lot of humbling herself to what she did and didn’t know about owning and running a hospitality business, and asking for and accepting help. Her top tip? Find the person who knows the most about the thing you need expertise from, be it accounting or interior design, and become a learning machine.
For those experiencing The Bra from afar, Jenny warns that it’s smaller than people expect, with 40 seats across one large room. But one thing that can’t be gleaned online is how the space actually feels to be in. From gender-neutral bathrooms, spirits sourced from a local women-run distillery, grass-fed beef from a female rancher, to printed-out photos of famous players from the Women’s National Basketball Association, every detail has been thought through to help The Bra truly celebrate the intersection of women and sport.
“We’ve had athletes come in here saying they’ve never felt more seen,” Jenny says.
Jenny’s path to opening The Sports Bra was not obvious. But connecting the dots looking back, The Sports Bra truly is a culmination of all Jenny’s life experience to date.
As an only child, Jenny recalls her parents’ experiences when they first moved to America from Vietnam in the wake of the war. Rather than being welcomed with open arms, they encountered bullying and harassment, which in their work lives, planted a determination to succeed, and as parents, a desire for Jenny to not make life any harder for herself than it had to be.
But younger Jenny had different ideas about who she was and who she was meant to be. As a child, she loved sport. As a teenager, she came out as gay. And as an undergraduate, she quit her pre-med course after discovering a penchant for cooking.
“In some ways, coming out to my parents and saying I wanted to be a chef rather than a doctor was harder than coming out as gay,” she recalls.
From there, Jenny spent the bulk of her career as a chef, working her way up the US chef corporate ladder, and learning all the skills needed in the kitchen. She loved cooking, and was doing well in work, but says to survive that world required a persona - hers being "that arsehole chef”, putting on armour, motivated by a “if you can’t beat em join em” attitude.
It’s hard to square arsehole chef Jenny with the warm, generous-spirited, somewhat cheeky woman we meet with today.
But in 2015, during her first-ever trip to Vietnam, Jenny experienced somewhat of a paradigm shift. Over two-weeks, Jenny got a window into a world where people didn’t necessarily prioritize individualism and consumerism, but rather, spent their days embracing community, family, friends, and having a laugh. She acknowledges that the economic reality of Vietnam differs from the United States, but Jenny was still struck that there was something different about how people approached one another and happiness that she wanted to bring back home.
So, she quit her job at the company she’d been working for for 11 years. She began to scale back her living costs, moved in with her then-girlfriend, rented out her Portland home, and embarked on a very different way of being, boosting her cash flow with the occasional odd job found online. She thought that the next obvious thing to do would just arrive in a flash … until it didn’t. Indeed, this period of scaling back, chilling with bae, and a whole lot of travelling went on for five years.
And then, 2020 happened. Jenny says with the pandemic came a level of chaos and destruction, and also a weird US-based antimedia storm against Portland.
This maelstrom was enough to push Jenny out of her happy – if somewhat purposeless – semi-retired existence, and into thinking about how she could bring a positive story to her hometown and create a space where people could feel comfortable and safe.
And we're so glad that she did.
We asked the Missing Perspectives Instagram audience (~20k lovely people) if they had any questions for Jenny.
One person asked: “Is the concept transferable to other places?"
“1000 per cent,” Jenny says.
There’s word on the street from the Missing Perspectives followers that a women’s sports bar might be opening in Melbourne, 2024. Watch this space!
Another asked: “How did you have the courage to invest your money like that - did you have a backup plan?
“The backup plan was to move back in with my parents, where they have a basement, get a job as a line cook, and slowly work my way up again,” she says.
In fact, Jenny considers herself to be a pretty risk-averse person. The idea of tipping her life savings into opening a bar was fairly out there – but the way she did the risk calculus before knowing that things would work out better than expected was to compare the best-case scenario if The Sports Bra went well, with the worst case scenario with if it didn’t work out and they had to close.
Did you get backlash when you opened The Sports Bra?
“Quite a bit at the beginning, we got a ton of people saying it was sexist, a ton of people saying it wouldn’t last two months, women’s sports are boring, there was one death threat on the answering machine, and even a 1-star review saying ridiculous things,” she says.
“I remember the first time I encountered ‘trolls’, it was just a really negative and aggressive message, and I felt sweating and anger. I had this whole response typed out to reply to a comment, which I didn’t end up sending. By the time I checked back, a bunch of other people had replied to the comment basically saying my exact thoughts. And that’s when I realised, it wasn’t just me. There’s a whole group of people who will show up for the Bra.”
How does it feel to have inspired other women to open women's sports bars?
“Amazing. The first time I heard of another sports bar like ours opening, I got a bit protective, but then I looked back at our vision, and I realised this is what it’s all about. It’s bigger than us,” she says.
Jenny notes that The Sports Bra intellectual property (IP) itself, however, is protected. So if you’re feeling tavern inclined, be sure to put your own spin on it.
Any plans for expansion?
Hell yes. Jenny says she's eyeing off the US states of Nantucket and Louisville as two potential new locations to take The Sports Bra.
All in all, The Sports Bra is the culmination of everything that at Missing Perspectives we love to celebrate. So the only question that remains ... when is the 2024 field trip to Portland happening?