It was back in April 2018 when Jenny Nguyen and her friends headed to a local bar to catch the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament. It was the championship game between Notre Dame and Mississippi State, and all Nguyen wanted to do was watch a game with her friends while enjoying drinks and food. However, when they walked into the bar, the game wasn’t on any of the many TVs in the room.
Photo credit: Sara Sorbo
Nevertheless, Nguyen was able to flag down a server to change one of the TVs to the women’s championship game. It wasn’t the greatest viewing experience — Nguyen and her group surrounded a small tv with no sound — but it sparked an idea.
A few years after her 2018 experience, Nguyen, who had been running her parent’s family business and working as a chef, left it all behind and began her search for a change. With the Coronavirus Pandemic at its peak and racial justice movements sweeping the nation, Nguyen knew she needed to be the change she was looking for, and thus, The Sports Bra came to life.
GoodSport spoke with Nguyen to talk about how her one-of-a-kind sports bar became a haven for women’s sports, and how taking a chance on your dream is an opportunity worth fighting for.
This interview was conducted via phone call. Minor editing changes were made for clarity.
How did you come up with this concept? How were you able to get it started?
I think coming up with the concept was kind of almost a no-brainer because my friends and I are pretty big sports fans, so we would often go out to go watch sports. I wouldn't say it was difficult but it was complicated to watch women's sports out in the public sphere. And whether or not it was complicated or uncomfortable just being a woman in a sports bar can be uncomfortable, I think. So the idea of having a space that is more inclusive and that plays women's sports on TV as default just doesn't seem like that much of a stretch. So the idea was kind of just born out of necessity more.
Getting started, I think the key was that representation for the popularity of women's sports isn't out there. I like to think that prior to The Sports Bra like, there were only really two ways that people could show that they are women's sports fans. The first way was you'd have to buy a ticket to go to an event, which is super limiting and you have to be at that location. There are only so many people who can fit in a stadium or in an arena. The second way was tweeting, sharing, liking, and following on social media. I think that is huge, but it's also things that are done in the palm of your hand or in your bedroom or in your office or in your car. It's not a really super public way. So when people say things like ‘women's sports aren't popular,’ that's the general public's opinion about it because it's not visible. So it's just like this whole cycle of things that has been perpetuating the stereotype of women in sports and adding to the disparity and I think just breaking that is the key.
With The Sports Bra, I knew it was a risk, but I think that people are into it. Everyone I’ve talked to thought it was a great idea. But again, this is like my core group of people — people who are like me and relate to me. When we opened, I wasn't sure exactly what the general public would think about it, but now it's been absolutely bonkers. And it's really nothing that I did per se; the media took the story and ran with it. People from all over have been reaching out, talking about its impact, and how they feel represented. I didn't have to go out and sell it — it was just showing that a space like this was needed and wanted.
Photo credit: Dorothy Wang
The Sports Bra name is so obvious that it’s clever. How did you come up with the name?
The day after, or two days after [watching the Notre Dame and Mississippi State game], I had made this snide comment like, ‘oh, I know what I'd call it; The Sports Bra.’ I told my girlfriend right then because it's just flipping the letters around just like you would flip through channels. That's ultimately where it came from — it's just like your regular sports bar and everything would pretty much be exactly the same. All we're doing is changing the channel. I just thought it would be fun to have the name sports bar and just change two letters.
Do you ever deal with people coming in and saying that you should play men's sports over women's sports? Do you ever deal with a lot of negative comments?
No. Hardly any at all in the space itself, mostly because right now, or at least for the last month that we've been open, we've just been so busy that I feel like nobody would stand in line and wait to come in just to tell me how I'm doing my business wrong. There are trolls and haters online that will say something, but there is just a huge community of people who jump down their throats as soon as they say something so it's not like anything I have to personally deal with. I just read the comments and then I shrug it off. Then two minutes later, 60 people have already commented about how they're inaccurate basically, to put it nicely.
We opened during the Final Four for March Madness, and women's and the men's Final Four were on opposite days. So for the women's games, it was Friday and Sunday, and for the men's, it was Saturday and Monday. On the days that were in between, we got probably two dozen phone calls asking if we were gonna play the Final Four. And we would say we played it yesterday. They'd be like, ‘No, the men's final four’ and we would respond like ‘Absolutely not. We're not playing that.’ My brain is totally tuned out right now to all that stuff. We have a pretty hard line about it because the goal is to play sports that aren't getting representation, not the sports that are big.
What is the plan for the off-season in women’s sports?
Yeah, we are constantly reaching out to leagues and streaming services to get access to games that we don't currently have access to. I feel like sometimes this process is like we're taking a machete through the forest and we're hacking away at things. I have somebody from the roller derby that competes and I was just like, ‘Hey, do you know somebody who can give me permission to show this roller derby bout on YouTube?’ It’s so grassroots that it's not even funny, but those are the things that we're having to do to fill the time in between because there are tons of times where there's not a legal way for us to have a game on TV. It is something that is a work in progress that I think will take a long time, but every day we get one more thing to show. Yeah. Fortunately, when you think about it with all the sports that are going on, there's hardly ever an off-season. Yeah. Whether it's tennis or golf or swimming or downhill skiing, there's going to be something playing.
People come in to be in a space that is representative of their values and what they want to be around more so than what is on playing on the TV. It’s freaking rad.
Photo credits: Courtesy of Dorothy Wang, Sara Sorbo