The Business Of
A Movement, Not A Moment: Inside the Rise of Women’s Sports Bars
August 7, 2023
Meet the new generation of sports bars for women, by women.
On a soccer field in Portland, Oregon, under the stadium lights of Providence Park, Sophia Smith watches a ball cross her field of vision. She waits in a crouch as the ball arrives at the feet of a nearby Gotham FC defender, who handles it with a careless first touch. Smith leaps out of her stance, tracking down the ball like a lion. By the time the defender lays off a pass to her teammate, Smith is already there. She picks the defender’s pocket with speed, poking out the ball only eighteen yards from goal. From every direction, sixteen thousand people watch, and tense, and prepare for jubilation.
With her next touch, the Portland Thorns striker — at age 21, already one of the league’s top scoring threats — beats the goalie, slotting her shot smoothly into the bottom-right corner of the goal.
All around her is an explosion. At the far end of the field, the supporters’ section is rumbling. It has been rumbling since kickoff. The concrete walls of the stadium reverberate the crowd’s screams and a pounding bass drum and noisemakers of every timbre. They chant: F-C-P-T! F-C-P-T! Smoke bombs blanket a sea of waving flags: some black, some red, many rainbow.
The year is 2021, two summers before Sophia Smith would go on to score a pair of goals — barely missing a hat trick — in her World Cup debut. It is the ninth season of play for the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) which has become the third-most-attended soccer league in North America. The Portland Thorns have established themselves as the league’s crown jewel. Home games are rowdy and crowded, thick with nonstop cheers led by the Rose City Riveters, the team’s supporters’ group.
In the stands at a Thorns game, the atmosphere is intense. Worlds away from a country in which women and queer communities fear a slow erosion of their humanity in the public sphere, Thorns games feel like the center of something strong. In a way, unyielding. It is inclusive and safe and explicitly meant to welcome everyone. But it does, also, feel like an army.
In 2022, that army got a base. Jenny Nguyen, a former chef and Portland native, opened The Sports Bra: the first bar in the world to show exclusively women’s sports.
The Sports Bra, Portland, OR
It was a sensation. Overnight, the formerly out-of-work Nguyen went from “pajamas day in, day out,” she told BentoBox, to proprietor of the most talked-about bar in the country. And the nation’s most fervent women’s sports fans got a home.
In other cities, it was like a starting gun went off. Nguyen’s concept felt so right from so many perspectives, including investors’, that before long, plans for women’s sports bars were underway everywhere. Nguyen, after all, wasn’t the only frustrated sports fan to have this idea. She was just the first one to have the guts to make it happen. (And the branding to make it go viral.)
Nguyen will be the first to tell you that her idea wasn’t a novel concept so much as it was a proof of concept for something fans have known for a long time.
Women’s sports have been the fastest-growing segment of the sports entertainment industry for years. For years, their fan bases have comprised an engaged and loyal community. But many have felt excluded, even mocked, in sports bars. They’ve never had a place to gather. Solving this need probably should have occurred, at some point, to any one of the sports executives who’ve spent the last decade trying to reach female fans with embarrassing gimmicks like pink football gear and baseball bats.
Instead, women’s sports bars are being built by members of their own community: independent, entrepreneurial fans who are creating spaces for the games they want to watch. It’s unapologetic, it’s brave, and it’s the most punk rock thing happening in hospitality right now.
A quilt, made by Jenny Nguyen’s aunt, depicting Brandi Chastain’s iconic goal celebration from the 1999 World Cup. (Via Instagram)
Investing in a blue-chip fan base
The Sports Bra opened in Portland on April 1, 2022. Two hundred miles to the north, Jen Barnes was already months into the process of building out Seattle’s Rough & Tumble, a 165-seat bar & grill that eventually opened that December. Barnes came from a background in hospitality and corporate management, previously managing a multi-location food business and running companies of all kinds in various leadership positions.
As with many of the founders of women’s sports bars, Barnes’ first inspiration was frustration. One fall day in 2021, Seattle’s NWSL team, the OL Reign, was playing in a big game. Big enough, Barnes figured, that she could find a bar that would show it. So she called around to her local sports bars.
“We finally convinced one place to play it,” she told BentoBox. “But they wouldn’t put it on until after the NFL game was over — and it wasn’t even the Seahawks, it was an out-of-market game. So of course that game went into overtime, and we didn’t catch the Reign until halftime. I was really angry.”
Barnes was inspired to do something about it. She mused to her partner about opening up a place where she wouldn’t be a second-class sports fan. Then she took a real look at the idea. It wasn’t her passion as a fan, but her entrepreneurial experience, that convinced her the idea was a good one.
“Investing in women's sports is one of the best places you can put your money right now,” she concluded. “The sector is skyrocketing, especially compared to the trajectory of men’s sports. There is a lot of money to be made.”
Source: Soccer Stadium Digest
Over the past decade, interest in women’s sports has exploded in the United States. Since 2016, WNBA viewership has increased an average of 10% per year. Viewership of the women’s March Madness tournament grew 81% from 2021–22, compared to 18% for the men. NWSL attendance (chart above) looks like a growth stock. Broadcast contracts are regularly setting new records.
For companies that have figured out how to tap into this market, the returns have been stellar. “Ally Bank bought in in the beginning,” Jenny Nguyen told us. “Buick, same thing with Women’s March Madness.
“Those companies saw an ROI like nobody’s business. The more advertisers that see that, the more big money is going to enter this space. And then it’s a runaway train.”
One particularly lucrative aspect of women’s sports is the intensity of its fan base. “Women's sports do something different than men's sports,” Barnes believes. “We love our athletes in a way that is categorically different. We feel like we’re part of a community that's lifting up and moving forward. I think that creates a very powerful sense of ownership.”
According to marketing consultancy Sports Innovation Lab, community size and fan engagement is growing 40% faster in women’s sports than in the overall sports marketplace — 96% of which is made up of men’s sports and which has largely flatlined in terms of fan engagement. The only comparable growth area in the sports industry is betting, which is a new market reaching fans mostly through smartphones.
Rough & Tumble’s World Cup watch party, July 21, 2023
Women’s sports, on the other hand, is a potential goldmine for hospitality. Every major market in America has a community of die-hard fans who want nothing more than to get together, in person, and cheer on their teams.
“That feeling when you show up and the bar’s packed — that’s a very emotional experience,” Barnes said. “To be able to cheer your team with your friends, glasses clinking, food being served… that’s something none of us really got to do until Rough & Tumble and The Sports Bra opened.”
Jen Barnes: “We’re part of a community that's lifting up and moving forward. I think that creates a very powerful sense of ownership.”
Taking the idea national
Entertainment executives are meeting the growing demand for women’s sports by expanding the product. Both the WNBA and NWSL plan to add more teams in the next few years. A new women’s hockey league is set to launch in January 2024. Broadcasting rights fees are surging as advertisers clamor to reach women’s sports’ young, affluent audience.
Not surprisingly, entrepreneurs across the country saw what Nguyen did with The Sports Bra and started laying plans in their own cities. Many of these operators are people like Nguyen and Barnes: frustrated fans of women’s sports, bootstrapping their first forays into bar ownership.
In New York City, hospitality veterans Claudia Capriles and Alexandra Murray have been working for months to launch Athena Keke’s (named after their cat) which would be the city’s first women’s sports bar. In 2023, they completed fundraising and have been hosting pop-ups while scouting locations in Brooklyn.
“We had this idea in 2019,” Capriles told BentoBox. The couple was living in New Orleans and had trouble finding a place to watch the FIFA Women’s World Cup. As with Nguyen and Barnes, the idea for a bar that showed women’s sports started as a bittersweet inside joke. Until it wasn’t.
“We got back to New York and were like, ‘We should really do this,’” said Murray. “Just floating it around but not doing anything serious. And then when we heard about The Sports Bra, we were like, Oh shit, this is it. Like, yes, someone finally made this happen! And it’s successful, and people are psyched about it!”
Both of them believed the greatest bar city in the world was overdue for a taste of the excitement brewing in Portland. “There's a lot of groups in New York that are always looking for a place to watch sports like women's soccer as the main event, and not to be like, shoved to the back, you know, to watch sports without sound,” said Capriles. “Every time we tell people what we're trying to do, they get super excited. They're like, How is this just happening? You know? How come we don't have this yet?”
Claudia Capriles (above) and Alexandra Murray are looking to open Athena Keke’s in a permanent location in 2023. (Via Instagram)
In Salem, Oregon, an hour’s drive away from The Sports Bra, Icarus Wings opened in March 2023. The project started the previous summer when James Beard-nominated chef Jonathan Jones moved his restaurant Epilogue to a larger space. Jones and his wife Maura teamed up with two Epilogue regulars to put a new concept in the vacated storefront. His dream was to have “just a wing spot,” he told BentoBox.
One of his new co-owners, Kelli Gilliand, was a former college softball player. Emboldened by The Sports Bra, she knew exactly what she wanted to do with the space.
“I used to live and breathe sports,” Kelli said. “I remember reading books about softball in college, studying the game, falling asleep visualizing at-bats. But when I graduated, it was hard to keep that passion going because I never saw it represented anywhere. That was a big driver for me: I don’t want that to be the end of the story for the generation growing up.”
Kelli & Aaron Gilliand (Via Instagram)
How to open a women’s sports bar
Jenny Nguyen and Jen Barnes have spent the past year fielding emails and DMs from people trying to launch this second wave of women’s sports bars, looking for advice and any words of wisdom.
The OGs are happy to oblige.
“It’s spreading the mission,” Nguyen said. “The more exposure people have to women’s sports, the more folks can enjoy the fandom. That’s a win-win for everybody. This isn’t just a moment for some of us to enjoy. We’re part of a movement.”
In addition to the goal of advocating women’s sports, Barnes and Nguyen both say that showing women’s sports is just good business.
“We have been busy, consistently, since the day we opened,” Barnes reports. “I see all these articles giving advice to bar owners on how to keep patrons coming back when there isn’t sports programming on. But there is a whole world of sports with seasons that are opposite men’s sports. In that January/February period that are traditionally a restaurant’s slowest months, we’re packed every day.”
All the owners agreed that the best place to open a new women’s sports bar is a city with at least one pro team. Not only do professional teams bring built-in communities of supporters, they tend to be located in areas that are densely packed with affluent, open-minded young people. Some of the owners were hopeful that college towns could also be big markets, but pro team markets seem to be where the movement is starting.
A focus on quality food and drink is important, too. It’s not something we usually associate with sports bars, but all the owners agreed that elevated menus were core to their brands. “That’s the idea, to have really good food and a nice bottle of wine and enjoy the game,” said Capriles of her plans for Athena Keke’s. “Not a typical sports bar, but something design-forward and comfortable, where you don’t feel like a vampire.”
In Portland, Nguyen has “very strong feelings about delicious food and making things from scratch,” she told us. As a former chef, Nguyen also feels that good food is a way to keep The Sports Bra from being a novelty. “Having really solid food and consistency is a huge part of what I feel is important to the space. It’s just another reason for people to come back.”
The Sports Bra’s “The Big Booty Buick Brunch Burger” (Via Instagram)
Asked about the unique challenges of running a women’s sports bar — aside from the misogynistic online comments, which are irksome but irrelevant — owners cite the high cost of accessing women’s sports content in the first place.
“It has always taken a lot of work to watch women's sports,” said Barnes. “You have to use multiple apps, and search forever, and you usually end up watching it on a small screen.” Many women’s sports are broadcast sporadically or not at all on the cable packages bars are allowed to use. And cobbling together streaming services is expensive.
“It costs us twice as much as a normal bar to buy the services we need to show these sports,” said Icarus Wings’ Aaron Gilliand. At Rough & Tumble, Barnes estimates the cost of streaming and cable services to be between $2,000–3,000 per month.
But while the challenge of navigating glitchy, sketchy websites to watch your favorite team has always been an unfortunate rite of passage, Barnes sees it as part of the larger fight to grant women athletes better pay, playing conditions, and exposure. She also thinks it brought the community closer. “I think it gives us a sense of investment in the sport that’s really different.”
The good news is that women’s sports bars are helping the flywheel spin the right way. The more places that open, the more fan communities will build. More people will demand access to women’s sports coverage, and more providers will show it. All of it, together, will help normalize women’s sports in the culture. That’s the goal everyone shares.
“Two months ago I was on a call with ESPN,” Nguyen says. “The head of espnW told me, ‘We need The Sports Bra.’” Nguen was shocked, but the executive doubled down. “It’s just finally physical proof that the demand is there.”
Jenny Nguyen (Via Instagram)
To build a better sports bar
Unlike The Sports Bra, Rough & Tumble doesn’t play exclusively women’s sports. Nor will Icarus or Athena Keke’s. “Typical sports coverage is 95% men, 5% women,” said Icarus co-owner Aaron Gilliand. “We’re going to invert that.”
“We have to engineer equality,” is how Jen Barnes puts it. Her goal with Rough & Tumble is not to exclude men’s sports, but to provide a space where women’s sports is the focus. This is a common theme: the closer we can get to a sports landscape that represents the actual makeup of sports fans, the better. These particular businesses are starting by flipping the script, but equality and inclusion is the ultimate goal. “Equal pay and equal play,” as the rallying cry goes.
Rough & Tumble celebrates a USWNT goal
Women’s sports bars may be only one step towards that, but to the communities they serve, it’s a heroic leap forward.
“Women come in every day and cry,” Barnes said. “They finally have somewhere they can watch the sports they love, watch the athletes they love, and have a space where they're not going to get hit on or jeered at for asking questions. You know, it's so many things all rolled up into one that it's difficult to parse out.”
Inside the walls of these irreverent, unapologetic bars, the dream of cheering alongside your community — your team on the big screen, in a place built for you — is no longer just something to joke about.
It’s here, and it’s getting big.
Follow the businesses profiled in this piece on Instagram: The Sports Bra, Rough & Tumble, Icarus Wings, and Athena Keke’s.
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