It’s one of the hottest days of the year, and this bar doesn’t have air conditioning. The ceiling fans do little to shift the June stale air, yet people keep pouring in, searching for an empty seat among the tables marked with the names of those who reserved places a week ago. Servers hustle through the crowd, anxious to quickly distribute drinks, but still calmly answer questions about the bar’s specialist Belgian beers.
Those fond of stereotypes would assume this is just another day in southeast Portland, where hipsters become full-blown elitists when it comes to fancy brews and small plates. But in a place where air conditioning is not the norm, Portlanders will do whatever is necessary to get cool, and there are plenty of nearby bars serving up a.c. alongside craft beer and tasty happy-hour eats. Most of those bars are even showing the Women’s World Cup. So why are hundreds willing to pack into this particular one?
“Everyone knows this is the go-to place for the women’s national team,” said Carla, a young woman decked out in a Heather O’Reilly jersey. “People come here because the owner has done an excellent job of welcoming soccer fans.”
And when you meet Hilda Stevens, you understand exactly why over 100 avid soccer fans pack into Bazi Bierbrasserie for Women’s World Cup games – and why over 300 more fill in the beer garden opened for the semifinals. The Guatemala native, whose father was a professional referee, grew up playing street soccer and watching games, so the game has always been in her blood. Now she shares that passion with both her customers and her employees.
Because Bazi is a beer bar in the heart of Beervana, as Portland is affectionately known, its employees must know beer first. The love of soccer is just a bonus. But it’s a bonus the boss encourages. If Major League Soccer’s Timbers or the National Women’s Soccer League’s Thorns are in town and things are slow at the bar, Hilda will throw an employee on the back of her scooter and drive them west across the river, to Providence Park for their first live game. “If they get that first-hand experience at the the stadium, when they come back to the bar and see the fans, they have that new understanding of why the customers have such a passion for the team and for the sport.”
Portland fans certainly are madly, deeply in love with soccer. When Fox Sports chose three bars to feature for the U.S. semifinal against Germany, they picked one in New York, one in Los Angeles, and Bazi. And Bazi was the only one that dedicates itself specifically to women’s soccer. It could very well be the only bar of its type in the world. According to Derek Espinoza of the American Outlaws Portland chapter, it’s certainly the only one known as such in the U.S.
It was a combination of good business sense and fortuitous timing that brought Bazi to
where it is today, though Hilda says she didn’t specifically set out to create a place for fans of women’s soccer. The goal was to fill a missing niche in Portland’s beer market, a bistro focused on Belgian beers. But Bazi opened May 27, 2011, a week before the previous Women’s World Cup. By the time the semifinals started, calls were coming in asking if the games were being shown. Hilda’s response? “Why wouldn’t we?”
By the time the final rolled around, people were spilling out of Bazi’s large car garage door and onto Southeast 32nd Street, just off of Portland’s busy Hawthorne Boulevard. Despite the rain, Bazi rolled up its door, and strangers found themselves sharing umbrellas as they watched the U.S. lose to Japan on penalties.
Kristen, a Thorns fan, remembers most the atmosphere. “It was electric. To me, it felt like being in the stadium.” Bazi became her go-to place from then on, the place she went when the Timbers played away. Now, it’s also the place she goes to watch Thorns matches when she’s not at Providence Park.
That just may be what makes Bazi truly unique. NWSL matches aren’t televised but rather streamed online, via youTube, and few public places go through the trouble of showing them. But Bazi never hesitated. When the Thorns started up in 2013, the women who supported the Timbers decided it was time for a women’s-only amateur soccer team, and invited Hilda to join. The outside-mid jumped right in and established close relationships with that group, including those who were part of the Thorns’ supporters group, Rose City Riveters. The Riveters then made Bazi, a place willing to be kid- and family-friendly, “their” bar. When the Thorns won the first NWSL championship and the Riveters brought back a banner signed by the entire team, they asked Hilda if she’d be willing to display it in the bar.
In Portland, a bar can be successful just by promoting good beer. Hilda, and Bazi, have refused to let that be enough. While there are dozens of other bars that show the Women’s World Cup, it’s this one that’s the destination. A couple from North Carolina stopped by after inquiring about places to watch the games. A team of teenagers driving up from Los Angeles, and all their parents, called ahead to make sure Bazi could accommodate 30 fans for the Canada versus England quarterfinal.
And Tara, new to the city, knew this was the only place to be for Women’s World Cup games. Unfortunately, the U.S. quarterfinal was the first match she’d been able to watch in person. And what she didn’t know is that Bazi took reservations for the games. Fortunately, Tara was in good humor, having arrived early enough to at least grab a seat on the picnic tables outside. The tables inside had been grabbed days before – another fan, Chelsea, told me she’d reserved as soon as the U.S. had booked its spot. When asked why she was so dedicated to the bar, Chelsea said that while most places in the country tend to regard the sport as peripheral, “They really actually care about soccer here.”
“They” is both the staff and the fans. Even for the Germany versus France quarterfinal, all attention was on the game, with cheers and moans ringing out throughout the match. For U.S. games, it’s even more intense. Hilda says the fans here “embrace going to a bar like they do going to a stadium.” It’s the same sort of atmosphere, with the crowd focused on the game, and chants often ringing out.
This atmosphere also encourages a quick sort of familiarity, a feeling of community that Bazi fosters. Customers quickly become friends, adding each other on social networks and inviting each other to games. Those fans bring other fans back to Bazi to watch away games.
Without the passion Portlanders carry for the sport, Bazi never would have become known as the place for women’s soccer. But without Hilda’s staunch support for women’s soccer, such a possibility would’ve never even existed. Hilda suggests Bazi doesn’t need to be unique, however: “Don’t wait to jump on a bandwagon, don’t wait for a final,” is her advice to other pubs. Open your doors. The fans of women’s soccer will come in.