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The Canadian women’s soccer team celebrates their 1-0 Olympic semi-final win over the USA at Ibaraki Kashima Stadium, Japan, on August 2, 2021.

Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Katie Lebel is an assistant professor at the Ted Rogers School of Retail Management. She is an affiliated scholar with the U.S.-based Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport and the E-Alliance, Canada’s gender equity in sport research hub.

After back-to-back bronze medal performances in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, the mantra of the Canadian women’s soccer team going into the Tokyo Olympics was to “change the colour of the medal.” Upon defeating their United States rival on Monday for the first time in 20 years, they successfully accomplished this mission, punching their ticket to the gold medal game and proving what fans of the team have long known: Canada’s got game.

In the aftermath of the thrilling victory, my initial instinct as a sports fan was to hop online to find some merch for my daughter and I, so we could support the team’s accomplishments, celebrate our national pride, and bask in the glow of our fandom.

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Silly me for thinking sport retailers might be prepared to meet this moment. While girls and young women have been named one of the sporting goods industry’s fastest-growing markets, they’re also one of its most ignored.

A quick search for captain Christine Sinclair jerseys on Sport Chek’s website turned up Blue Jays gear. The online store run by Canada Soccer shut down briefly after Canada’s win over the U.S., presumably because of increased demand, but when it came back online, there were no women’s team options available in youth sizing. While men’s sports have incorporated merchandise into their branding strategies so seamlessly, the women’s sport merchandise market has long existed as an afterthought – a box to be checked with options made in the shadows of men’s sports.

This lack of investment is not only frustrating for fans of women’s sport, but it also undermines the broader growth of women’s sports, handcuffing their ability to build their fanbases. Merch matters. Consider your own experience with fandom. When our favourite team or athlete does well, we’re predisposed to want to associate ourselves with them. This is especially true for young people actively looking for role models.

Merchandise is a gateway to fandom, but when it comes to women’s sports, this brand-building tool is practically non-existent. Our research shows that in basketball, the NBA had 47 times more options for kids than the WNBA. That breaks down to approximately 175 options per NBA franchise, compared with just 10 options per team in the WNBA.

We’ve also looked at baseball brands. The equipment options available for girls were dismal compared with their male counterparts, and almost exclusively pink. The representation of girls in sports marketing strategies puts these biases into even clearer focus. Our analysis of baseball brands’ Instagram feeds during the 2018 season found that girls and women were featured in just 0.16 per cent of all posts. Moreover, the in-store banners and advertisements of sport retailers regularly feature boys actively participating, while girls are depicted passively posing or cheering from the sidelines. What types of messages are we sending the next generation?

While the availability of youth sportswear may seem like a relatively superficial concern within the broader challenge of addressing gender equity in sport, one can’t help but wonder how the lack of options for young girls affects their feeling that they belong in sport. It’s a short leap to imagine how this might also affect their sport participation and fandom.

The influence of Gen Z and their expectations of gender equality make a compelling business case for this issue to be addressed. Sport retail is a US$135-billion market in North America, and forecast to grow 24 per cent over the next five years, according to market research firm Euromonitor. Imagine the potential profits if retailers were to stop leaving money on the table and manufacture merchandise and memorabilia that allow us to develop our fandom around women athletes and teams.

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Research substantiates the effects of wardrobe on performance and well-being, and who better for our kids to look up to than women like Christine Sinclair, a university-educated, leading international scorer – among women and men – who gives back to her community in ways too numerous to count? Win or lose in the gold medal game on Thursday, she’s already inspiring both young girls and boys. Let’s allow them to celebrate women’s sport heroes and give them the tools to affirm their fandom. If we are truly to achieve gender equity in sport, it starts with the next generation of fans.

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