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The survey said two thirds of Canadians aged 13 to 65 view women’s sport positively and describe men’s and women’s sport similarly.The Canadian Press

Some two thirds of Canadians are fans of women’s sports, says new market research being presented in Toronto on Monday, in a meeting of sport and business leaders.

A survey of more than 2,000 Canadians aged 13-65, conducted in October of 2023, found wide interest for women’s sport, a fan base that is also diverse, educated, and affluent, compared to the overall population of Canada.

The report focuses specifically on Canadian fandom for female sports, and its authors hope it lands on the desks of decision makers who could play a role in building up women’s professional leagues and franchises in Canada. It’s the second white paper by a committee from Canadian Women & Sport. Last April, the same group of a dozen Canadian females working throughout the sports industry presented their research to a large gathering of athletes, media and sport executives in Toronto. Last year’s report focused on the commercial opportunities for a women’s pro sport market in Canada.

In the year since that report, Canadian fans have witnessed more significant moments in women’s sport. The country held its first WNBA game, which sold out in Toronto, and gets a second next month in Edmonton. The six-team Professional Women’s Hockey League, launched on Jan. 1 and which has three Canadian teams, keeps setting worldwide attendance records for female hockey. The latest record fell Saturday at a game inside Bell Centre, the NHL’s biggest arena, as a crowd of 21,105 watched an overtime thriller between host Montreal and Toronto.

While similar research has been done elsewhere in the world, this survey sought to gauge Canadian sentiment, although there aren’t many pro female teams and leagues operating inside Canada, and fewer when the data was collected late last year.

“When you see that two of three Canadians are already fans of women’s pro sport and are hungry for more – and that this data was collected before the PWHL even launched,” added Allison Sandmeyer-Graves, CEO of Canadian Women & Sport. “That tells you that the market is there.”

The survey said two thirds of Canadians aged 13 to 65 view women’s sport positively and describe men’s and women’s sport similarly. Two in five are avid fans (they watch professional or elite women’s sport regularly), while one quarter are casual fans (watch and follow it occasionally). Some 80 per cent of those fans reported they played sports while growing up. The research shows that younger fans (13 to 34) are driving engagement for women’s sports, especially online.

The study found that slightly more than half (53 per cent) of the fans of women’s sports are men, and the balance of fans are women (46 per cent) and gender-diverse people (1 per cent). Fans of women’s sport follow a variety of teams, leagues, and events on the women’s and men’s sides. Top properties followed by fans of women’s sport were the NHL (77 per cent of fans) and women’s Olympic hockey (62 per cent). A significant proportion of these fans follow the NBA (58 per cent) and WNBA (37 per cent), and soccer’s men’s World Cup (59 per cent) and women’s World Cup (52 per cent).

“There has been a narrative, talked about explicitly and held implicitly in the sport-business landscape in Canada, that there just wasn’t a market for women’s sports, that old adage that no one would watch,” Sandmeyer-Graves said. “I would say that this report really should put that narrative to rest.”

Canadian Women & Sport worked with a global marketing consultancy, IMI Consulting, on the research, supported by Women and Gender Equality Canada and Canadian Tire. The survey said fans chose words such as growing, inspirational and empowering to describe women’s pro sports. They also found that four in 10 fans are more likely to purchase from brands that support women’s sport.

That, they hope, will pique the interest of more Canadian sponsors.

“It’s going to add a layer of purpose-driven marketing that I think will be very attractive,” said project co-lead Sarah Stovold, of IMI NextWave Leadership. “Being able to connect with Canadians in a meaningful way, to drive conversations around diversity, equity and inclusion, or just to jump on the bandwagon and seize the moment that is this 15-year overnight success of women’s sports.”

Last week, Canadian Women & Sport gave an early sneak peak of their findings to a select group working on different women’s sport projects in Canada. Invitees included those from the PWHL, from Project 8 (the pro women’s soccer league in the works), and from NBA Canada, which has played a key role in organizing the WNBA exhibition games in Toronto and Edmonton.

Among them was Leah MacNab, managing director at the NBA Canada. Some of these new research insights aligned with some of the things NBA Canada has learned about fans who made purchases around the two WNBA games in Canada.

MacNab talked about the female-owned small businesses enlisted to make and sell special WNBA-themed products timed to the Toronto and Edmonton games. NBA Canada then polled the fans about their feelings on their purchases and women’s sports. MacNab said 70 per cent of the respondents said that they purchased those unique WNBA products to support female entrepreneurs.

“We’ve really been focused on their point around fan strategy needing to go beyond the arena and into both commercial and societal benefit,” MacNab said. “We have this subset of fans that also just want to support women.”

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