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Volume 22 No. 32
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What can be done to close the Merchandise Gap?

The perpetual disparity between the availability — and marketing — of men’s and women’s apparel is symbolic of how female fans are viewed.

Pink it and shrink it.

Not long ago, that’s how leagues, teams and sports apparel companies catered to female fans. The result: Pink hats and pink jerseys in ill-fitting women’s sizes. And lots of dissatisfied customers. The bigger message to female fans: The sports world doesn’t value you, at least not enough to figure out what you really want.

Now, female fans enjoy more options. Some good. Some questionably fashion forward. But while apparel makers have mostly moved on from pink-it-and-shrink-it, there’s an undeniable residual effect from that approach. Female fans remain an underserved demographic.

Next time you’re in a sports store or a pro shop, look around. Sports apparel sections for men dwarf sports apparel sections for women. Sometimes women’s sections don’t exist at all. Sometimes it takes a special order to get a particular jersey. Sometimes the children’s section is the only place where women can find the style and fit they want.

Let’s call it the Merchandise Gap.

Maybe it doesn’t prompt the same sense of outrage and call to action as the Gender Pay Gap. But the Merchandise Gap matters because it reflects the way female fans are viewed. Again, it goes to whether they’re valued or not. It also speaks to inclusivity. Part of being a fan is wearing team gear. When it’s hard to get team merchandise that looks authentic and fits well, it creates an invisible barrier, an impression that real fandom is for some and not others.

Teams, leagues and apparel manufacturers are starting to recognize the incredible diversity of female fans.
Photo: getty images

That’s a lot to put on a piece of clothing. But consider the case of Boston Bruins fan Victoria Carter.

With the Bruins playing in the 2019 NHL Winter Classic, all Carter wanted was a jersey to celebrate the event, an authentic jersey in her size. She couldn’t find one. She took to social media and asked, “Why do men and kids get authentic and replica Winter Classic jerseys, but not women?” She documented her search as it stretched from several days to several weeks.

“It made me question, ‘Where do I rank in terms of fandom?’” Carter said. “You can talk to me and my friends who are female sports fans and we know what we’re talking about. But when it comes to being able to represent that through the clothing that we’re wearing, we have to do a lot more work. Hunt around a little more. It’s almost like you have to jump through hoops to, in a bizarre sort of way, prove your fandom.”

It shouldn’t feel like that when, according to a recent Nielsen Sports study, nearly 50% of women surveyed across the Americas, Asia and Europe consider themselves interested or very interested in sports. And when according to statistics, women drive 70% to 80% of consumer purchases. And when sports leagues and teams will be increasingly dependent on female fans for growth because they’ve likely maxed out male interest.

Apparel company Fanatics knows that from experience. Its women’s business is its fastest-growing category.

In 2018, the company’s sales of women’s merchandise across all sports and leagues was up over 20%. That was the third consecutive year of over 20% growth. On the supply side, Fanatics says that it offers more than 125,000 women’s-specific products. Beyond its official fan jerseys, the company takes particular pride in its partnerships with brands such as DKNY to produce a variety of products. Think sneaker dresses, cropped hoodies and leggings with team logos.

The NBA offers a women’s collection that ranges from replica jerseys to wedge boots with team logos. There’s also NBA partnerships with Top Shop, Forever 21 and Levi’s.

Say what you will about sandals dotted with team logos or Top Shop’s cropped team sweatshirts. They’re not for everyone. But they show how leagues and apparel companies are trying to satisfy female fans. They also illustrate how difficult that can be.

The idiocy of pink-it-and-shrink-it was that it treated female fans as a singular stereotype. In reality, they’re incredibly diverse. As apparel makers dive into that diversity, it’s OK if they produce logo-festooned purses and tie-ins with big-name brands. Inclusion comes in many styles.

But let’s not get lost in the volume of the women’s collections and forget about the Victoria Carters out there. At its core, the Merchandise Gap is about female fans not having the same apparel options as male fans and kids.

What can be done to close the Merchandise Gap? What can be done for women who simply want to walk into sports stores and buy team jerseys that fit well? Lisa Piken Koper, the NBA’s senior vice president of merchandising partnerships, grew up a die-hard sports fan unhappy with pink and unisex options. Now, privy to how merchandising decisions get made, here’s her advice: Let retailers and leagues know what you want. Create demand.

“I would love to hear from more female fans,” said Piken Koper. “We love feedback. We’d love to hear more about what’s missing from our assortment. Why can’t you buy it and how can we help you?”

Piken Koper recalled how the league miscalculated with the Nike Therma Flex hoodie. Last year, female fans complained that the NBA didn’t offer the hoodie for women. This year, the NBA and Nike made sure there was a women’s version available.

As for Carter, her social media campaign for a women’s Winter Classic jersey got personal responses from Fanatics, the Bruins and the NHL, including a 45-minute conference call with four league executives. They discussed how the NHL can do better by female fans.

Leagues, teams and apparel companies would be smart to keep up the conversation and stock up for the future.

 

Shira Springer (sbj.springer@gmail.com) covers stories at the intersection of sports and society for programs on NPR and WBUR, writes a column on women’s sports for the Boston Globe and teaches journalism at Boston University.

Questions about OPED guidelines or letters to the editor? Email editor Jake Kyler at jkyler@sportsbusinessjournal.com