Where Is All the Women’s Sports Merch?

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During Angela Ruggiero‘s career as an ice hockey defender, she attended four Olympic Games with Team USA and won medals at all of them, including gold at the 1998 Games.

But despite her accolades, you couldn’t find many Ruggiero jerseys in the stands — because they didn’t exist.

“It was impossible to get my jersey,” she tells PS. “You couldn’t even custom order it. You had to go buy a jersey, and take it in to get my name pressed on it.”

Thankfully, in 2024, you can buy jerseys for most of the USA women’s ice hockey team. But overall, merchandise for women’s sports still majorly lags behind. A new report from Klarna and the Sports Innovation Lab, which Ruggiero co-founded in 2017, shows just how much, with data on the eye-popping disparities between merch for women’s and men’s sports. The lack is made all the more frustrating by the clear, but as yet unmet, appetite for more and better women’s sports merch.

The Paris Olympics are just weeks away, and will mark the first-ever Games with gender parity among athletes. Women athletes will be in the spotlight like never before, but the merch disparity means the athletes and their leagues won’t be able to take advantage of that spotlight in the same way that men can.

“We’re seeing all this momentum around women’s sports,” says Ruggiero. “I’m perked up as a fan; I’m leaning in. But I can’t buy anything because [merchandisers] have run out of inventory, or they don’t have something I would actually wear, and then the momentum stops. That’s the worst thing for a business — the demand is there, but the supply is not.”

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Angela Ruggiero is a former ice hocker player and four-time Olympian, and is the co-founder of the Sports Innovation Lab, a market research firm focused on the future of sports.

Ali Krieger is a two-time World Cup champion and Olympian with the US Women’s National Team and a National Women’s Soccer League champion.

Women’s Sports Merch: Hard to Find and Hard to Buy

Overall, the Rep Her report found that women’s sports merch is difficult to find, difficult to buy, and lacking in variety, availability, and quality. For instance, three in five survey respondents who intended to buy women’s sports merch never did, because they couldn’t find what they wanted. It’s a grim statistic but not a terribly surprising one considering the other findings of the report, like that for every nine pieces of men’s sports merch there’s just one for women’s sports. Direct comparisons between MLS and NWSL teams and NBA and WNBA teams are especially shocking: NBA teams have 66 times more hats for sale than WNBA teams, for example.

Even fans who successfully purchased merch often had to dig to find it, according to the report. “You have to go down wormholes sometimes to figure out where it is,” says Ruggiero.

This holds true even at the biggest women’s sporting events in the world. According to the report, fans have historically struggled to find merch to represent their teams during the Women’s World Cup, even as recently as the 2023 tournament. Ali Krieger, a two-time World Cup champion and Olympian with the US Women’s National Team and a National Women’s Soccer League champion, tells PS she’s consistently heard from fans, family members, and friends that they haven’t been able to find her jersey, or other merch items they wanted. And the jersey of England goalkeeper Mary Earps wasn’t available for sale at all when she won the Golden Glove at the 2023 tournament, and when Nike finally made it available, it sold out in a day.

“As an industry we’re making it really hard to be a women’s sports fan, and that results in loss of dollars and potentially loss of interest,” Ruggiero says.

Why Merch Matters, Especially For Women’s Sports

Without enough merchandise to match demand, women athletes are losing out on dollars that could be going directly into their pockets, plus revenue that could be invested back into women’s sports more broadly.

But the loss is so much greater than the dollars that can be measured, partially because women’s sports fans have a deeper, more complex relationship to how they rep their teams than their counterparts on the men’s side.

One way to think about this: In the United States, there are 92 cities that have at least one professional men’s sports team, but only 21 cities with a professional women’s sports team. This means that a large percentage of women’s sports fans don’t have a “home team,” and don’t attend games on a regular basis, if ever. So whereas wearing merch from a men’s sports team may suggest geographical loyalty and game attendance (as the report puts it, “I was there”), wearing women’s sports merch is often more about a feeling of values alignment, or an investment in the individual players and what they stand for (“I care”).

Take the viral WNBA orange hoodie that sold out repeatedly in 2020. “I guarantee a lot of those people have never been to a WNBA game,” says Ruggiero. “But they’re like, ‘That league represents my values. I’m going to wear that sweatshirt.'”

Similarly, the media and clothing company Togethxr, created by Sue Bird, Alex Morgan, Simone Manuel and Chloe Kim, has sold $3 million worth of “Everyone Watches Women’s Sports” t-shirts this year, reports The New York Times.

Rather than being a sign of a yearslong allegiance to a team as is commonly the case in men’s sports, in women’s sports, merch often comes earlier in a potential fan’s experience, acting as a gateway to fandom. Ruggiero gives the example of Angel City FC, the Los Angeles-based NWSL team known for trendy pink and black merch. “Even if you’ve never been to an Angel City game, you see that scarf or that hat and you’re like, That’s cool — what’s that all about?” she says. “By having that brand be very visible, both in LA and broadly, you know the colors of Angel City, even if you’ve never been there.”

Merch can also represent a fan-athlete relationship that’s often highly personal in women’s sports, says Krieger. “The way we approach our relationship with our fans is a lot different than in men’s sports,” she tells PS. “From the very beginning, we’ve needed to connect with fans and supporters in order for them to come back and spend money so we can continue playing. We have to do more than play the game — we have to get out into the community, stay after games, and connect with fans.”

A $4 Billion Market

The good news about the fact that there’s so much unmet demand for women’s sports merch? The potential of all that demand. Seventy-nine percent of Rep Her survey respondents said they would purchase more women’s sports merchandise if more were available. And women’s sports fans already make more merchandise purchases than men’s sports fans, and spend more money per year on merch, according to the report.

Most significantly, the Rep Her report estimates that the women’s sports merchandise market is valued at a whopping $4 billion. “The sheer volume of the market is amazing,” says Ruggiero. “It’s not just a couple shirts and hoodies you’re leaving off the table.”

The report has some suggestions for how the industry can get closer to taking advantage of that $4 billion valuation, like offering the same variety for women’s teams as men’s teams, using print-on-demand when necessary, and making merch easier to find and more accessible. Klarna is doing its own part to close the gap, along with Krieger and Togethxr, with a limited-edition merch collection created by designers Mellany Sanchez and Sophia Chang. A portion of proceeds from the collection, which features the phrase “A Movement, Not a Moment,” will go to Billie Jean King’s Women’s Sports Foundation.

“Yeah, this is a movement,” says Krieger. “We’re going to make sure of that.”

Lauren Wingenroth is a freelance journalist covering all things sports, fitness, and the performing arts. In addition to PS, her stories can be found in The New York Times, GQ, Outside magazine, Women’s Running, Well+Good, Dance Magazine, and more.

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