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All For the Love of the Game Sports

More than just merch: A sports fan’s devotion

By Khushy Vashisht

For some students at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) and fans alike, sports aren’t always strictly confined to the field of play. From jersey collections to autographed posters and trading cards, memorabilia captures their commitment to and love for the game.

Rania Elhilali, a fourth-year sport media student and a die-hard fan of soccer team Real Madrid CF, always gravitated towards sports—even at the age of three.

“Walking around with a Barbie doll wasn’t my thing,” she said. “It was with a soccer ball instead.”

Elhilali’s most prized possession is a poster of Christine Sinclair, signed by the Canadian soccer player and Olympic gold medalist herself. Elhilali got the chance to meet Sinclair after the player made an appearance at a watch-along of Canada’s first game during the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

“She was so open to talk and [wanted] to know your connection to the game,” Elhilali said. “Even though it was only five minutes, it felt like a whole lifetime in that moment with her.”

The global value of the licensed sports merchandise market was valued at around $30.8 billion USD in 2021, according to SkyQuest Technology, a market intelligence organization. The value is predicted to increase to roughly
$52 billion USD by 2030.

Conrad Sobczak, a third-year aerospace engineering student, grew up watching soccer with his family. Simultaneously, he became interested in hockey and now prefers these two sports over any other.

Sobczak owns a memorabilia collection of various shirts, hats, hockey pucks, baseballs, autographed trading cards and 16 jerseys. 

Out of his collection, two items stand out: autographed trading cards of former Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Johnny Bower and Polish-Canadian hockey player Wojtek Wolski.

“[Wolski’s] a favourite player of mine from when I was growing up,” Sobczak said. “I’m Polish and he was the one Polish guy in the league. So I looked up to him.”

Bill Foster, a professor at the University of Alberta and an expert on sports fan behaviour, said from a sociological lens, a fan’s attraction to a specific sport, team or athlete is due to it enhancing and representing a part of their “personal identity.”

“They display these connections through things like memorabilia, jerseys, behaviours, practices and rituals, to demonstrate to people around them, and themselves in certain respects, that they are a sports fan and this is a vitally important part of who they see themselves as,” Foster said.

Hareesh Suresh, a third-year computer engineering student, played soccer as a child but once he entered middle school, became inclined to basketball and American football—his current favourite sports.

Alongside jerseys, his most treasured purchase would be the Air Jordan Retro 4 ‘Travis Scott’ Cactus Jack sneakers. Suresh said merchandise can help showcase fandom without breaking the bank.

“It’s a way to show your passion in a simple way as just wearing something,” he said. “You don’t have to spend a thousand dollars on game seven playoff tickets, for example.”

For Elhilali, one item in her collection outweighs the rest—a game-worn jersey of former Toronto Maple Leafs player James van Riemsdyk. 

In 2018, she won the jersey through a contest on the X platform, formerly known as Twitter, which required the funniest tweets of the night.

Elhilali said she tweeted 178 times.

“To this day, I don’t know if it was my dedication of 178 tweets or if there’s just one specific one that was funny,” she said.

Foster said there are two motivating factors behind actions similar to Elhilali’s.

“One is this quest for authenticity. There’s the sense that the authentic, game-worn jersey is better and that you’re a better, more devoted fan if you have this,” Foster said. “The second is this notion that there are levels of fandom…the idea here is you’re trying to be the best and you’re trying to be different.”

Ultimately, Elhilali cited the importance of memorabilia to a sense of community, pointing to her Real Madrid jerseys as an example.

“It’s how I connect with me living in Toronto,” Elhilali said. “I connect with someone all the way in Spain, in Madrid, and it’s through sports.”

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