Finding CFL merchandise at sporting goods stores in Manitoba is something that I’ve always taken for granted.
The Blue Bombers have a massive team store located at Investors Group Field that sells virtually every type of merchandise imaginable. The club has also been known to create satellite shops for special occasions — trip sites, extra holiday stores, and more.
Local independent retailers also carry gobs of Bomber gear, the popularity of which is surpassed only by that of the Winnipeg Jets (if even by a small margin). Saskatchewan Roughrider gear is also popular in many Manitoba sporting goods stores, particularly on the west side of the province.
Despite the popularity of the Bombers (and, to a lesser extent, Riders), all nine CFL teams are typically represented in Manitoba sports retail stores. Do you want a B.C. Lions cap, Ottawa Redblacks toque or Hamilton Tiger-Cats t-shirt? The selection might not be great, but there’s a good chance you could find any of these items at almost any sports outlet in the province of Manitoba.
This, as I’ve learned, isn’t the case in every CFL market.
I was in Montreal during the summer of 2014 for a holiday with my then-girlfriend (now fiancée) and I planned before the CFL schedule was released. To my great pleasure (and her dismay), the schedule would later reveal that Winnipeg was to play in Montreal during our stay in La Belle Province. I insisted on getting tickets to the game and we later attended what would end up being an excellent contest — Chad Johnson scored his only career CFL touchdown, while Winnipeg won 34-33 on a last-minute Drew Willy touchdown pass.
We spent a few hours at two of Montreal’s largest shopping centres prior to the game in Centre Eaton de Montréal and Place Montreal Trust. I stopped in at every sporting goods store between the two facilities to get an idea of the professional sports landscape in Montreal.
Canadiens merchandise could be purchased seemingly everywhere (and not just at sporting goods stores, but general retailers as well), while Expos gear was surprisingly plentiful. Alouettes gear, meanwhile, was virtually nowhere to be found. The one store that carried Alouettes merchandise had only three hats for sale, all of which were covered in a thin layer of dust. Unsurprisingly, none of the stores I checked out sold gear bearing the logos of any other CFL teams.
I’ve found this to be the case in my travels to Toronto, which occur on at least an annual basis. My fiancée is from Toronto originally, so we’ve been making semi-regular trips there since we started dating over six years ago.
Interested to see if the club’s recent Grey Cup victory was beginning to shift Toronto’s sporting landscape, I ventured to the Eaton Centre (which, at 1.7 million square feet, is easily Toronto’s largest shopping complex) on Boxing Day in search of Argonaut gear. This shopping trip was both ambitious and misguided — while I was excited to conduct some field research, the Eaton Centre was sure to be an unmitigated disaster of overcrowded hallways, congested stores, and (justifiably) irritable retail workers.
I arrived at the Eaton Centre at approximately 2:00 PM and quickly made my way to the first stop of the day: Lids on the main floor.
Lids is exclusively a hat store, but that suited me just fine — it has a ton of sports gear, meaning it was possible that I would succeed in locating some Argonaut merchandise.
The store carried hats bearing the logos of almost every team imaginable. I saw every MLB, NHL, NFL, and NBA franchise represented, including some (ie. the Vancouver Grizzlies and Toronto Huskies) that no longer exist. Some of the NBA hats in the photo above bare Chinese symbols, which I suspect are related to the league’s decision to play a preseason game in Shanghai this past October.
After a thorough search of the store’s NFL section — it quickly became evident that there was no CFL section present in the shop — I began to lose hope of finding an Argonaut hat among the thousands of ‘lids’ available for sale.
Finally, I resorted to asking the nearest salesperson if the store carried any Toronto Argonauts hats. He remained silent, seemingly bewildered by my question — it was as if I’d asked about the Tokyo Katanas, not a local professional sports franchise.
I quickly found a different sales associate and posed the same question. Fortunately, this salesperson had clearly heard of the Toronto Argonauts before.
“You bet!” he said. “You came at the right time — we’re down to our last two Grey Cup caps.”
It was a very small amount of merchandise, but it was merchandise nonetheless. It also appeared to be selling, given that stock was virtually depleted.
I asked the salesperson if the store planned to carry regular Argos gear once the Grey Cup championship merchandise ran out. He told me that he didn’t know.
My next stop was Sport Chek on the basement level. I quickly spotted an area of the store that exclusively featured Toronto-area teams (pictured below) and felt encouraged by the fact that the Argos’ logo was featured alongside those of the Leafs and Blue Jays.
From there I found a rack of Argos sweaters and jerseys, followed shortly by a small selection of toques.
The selection wasn’t stellar, but the amount of available merchandise far surpassed my expectations. I also found it funny that the majority of the Argos’ merchandise was located next to the store’s collection of Toronto FC gear (see below), pairing two organizations that haven’t always enjoyed the best working relationship.
As seen in the photo above, large security tags have been placed on all of the Argonauts jerseys. This may be standard procedure for more expensive sale items, but it’s encouraging to see that Sport Chek believes a thief might genuinely consider stealing an Argonauts jersey.
It took a few minutes to find an available salesperson — the store was absolutely packed — but I eventually was able to inquire about the gear.
The salesperson told me that the store only started carrying Argos gear in the summer of 2017. He didn’t normally work in the clothing department — he was only covering clothing sales for Boxing Day — so he couldn’t speak to how well the gear sold on a daily basis. He did, however, mention that he often saw Argos hoodies and t-shirts on the store’s low-stock ordering list, meaning that it had to be selling at least relatively well.
When I asked him if he thought sales would continue to be strong into the winter, he chuckled.
“We just won the Grey Cup!” he laughed. “Of course people are going to be interested in merch.”
Sport Chek also carried the only non-Argo CFL gear I found at the Eaton Centre (see below). Regrettably, I did not think to ask how well the CFL or specialty Roughrider footballs were selling.
I stopped in at a few generic clothing stores after Sport Chek, figuring it was possible that one or two sold sports gear. After failing to find Jays or Leafs merchandise at any of them, I figured it was a safe bet that the Argos would be unrepresented as well.
Speaking of the Blue Jays, the Eaton Centre is home to the Jays Shop, the only standalone Toronto Blue Jays store outside of Rogers Centre. It’s a relatively large space and one that I’d visited the previous year to buy a gift for a friend.
I wasn’t optimistic about finding any Argos gear for sale — the Jays, after all, are owned by Rogers, an organization that has not always been kind to the CFL. That said, a salesperson in another store insisted that he’d seen Argos gear for sale in the Jays Shop weeks before, prompting me to investigate.
The Jays Shop was an absolute zoo when I’d visited it a few days after Boxing Day last year. The Jays were fresh-off an 89-win season that had earned the club an AL wildcard berth, marking the second-straight season of playoff baseball in Toronto.
Venturing into the store this year, it was clear that interest in the Jays had waned following a disappointing 76-win 2017 season. Everything in the store was thirty percent off, yet I counted fewer patrons (eight) than sales staff (nine). And, unsurprisingly, there was no Argonaut gear (or any non-Blue Jays gear, for that matter) to be found in the store.
For perspective, the small EB Games location opposite the Jays Shop was packed with a forty-person line out the door. Several other stores on the same floor — mostly clothing retailers — had reached capacity as well, albeit with shorter lines.
Finally I reached Champs Sports on the second floor, my final stop of the day. Having been to a few Champs locations before, I was felt relatively confident that I’d find some double-blue in the store — if Lids and Sport Chek were repping the Argos, I figured Champs would follow suit.
After a short perusal of the store it quickly became clear that NBA merchandise was king at Champs. There was a smattering of Leafs and Jays gear, but Steph Curry and LeBron James jerseys were front and centre on the store’s back wall.
I found a salesperson to inquire about whether or not I’d missed the store’s selection of Argos merchandise. The response I received was discouraging.
“Do you sell Toronto Argonauts gear?”
“Have you ever sold Toronto Argonauts gear?”
“Will you ever start selling Toronto Argonauts gear?”
So there it is. On the most popular shopping day of the year at the largest shopping centre in the largest city in the country, a fan of the Toronto Argonauts could theoretically have purchased a cap, jersey, hoodie or toque baring the team’s logo.
There’s no guarantee that Lids will continue to carry Argo gear into the new year, but it appears that Sport Chek is having some success with moving team products.
Winning generates fan interest, particularly in a competetive marketplace like Toronto. If the Argos can continue sitting atop the East Division, perhaps there will be more demand for Argos gear in and around our country’s largest city in the future.
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