Officials with the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team, which lost 16 players and staff in a horrific bus crash earlier this month, were expected to release details Monday on how they plan to use the nearly $12 million raised through crowdfunding.
More than 130,000 individuals and businesses from Canada and other countries have donated between $50 and $50,000 to the GoFundMe campaign — called Funds for Humboldt Broncos — which was originally dedicated to covering the expenses of the victims’ families.
But concerns are mounting about the sale of unauthorized merchandise that uses the team’s name, logo, or the slogan “Humboldt Strong” without donating any of the funds to the victims or their families.
It’s common for people to want to buy items that will allow them to show their support after a tragic event, says Timothy Dewhirst, a marketing and consumer studies professor at the University of Guelph.
“There’s often, after a tragedy like this, different displays of support and solidarity that we might see,” he said. “We’ve seen a lot of people displaying green ribbons and displaying hockey sticks at their front door.”
But the potential problem with unauthorized merchandise is that consumers may assume that any sale connected to an event like the bus crash includes a donation, when not all of them do.
Online retailers like Redbubble, which allow users to upload their own designs and pays them a portion of the profits, offer dozens of T-shirt designs featuring Humboldt-related logos, as well as cellphone cases, mugs, tote bags, and more, but the products don’t mention donations of any kind. Redbubble did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Other websites like Teepublic and Teezily, which also allow users to upload their own work, similarly offer many Humboldt Broncos products, most of which don’t mention a donation, although some products do link to the GoFundMe page.
In cases like this, the responsibility is shared between the retailer and the consumer, Dewhirst says.
The choice to sell products that reference the bus crash but don’t benefit any of the victims “certainly doesn’t appear very ethical,” he says. “Many (people) would have a moral stance on trying to capitalize financially on a tragedy.”
Dewhirst also suggests consumers research charitable products before purchasing them. If proceeds are “largely being used in terms of administration and logistics, rather than actually going to the people in need, that would be a disappointing use of the money,” he says.
Merchandise doesn’t necessarily have to be officially authorized by the team to provide a charitable function. Some companies like Gongshow Gear and Sauce Hockey are advertising that 100 per cent of the proceeds of the Humbolt-themed shirts they sell will go to the Bronco’s GoFundMe page.
Regina-based clothing retailer 22Fresh is selling “Humboldt Strong” shirts, and donating the proceeds to the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League assistance program, which provides mental health support and counselling to players. A spokesperson for the Broncos specified that 22Fresh isn’t an official partner of the Broncos, but of the SJHL, the league in which the Broncos play.
Christa Savietto of Thunder Bay, Ont., has sold homemade knits through her online Etsy shop Norm and Lou since 2008. She says she found herself knitting more often as a way to process the tragic news about the bus crash.
“Knitting is so therapeutic that it kind of gave me a way to channel all those horrible feelings,” she says.
For one week, Savietto decided to donate $10 from the sale of one particular model of hat to the Humboldt Broncos’ GoFundMe page. She sold about 30 hats in that week, putting the total amount raised close to $300. That’s a lot for her small shop, she says, especially because April isn’t typically a very busy time for people to buy winter hats.
The majority of the Etsy shops offering Humboldt Broncos-themed merchandise, including many American ones, say they are donating large percentages of the proceeds, if not the entire cost of the item, to the hockey team’s GoFundMe campaign. For Savietto, that’s indicative of the approach of an independent retailer.
“Almost everybody I’ve bought from on Etsy is a mom,” she says. “It’s not a big business. There are very few sellers on there that are able to stop their regular work.”
“I couldn’t imagine just putting the name ‘Humboldt’ on it just to sell more things.”