Good luck cashing in on those Olympic medals

Even winners don't necessarily strike it rich back home

Canada's Rosannagh MacLennan holds up her gold medal for the women's trampoline at the 2012 Olympic Games. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

Linda Nguyen, The Canadian Press

TORONTO – Over the next few days, Canada’s Olympic medallists will likely return home to a hero’s welcome.

But once the dust settles, it’s unlikely they’ll be cashing in on their Summer Games success.

“Canadians really love the Olympics more than they realize,” said Cary Kaplan, president of Cosmos Sports, a sports marketing company in Mississauga, Ont.

“It’s bonding. It’s huge. But when it’s over, (the excitement) doesn’t carry over. It tends to drop off a cliff.”

A lack of public interest in amateur sports that are so revered during the Olympics — like diving, kayaking and gymnastics — has historically resulted in corporate Canada passing over Olympians, even ones with gold medals hanging from their necks.

“The problem is sponsors don’t sponsor athletes out of the goodness of their hearts, although it would be nice if that was the case,” said Kaplan, whose past clients include Golf Canada and a handful of National Hockey League teams.

“The vast majority do it for specific return on investment and economic benefit. Unless an athlete or sport transcends or goes well beyond the Olympics, it’s difficult.”

Canadian soccer star Christine Sinclair said although she’s been lucky so far at winning corporate sponsorships, many of her peers have not experienced the same success.

“For me personally, these Olympics, I feel like I’ve been a fortunate one in terms of sponsorships and things like that,” she said Sunday after being named Canada’s flag-bearer for the closing ceremonies in London. “But it needs to happen for more, like of my teammates. Obviously I know the soccer side of things. I think they deserve more. They’re some of the best players in the world and aren’t seen as such.”

Brock University sports management professor Cheri Bradish said athletes in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics may have had more success with endorsements because those Games are historically more popular in Canada.

Also, because Canada was the host country, there was also more money being poured into advertising and support for the athletes.

But the reality is, Canada just doesn’t offer deals anywhere near the multimillion-dollar ones handed in the U.S. to athletes like swimmer Michael Phelps.

“It is very indicative of our marketplace, the size of our country and our marketing dollars,” she said. “We don’t have as many large-scale corporations invested or involved in corporate sponsorship at the level that we see in America. America is able to capitalize their national heroes on a more global scale.”

The truth is that amateur athletes are hurting for these deals once the Olympic spotlight is over. Many need the money to fund their training, she said.

“It’s the consistent question: Why can’t we support our athletes more?” said Bradish. “You hear all the time, even during these Games, that talent and perseverance is an important part of the equation but so are resources.”

For many athletes, they don’t think about how they can capitalize on their Olympics exposure until it’s too late, said Brant Feldman, a partner with the Los Angeles-based American Group Management.

“The bottom line for any athlete that is trying to capitalize on their success… should have folks working for them who are professionals and know what they’re doing,” said Feldman, who represents 14 winter and summer Olympic athletes from Canada, U.S., and Switzerland, including women’s hockey gold medallist Tessa Bonhomme.

“They need to go out and hire people that can push their story as fast and as relevant as they can in the short window they actually have,” he added.

Feldman said being good at your sport is not enough to land an athlete corporate dollars.

Companies nowadays expect more from their spokespeople and want to see charisma, personality, and a personal story Canadians can relate to, he said.

Business marketing professor and public speaker Kenneth Wong said Olympian Clara Hughes is a good example of an ideal spokesperson.

Since the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, the speedskater has publicly opened up about her struggle with depression. She’s since been the face behind a national campaign on mental health with a major telephone company.

Wong, who teaches at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., said he doesn’t believe there is one standout Canadian Olympic athlete from London who will be a shoo-in for sponsorship deals.

“This is going to be a tough Olympics,” said Wong.

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