Creating golden matches between sport and business
As the Vancouver 2010 Olympics wrapped up and Canadians were transfixed by the growing medal count of native-born sons and daughters, Colin Young, ’88 BPE, was looking at the medal board with a slightly different sense of wonder.
Six of his clients had captured a total of eight Olympic medals. For Young, co-founder of Agenda Sport Marketing, it was a sparkling showcase of what the fledgling company had to offer.
“We had a pretty amazing group,” says Young, a sponsorship consultant specializing in sport marketing, brand strategy and athlete management. “I think it’s a real shot in the arm that we can identify people who are on the track to success. And they also delivered.”
Big time. By the International Olympic Committee rules, Agenda would have placed seventh in medals won among competing nations during the 2010 Games. If it were a country it would be nestled in the rankings between Switzerland and China.
Choosing those potential medal-winners is a tough art to master; creating the right connections with business is even tougher. But that was what Young and partner Russell Reimer were looking to do in 2005 when they opened Agenda to focus on providing premier Canadian athletes with representation aimed at getting mutually beneficial sponsorship deals. More importantly, they had a vision of connections through sport and its ability to inspire.
Their timing was right. Vancouver had just been awarded the 2010 Olympics and Western Canada was awash in winter sport athletes aiming to peak on home ground. Companies wanted to be part of the experience, but had no idea how to benefit from linking up with an athlete.
Enter Agenda, with a bevy of tangible benefits to sponsoring an athlete on the road to Olympic or world-class glory, including making the athletes, as Young says, “3-D brand ambassadors” for corporations. To do that he had to overcome the perception that giving money to help fund athletes was simply patronage. “A lot of people still consider it a handout and it shouldn’t be,” says Young about athlete sponsorship. “A business can give an athlete $20,000. But what we look to do is get $100,000 worth of value for their investment.”
“We’re trying to tell a story through these athletes,” says Jennifer Johnson, ’05 BPE, Agenda’s manager of client relations who came on board in 2008. She goes on to say that stories are a powerful tool for building a bond between athlete and client and a key part of Agenda’s success-management plan. “We want our athletes to be great athletes, great role models and great marketing partners for our corporate clients.”
Young came up with this paradigm after a 20-year career in sport administration, including marketing roles at Nike and senior producer duties at NBC Sports, where he built the network’s website for the Sydney Olympics in 2000. But the Agenda story starts with a philosophy that stands the image of a typical “agent” on its ear. “We try not to be that guy pushing for money,” says Young, stressing the need to make the company’s athlete experience a positive one.
That means creating the right links between athlete and corporation---a process very similar to matchmaking. Those who set up love connections know there’s no guarantee of success. But a trained practitioner takes note of the qualities that might make for a compatible match and sport marketing is no different. Being attractive, well-spoken and a competitor in a sport that connects with the public is a good start. Add an Olympic medal, charisma and a compelling personal story and the odds improve. Still, there’s no sure thing.
“It’s part heart, part science,” says Young. “We’ve seen athletes you think can’t miss not attract an endorsement.”
“We want our athletes to be great athletes, great role models and great marketing partners for our corporate clients.”
In an increasingly fragmented marketplace, Young believes companies want innovative ways to reach their consumer base. Touching customers with a link to an event or activity that resonates personally is one potential avenue. “Sponsorship can get to an area where conventional advertising can’t,” says Young. “People are passionate about sport and connect with things they love.
“It’s about having heroes who are more than NHL players,” Young continues, noting that when four-time Olympic medalist Kristina Groves goes into a school, kids know who she is and have seen a speed skating race. “Ten years ago, we would have had to tell people what speed skating was. Now, people know the Hamelin brothers,” who won gold in 2010.
Groves joined the Agenda fold in 2006 after capturing two silver medals at the Turin Olympics and says representation allows her to focus on skating. “Agenda is really good at helping each athlete partner with companies they feel connected to,” says Groves, who added another two medals in Vancouver and whose sponsors include Nike and Oakley. “I feel any company I work with because of Agenda has been aligned with my own agenda.”
That link was evident with natural foods manufacturer Hain Celestial, which sponsored Groves. To celebrate her Olympic achievements, the company set up a Facebook page that allowed the first 500 Canadian respondents to send a personal message to Groves while also supporting her favourite charity.
“Celestial recognized very soon that I was part of Right to Play,” she says. “At the Olympics, they made a $5,000 donation to that charity in my name.”
Establishing that right fit starts with a “discovery session” that can be a reality check for starry-eyed athletes who believe signing with an agency is an automatic path to riches.
“We’ve learned to be realistic and upfront,” says Young, adding that the agency represents a limited number of athletes and works on long-term connections. “We ask them a bunch of questions: ‘Who are you? What charities do you want be aligned with? What are you really looking for in an agency?’ We’re able to tell pretty quickly what level of savvy they’re at.”
Patience is a key consideration, since building those corporate links and creating a plan means it will likely take a year before an athlete sees any money coming in. But first they have to identify the athlete, which means keeping an eye on the World Cup circuit and an ear to the ground about amateur athletes in a wide array of sports.
In addition to Agenda’s Olympic champions, several elite athletes fit the criteria of “potential superstar.” Among those are U of A student and rising triathlon star Paula Findlay, an emerging medal favourite for the 2012 London Olympics after winning three of four Championship Series Races since last July. There’s also long distance swimmer Ryan Cochrane, whose 2008 Olympic bronze in the 1500m freestyle was Canada’s first medal in the event in 88 years. The six-foot-three swimmer has turned a lot of heads as he racks up victories, including two gold medals at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. Agenda’s reputation in Canada’s sporting community caught his attention, too.
“I was first drawn to Agenda by their obvious knowledge of the sport industry within North America as well as by the extremely high level of commitment toward each of their athletes,” says Cochrane from Victoria, BC, where he trains full-time and attends UVic. “As an athlete, I know I’m getting the best representation within Canada, and a high level of trust comes from that.”
“People are passionate about sport and connect with things they love."
Wheeling and dealing on behalf of world champions is a long way from Young’s start studying science and forestry at UBC. When he heard about the U of A’s physical education degree with a focus on sports administration, he thought it might be a good fit.
“When I look back, it gave me a very good foundation in the business side of sport,” says Young. “I knew very early that I liked the mixture of business and sport, and the U of A allowed me to develop the very basic skills I needed to continue on. I knew I didn’t want to be a phys-ed teacher. Did I know where I would end up? No. But it provided me with that first step.”
Johnson wanted the same things from her education. She was heavily involved with Campus Recreation during her time at the U of A, organizing activities for students and faculty while personalizing her degree with a selection of business courses. A founding member of the University’s golf team, she missed her convocation ceremony because she was competing at the Canadian Interuniversity Sport national championships in Vancouver.
Johnson’s passions for amateur sport and golf continued after graduation. She worked with corporate clients as an event planner at the Edmonton Country Club, spent three years with the Sport Medicine Council, and was part of Team Alberta’s mission staff at the Canada Winter Games in Halifax. Much of her time now is spent helping clients as varied as Talisman Energy, KidSport Canada and ATB Financial get the most out of their sport sponsorship activities.
Knowing her boss graduated from the same program validates Johnson’s choice of U of A to provide the tools to find her dream job. “I remember when I graduated I was so excited about getting into the workforce, to start putting what I’d learned to the test. I don’t think I’d be where I am if I had taken another program or attended another school.”