Bobsled and skeleton team hope success attracts new sponsors to fill the void
CALGARY - Amy Gough is ready to hang a "For Sale" sign on her body. "Right over the butt," the skeleton racer said Tuesday. "Prime real estate." Despite top international results during and since the 2010 Winter Olympics, Canada's bobsled and skeleton team will lose their main team sponsor after this season. A 20-year partnership with Visa is coming to an end. The credit card company wants to use its sports marketing money in other ways. According to Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton budget statements on their website, Visa's annual contribution from 2007 to 2010 ranged from $340,000 to $365,000. That's a "significant part of our budget," according to BCS chief executive officer Don Wilson. Corporate sponsorship in total amounts to about 20 per cent of BCS's annual budget of between $3 million and $4 million, he said. The Canadian team is in Calgary for the final World Cup race of the season after a successful stop in Whistler, B.C., last week. The host team won five medals, including three gold, in Whistler. Mellisa Hollingsworth was victorious in women's skeleton. Lyndon Rush and brakeman Jesse Lumsden were first in men's two-man bobsled with pilot. Kaillie Humphries, the reigning Olympic champion, and brakeman Emily Baadsvik won women's bobsled. The Calgary event starting Thursday determines this season's overall World Cup champions. It will also be the last races before the world bobsled and skeleton championships start next week in Lake Placid, N.Y. The Calgary World Cup opens with men's and women's skeleton Thursday, followed by men's and women's two-man bobsled Friday and the men's four-man event Saturday. Hollingsworth, from Eckville, Alta., is ranked third in the overall women's skeleton standings with Calgary's Gough in sixth. Humphries, also from Calgary, is sixth in women's bobsled. Rush, from Humboldt, Sask., is ranked third in two-men bobsled. Canada's bobsled and skeleton team won four Olympic medals, including two gold, on the Whistler track in 2010. But the national organization and the athletes are preparing for a possible drop in their budget two years out from the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia. Hollingsworth and Olympic skeleton champion Jon Montgomery put their faces on a billboard campaign last year in an attempt to attract new sponsors. It was equivalent of the Canadian luge team sticking "For Sale" signs on the front of their helmets at a Calgary World Cup a few years ago. That campaign turned out to be successful as the lugers signed a team sponsor. "I would love the team to do something like that," Gough said. "It was great marketing and it worked." Hollingsworth, an Olympic bronze medallist in 2006, says she would wear a "For Sale" sign on her jacket, sled or part of her person that doesn't currently bear a sponsorship logo. "My bum is already bought," she said with a laugh. But it is concerning to her that a financial void left by a departing sponsor may be borne by athletes if a replacement isn't found. "That's a big fear," Hollingsworth said. "Obviously people have to be putting food on their own table and taking care of their own bills. It's a big decision if you can't support yourself whether you want to still be involved in the sport." Her billboard campaign with Montgomery, entitled "Give us a push. Gravity will do the rest" has yet to bear fruit. Corporate money earmarked for Olympic marketing is currently tied up in this year's Summer Games in London, said Wilson. "At this point in time, most of them have said if they're interested in Olympic sport, they're concentrating on London," he said. So it may not be until the end of this calendar year that corporations start turning their attention towards Sochi and by then, the Winter Games are less than a year and a half away. Own The Podium is allocating $2.3 million to bobsled and skeleton this winter, but much of that money is targeted towards top athletes such as Hollingsworth, Humphries, Montgomery and Rush. Elite athletes such as Hollingsworth have their own personal sponsorships. Some like Gough balance training with summer jobs. She works as a production accountant for an energy company in the off-season. A financial commitment from a corporate sponsor to the entire national program develops younger athletes and allows for innovation and experimentation in equipment. "The top end are taken care of, but the reality is top end is what most of the sponsors are looking for," Wilson explained. "If they give us some funds, we're able to take those monies and put them towards the next group coming up." "The kids for 2014 and 2018 aren't household names." While Wilson hasn't given up hope a new sponsor, or new sponsors, will sign on before the end of 2012, there may be cuts to development programs or an increase in the team fees athletes pay, if the void isn't filled. Athletes pay a national team membership fee of $336. Also, depending upon their level of international racing, the athletes can pay up to $4,600 in bobsled and up to $3,600 in skeleton. "If we start to get money back in, we would replace some of the fees that the athletes pay," Wilson said. Sponsors like to be attached to winners, so Canada's sliders can help themselves by continuing to win medals both in Calgary and at the world championship. "The best thing we can do is perform," Wilson said. "The best marketing program you can have is the performance of your team."