This post is adapted from an article in the August 2016 issue of The Sponsorship Report. Cheri Bradish, the Loretta Rogers Research Chair in Sport Marketing at Toronto’s Ryerson University, will be leading a session of Women, Sport and Sponsorship at Sponsorship Toronto, part of Sponsorship Week, October 25 and 26, 2016.
“Girl Power.” “The Penny Effect.” These were the headlines of narratives in Canadian media over much of the Rio Olympics, and certainly over the first week of the Games. For the first time ever at a summer Olympics, Canadian women outmedalled the men, and at a score of 16 to 6, it wasn’t a contest. It was a rout.
The subtext of the narrative is that Canadian women’s sport is on the cusp of breakthrough. Sponsors will open their wallets. Broadcasters will dedicate more airtime to women’s sport. Young girls will charge in numbers to organized sports programs. Fandom for women’s sport will soar.
I was, and remain, skeptical. I’ve seen versions of this story play out in previous Olympics – one compelling narrative that captures the media’s attention, and then the country’s. More often than not it’s a moment, quickly elbowed aside by other moments that are equally compelling, equally worthy of the media’s attention. I wondered, what would be the chances of women’s sport remaining top of mind among Canadians after the opening faceoff of the World Cup of Hockey? If Canada made it to the Gold Medal round? If the Blue Jays made a run at baseball’s post-season?
“It’s a bubble,” says Cheri Bradish, the Loretta Rogers Research Chair in Sport Marketing at Toronto’s Ryerson University. “The reality is, after the Olympic Games we have seen in this country that window shrink and close really quickly.”
This does not in any way diminish the magnitude of the accomplishment of Canada’s female athletes in Rio. Rather, it reframes its significance. What happened in Rio is more a reflection of past efforts by sports organizations in Canada, less an opportunity that can be seized by sponsors to further their short-to-mid term marketing objectives. If this is truly a narrative, what we’ve witnessed may be the opening chapter, maybe even the opening few paragraphs. There’s a great deal more to be written, and it won’t be written overnight.
“The women’s success is essentially a spotlight on the good work in our sport system,” says Deidra Dionne, 2002 Winter Olympics Bronze Medallist for Canada and Director of Partnerships and Business Strategy at Cimoroni & Company in Toronto. The sea change that pundits are forecasting for women’s sport in Canada already happened. In the Canadian sport system, “equality reigns,” says Dionne. “Females participate and achieve in Olympic sports in Canada, and I think that’s something to be incredibly proud of.”
Bradish tips her hat to the Canadian Olympic Committee and Own the Podium, both of which have attracted a great deal more private and public investment into sport for women and for men. Perhaps, she says, the lesson out of Rio that that they should focus even more on opportunities for women in sport.
The question, then, is who will write the next chapter? Should it be the responsibility of corporate sponsors?
For Dairy Farmers of Canada (DFC), Rio was a vindication of a decision they took in 2015, at a time when not many people were talking about women and sport, to launch Fuelling Women Champions to promote the increased participation of women in all levels of sport. DFC received a Rule 40 exemption from the Canadian Olympic Committee, allowing it to keep its campaigns in-market during the Olympic blackout period. It also leveraged social channels with shout-outs to its sponsored teams and athletes. But the performance of Canada’s women at Rio won’t result in any sudden ramp-up of activity, says Victoria Cruz, DFC’s Director of Marketing. “It was definitely something we were hoping would come,” says Cruz. Plans haven’t changed, “but it has definitely reinforced our desire to continue supporting the association [with women’s sport] next year,” she says.
For most Olympic sports, sponsors have to be prepared to play a long game. Investments made today will pay off many years hence. Sponsors who found themselves in the right place at Rio, perhaps with Swimming Canada, or Soccer Canada, Rugby Canada’s women’s program, or the Canadian Olympic Committee’s national partners, may be able to make some hay over the teams’ performance in the short term. Possibly, but unlikely.
“Marketing and sponsorship dollars aren’t invested into Olympic programs [immediately] after the Olympics,” says Dionne. That’s not the way the business works. Marketing plans are already baked in, and have been for some time. “Is it going to be marketing gold? Is it going to change the financial direction of women in sport?,” Dionne asks. “Probably not. It hasn’t in the past.”
There are individual athletes and a team or two that will come out of this well, says Bradish. Swimmer Penny Oleksiak is an obvious candidate if she chooses to enter the sponsorship market. Christine Sinclair. The women’s soccer and rugby 7s teams. Perhaps Jen Kish.
Where the impact may be felt strongest is in the next Olympic cycle. That, I believe, will tell us if the excitement we felt during the Rio Games was just a momentary palpitation or a change in the rhythm of the nation’s sporting heart. Penny Oleksiak’s performance in Rio will not turn Canada into a nation of competitive swimming fans. It may draw more girls to the pool. And it may also serve as a story, a metaphor perhaps that can be resurrected when, in a little more than 12 months, the marketing season for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics begins. Or not.
Dionne says the onus is on NSOs to keep the Rio story alive, perhaps leveraging less costly digital and social platforms, to help sponsors recognize an opportunity that is in her words “new and cool” – the story of women in sport.
Working against that is the conservatism of sports marketing. “The marketplace really sticks with traditional sponsorship models,” says Bradish, citing long-tested success in the field, recognisability and good character as examples.
Dionne believes differently. “Can some sports market themselves gender-specific going into the next Olympics to attract unique and different marketing budgets outside of the Olympic rightholders? Absolutely,” she predicts. If they do, our Winter Olympians and their sports organizations may reap a reward through greater sponsorship investment and activation, and they, too can begin writing the narrative that the next generation of Olympians and sport marketers can leverage.