The National Hockey League playoffs end this week, and 29-year-old entrepreneur Juha Mikkola hopes to continue making inroads in Canada’s hockey-mad culture by selling floorball as an off-ice activity that helps players improve their skills.
NHL stars such as Henrik and Daniel Sedin grew up playing this European version of floor hockey, the second-ranked sport behind soccer in Sweden. It’s a limited-contact sport, which means fewer injuries, and it’s relatively inexpensive to buy equipment and rent facilities.
It can be played year round on just about any gym floor.
But Mr. Mikkola’s lobbying is not his end goal. By helping to raise the profile and popularity of the sport, he plans to increase demand for the floorball equipment his Toronto-based company, FloorBallPro Inc., imports and distributes, such as sticks and the flowball, which can be fired at up to 190 kilometres an hour. His supplier, former Toronto Maple Leafs star Borje Salming, owns one of the world’s largest manufacturers of floorball equipment and accessories.
“We’re the importer and marketer for the product but a lot of the sales go through other companies such as Marchant’s School Sport Ltd. and T-Litzen Sports Ltd. (which sell to schools),” Mr. Mikkola said. “These companies are out there promoting (the sport) as well, mostly in the school system.”
Richard Powers, who is associate dean and executive director of MBA and masters of finance programs at the Rotman School of Management, has also been involved with helping rugby better establish itself in Canada. He’s currently the Canadian Olympic Committee member for Rugby Canada. “If he (Mr. Mikkola) sells the sport, people have to buy the equipment,” Mr. Powers explained. “The way to raise the sport’s profile is to raise the level of competition.
“The extent he can increase the number of teams and competitions, that’s where the business will be increased. What he’s doing there is creating a viable business model.”
Schools are already attracted to this lower cost, safer form of hockey. The key is to keep the interest of students once they graduate.
“To be really successful the transition has to be from the school system to a recreational league,” Mr. Powers said. “You see that in basketball, you see that in soccer, there has to be that transition. They play a sport in high school, grade school, if there’s no transition to league play they lose interest. One of the reasons rugby and soccer have been so successful are the various leagues.”
For Mr. Powers, the final step in making floorball a permanent fixture on the Canadian sports scene is governance, the establishment of national and provincial associations that will help set up and run championship level competitions.
Floorball’s success to date has primarily come at the high school level with more than 400 schools across Canada offering it as an intramural sport that both boys and girls can play. Mr. Mikkola has established relationships with retailers such as Source for Sports, in addition to generating sales through his web site, www.floorballpro.com.
“A lot of member stores have started with floorball products and are helping to develop leagues to get kids playing,” said Brent Hume, director of membership buying services for Source for Sports. “It’s a new sport. The product quality is there and the game being played is exciting.”
Source for Sports is a sponsor of the Canada Cup Floorball Championship, which attracts Canadian and international teams to a tournament held each year in Toronto. It’s grown to 57 teams from six, and it features European professionals among the 1,000 or so players in attendance. Creating and marketing such a big event helps sell the sport and Mr. Mikkola’s company runs it on a non-profit basis.
“Our bigger job is marketing the game itself,” said Mr. Mikkola, whose company has one other full-time employee and two part-timers. “We’re really concentrating on that as much as possible from running leagues and tournaments and helping to get the media interested to pretty much doing anything that lifts its profile so we are partners with a lot of organizations such as the Ontario Minor Hockey Association. Hockey Canada now has the sport in all their skill academies.”
Born in Finland, Mr. Mikkola revived his passion for floorball while studying at the University of Toronto. In 2002, he began selling sticks, perhaps 10 in all, from a total inventory of 20. A few years later, the Swedish trade commissioner introduced him to Mr. Salming. Since his sales volume was initially so low, he was able to vastly increase sales during the first few years. Now that his volume has grown, his challenge is to make a profit from the business while still selling the game he continues to love and to play. He's reluctant to release sales figures or revenue but said he now sells thousands of sticks a year. The global annual market for Mr. Salming’s sticks is about 250,000.
“Once people do know about the game they really do love it,” Mr. Mikkola said. “So it’s a double job we’re doing, wanting to get them excited about floorball so they want to play it and when it comes time for them to buy their first or second stick, we want to make sure our brand is top of mind.”
Special to The Globe and Mail
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