Having fulfilled his promises and delivered more than $100-million in corporate sponsorship, Marcel Aubut, the man who never thinks small, has a new mandate for the Canadian Olympic Committee.
It’s as simple as it is repetitive: “Sport, sport, sport.”
It’s a shift from his first four years in office, when the theme was branding and delivering more sponsorship revenue than the COC had ever experienced. Showing his colleagues he could make good for Canadian sport has earned the 65-year-old a second four-year term as president – news that will be announced this weekend at the COC’s biannual board meeting in Ottawa.
And with that confirmation, the COC will begin a new phase.
With the fundraising machinery solidly in place, the plan is to use the money to empower the athletes and their sports. In quick order, the COC will announce a $10-million investment “to enhance the quality of the National Sports Organizations,” Aubut stated. It’s a start to what he believes needs to happen for Canadian sport to keep pace with the best in the world.
“We’re going to concentrate on three goals: invest in athletes, coaches and national sports organizations; [the NSOs] have to become more sophisticated for maintaining their sport and building the sports system,” Aubut outlined. “We also want to show the country how sports can benefit youth who leave school too early, [turn to] drugs, obesity. Sport, sport, sport is our goal.”
Aubut has never been shy on the big stage; his rollicking run as president of the NHL’s Quebec Nordiques showed that. In 2009, when he vowed to raise millions of dollars as COC president, he was reminded: “You’re not a politician. You have to keep all your promises.”
He went to work hiring keynote people such as Chris Overholt, the COC CEO and secretary-general, and Derek Kent, its chief marketing officer. Overholt had worked for the Miami Dolphins and Florida Panthers; Kent did U.S. media relations for Nike Inc.
With a skilled and sizable front office, the COC lined up sponsors such as Bell Canada, BMW Group Canada, Canadian Tire Corp. Ltd., Royal Bank of Canada, some of them signing on after the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics were done.
The money came in, but not without some cost. As the NSOs found out, there was only so much corporate cash to go around and that made life difficult for sports that had lost their major supporter.
“Marcel has changed the game and the leadership of amateur sport sponsorship for the better,” Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton president Don Wilson said. “That COC money will be filtering back down to the sports. The issue is: there’s a little less [sponsorship] revenue for all of us to find.”
Alpine Canada president Max Gartner noted how the Olympic-level athletes are well funded by the COC, Sport Canada and the Own the Podium program, but it’s the younger developmental athletes who feel the pinch when an NSO loses its title sponsor.
“The COC has done a great job of putting its brand out there and selling the properties. What’s difficult is for the NSOs to run their programs at the grassroots level,” Gartner said. “It has become tougher for us to find sponsors for our needs. It’s figuring out how we fit in.”
To improve matters, the snow sports have chosen to band together. The idea, Gartner said, is to bundle freestyle and alpine skiing, biathlon, snowboarding, Nordic combined and ski jumping to become more diverse and attractive for potential sponsors.
“The COC does that and we need to elevate our game,” Gartner added.
According to Aubut, this is the kind of sophistication he’s talking about – NSOs doing more and doing it creatively to nurture future athletes.
“More and more, we are convincing our own sponsors to include a part for the Olympic Foundation [established to help high-performance athletes] and for a sport they like. We did that with Canadian Tire, BMW and RBC,” Aubut said.
Outsiders have expressed their concern over how the COC is doing its business, that while it’s pulling in more money it’s also spending more on administration.
Aubut said some among his staff “took a pay cut” leaving their previous positions to join the COC. The COC is also shutting down its Ottawa office, merging it with its Montreal quarters. But as people have always said of Aubut’s strategy: “To make money, you have to spend money.”
And having refined its money-making ways, the COC is looking to enhance its legacy by assisting those who need it most.
“You look at what we’ve accomplished. We’ve increased the support for athletes, coaches, national sports organizations for years to come,” Aubut said. “We are going to leave the situation in a different way than it was. We want to be the best Olympic committee in the world.”