Does sponsoring Olympic athletes help small firms? It's about money and more

The Olympics may be over, but for many of the small businesses that sponsor Canadian athletes, now is the time for recognition.

Athletes may not always bring in revenue, but sponsors say they inspire young people

Cathy and Doug Ellison with Olympic decathlon champion Damian Warner at a celebration for the athlete on Tuesday. (Submitted by Doug Ellison)

The Olympics may be over, but for many of the small businesses that sponsor Canadian athletes, now is the time for recognition.

Team Canada's biggest financial supporters were front and centre during Olympic broadcasts, but rules limit the extent to which athletes can promote personal sponsors.

Now that the athletes have returned home, they can thank and highlight smaller businesses who chipped in to fund their Olympic journeys.

"It's a business deal in which both sides should benefit," said Vijay Setlur, marketing instructor at York University.

Smart companies, he says, should be harnessing athletes' success to promote their businesses — especially if they brought home hardware from Tokyo.

Small business owners in Alberta and Ontario told CBC News they hope their companies see a boost from the performance of Olympians they sponsored. But they said their partnerships with Olympic athletes also yield less tangible benefits, such as inspiring local kids.

Golden marketing opportunity

Doug Ellison, who runs Ellison Travel & Tours in Ontario, is among the sponsors for gold-medal-winning decathlete Damian Warner and handles his travel arrangements.

The sponsorship made sense because of his lifelong love of sport, particularly track, said Ellison. He was a former high school physical education teacher who has coached track athletes, and served as an official at the Montreal Olympics and Commonwealth Games in Edmonton in the 1970s.

Supporting athletes is a smart marketing move, he said, because a celebrity or star client can attract others to the business. 

Decathletes are not usually renowned sports figures in Canada, but Ellison expects Warner's profile will rise after winning gold.

"We'll reap the benefits of it because of the image and we can market ourselves as far as being his agent," Ellison said. 

Stepping stone sponsors

Kelsey Mitchell of Sherwood Park, Alta., was still relatively new to track cycling when she approached Cornerstone Insurance Brokers in Edmonton in 2019 about sponsorship.

Vice President Karim Mouait says he loved her story, so he agreed to spend a few thousand dollars on the athlete.

Karim Mouait, of Cornerstone Insurance Brokers, said his company sponsored track cyclist Kelsey Mitchell because she had a compelling story and could inspire young people. (Submitted by Karim Mouait)

Mouait's company sponsors a number of local athletes. Though the financial sums are small, he said he hopes his contributions help athletes attract other, larger sponsors.

"I like being the first stepping stone into greater sponsorship growth," Mouait said.

Like Warner, Mitchell also returned to Canada this week with a gold medal in tow.

It's unclear how much of a financial boost her success will give the insurance company. But it will inspire the next generation of female athletes in Edmonton, said Mouait.

Jordan Taylor, owner of Edmonton private gym Goliath High Performance, sponsored water polo player Kindred Paul to inspire more girls to get involved in sports in general, he said.

"[Paul] being in the weight room and in the gym is ... going to encourage not only young athletes, but young female athletes, to continue that trend," Taylor said.

Canadian Olympic water polo player Kindred Paul trains at Goliath High Performance, a private gym in Edmonton. (Submitted by Jordan Taylor)

With Canadian women doing so well at the Games, there has never been a better time to invest in this demographic, said Cheri Bradish, director of the Future of Sport Lab at Ryerson University.

Digital platforms have become increasingly important to marketers, and female athletes know how to harness their power, she said.

"Female athletes are really good at connecting with their fans and their followers — and hence, their brand — socially," Bradish said.

Making the most of medals

Even if sponsored athletes succeed on the world stage, marketers still have to spend money to advertise their connections with them, said Athabasca University marketing professor Shaun McQuitty. 

Smaller companies can leverage athletes' success by scheduling autograph sessions and posting about them on social media, said Setlur of York University.

"Unfortunately, what happens quite often is businesses giving money or donating funds to athletes, but not really doing anything with athletes in return for that funding," he said.

"So it's almost as if sponsorship is a form of philanthropy."


Madeleine Cummings is a reporter with CBC Edmonton. She covers local news for CBC Edmonton's web, radio and TV platforms. You can reach her at madeleine.cummings@cbc.ca.