Struggle with Paralympic exposure in Canada nothing new

Despite record-smashing international audience numbers for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio, many of Canada's athletes have struggled making a significant dent in television ratings and marketability.

Canadian athletes have to fight harder when it comes to marketing themselves

The Canadian Paralympic Committee is hoping to draw in more viewers by capturing the unique capabilities and back stories of the athletes. (Scott Grant/Canadian Press)

A frigid, vast mountainous landscape transitions to a lone para ice hockey player training on an icy pond in an arctic storm. Across the screen, a number of statistics on Canadian hockey participation are displayed, culminating in one final figure.

"0.000053% play hockey on a sledge and become Paralympic champions."

The para ice hockey player is revealed to be Team Canada captain Greg Westlake.

It's all quite impressive, and you would be forgiven if initially you had thought the scene came straight from an episode of Game of Thrones. It's part of a reinvigorated plan to boost the exposure of Canada's Paralympians competing in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Called "Greatness is Rare," the Canadian Paralympic Committee's new marketing campaign shifts the focus directly on the athletes themselves, acknowledging the rarity in participation and gold-medal success rate within the Paralympic sports — all while paying dramatic homage to Canada's harsh northern landscapes.

Lack of public awareness

But the small percentage of participation in para sports revealed in the commercial is also mirrored in the lack of public awareness and brand recognition for Canada's Paralympic athletes.

With record-smashing international audience numbers for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio, many of Canada's athletes have struggled making a significant dent in television ratings and marketability. 

It's a trend that Martin Richard, executive director of brand and communications for the Canadian Paralympic Committee, hopes to reverse in Pyeongchang.

"Coming back from the Rio Paralympics, the one thing that didn't work is that we didn't increase viewership of coverage of the Paralympic Games, which was obviously something that we wanted to expand on," said Richard.

"According to our survey, 60 per cent of Canadians want to watch the Paralympics on any type of platform, whether it's traditional TV or online streaming. That's a big chunk right there. That's over 10 million. But our audience viewership rating is quite lower. We've got an audience that's off the couch and active, but we didn't get them to learn more about our athletes."

Struggle for exposure nothing new

The struggle with athlete exposure in Canada is nothing new.

Just ask Summer Mortimer, a Canadian-Dutch para swimmer who won four Paralympic medals, including two gold, at the 2012 Paralympic Games.

"For a country based in diversity, equality, and acceptance, we are so far behind [other countries] in regards to the Paralympic movement," said Mortimer.

Mortimer made the dramatic move to compete for the Netherlands in the run-up to 2016, before injuries derailed her attempt at qualifying.

Mortimer, who made the switch to her mother's native county after her success in the London 2012 Games, believes Canadian Paralympic athletes have fallen behind when it comes to exposure.

"For such a small country, they are so much more progressive than Canada," explained Mortimer.

Lack of opportunities in Canada have propelled many Paralympians to take charge of their own marketing and promotion. The common theory is that Canadians are too humble when it comes to promoting one athlete or celebrating their success too much.

Para swimmer Summer Mortimer left for the Netherlands but injuries prevented her from competing. (Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images)

Modest, humble approach not paying off

Mortimer, who struggled to find sponsorship after her success in London, believes Canadian Paralympic athletes have to fight harder when it comes to marketing themselves for companies.

"In the United States, there's more of a back story and a celebrity status associated with their athletes. With Canada, no one wants to be 'too great'. Everyone wants to stay modest and humble because it's frowned upon", said Mortimer.

With more coverage of the Paralympics available to Canadians than ever before, might we see a reversal in the brand power and marketability of the athletes?

If Canadian companies are looking to associate their brand with athletes that have diverse and interesting back stories, they need not look further than many of the Paralympians competing in Pyeongchang.

Take a look at Tyler McGregor and Dominic Larocque — teammates on Canada's para ice hockey team.

MacGregor has overcome cancer to become one of the Canada's leading scorers the past several years. Larocque lost his leg while serving in the Canadian Armed Forces in Afghanistan. 

CIBC, which has sponsored the Canadian Paralympic Committee since 2013, has taken the lead in sponsoring disabled athletes in Canada.

Andrew Greenlaw, senior director of sponsorship at CIBC, believes that the Paralympics are a powerful vehicle to shift societal perceptions of disability, stressing that the unique stories are the selling point.

"These athletes are great visual representation," said Greenlaw. "From a marketing perspective, storytelling is our greatest asset."

Tyler McGregor, right, and Dominic Larocque have overcome major obstacles to be huge contributors to Canada's para hockey team. (Matthew Murnaghan/Hockey Canada Images/Getty Images)

By capturing more of the unique capabilities and back stories of the Paralympians, along with new ways to stream the action on social media platforms, Martin and the Canadian Paralympic Committee are hoping more Canadians will tune in this year.

"We have to demonstrate what 'rareness' is," says Martin

"The one thing they have in common is that they are incredible athletes. The best of the best. To say that you're the best at something in the world is pretty remarkable."


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