Seed funding for athletes

August 20, 2008ken_parker
Krystle Chow
Ottawa Business Journal

Parallels between business and sport prompt local business leaders to invest

Retired Ottawa businessman Ken Parker says he used to get ragged on for constantly invoking sports analogies when running IT firm Sirius Consulting Group Inc.

“I’ve coached track and basketball, and with Sirius my job was to find good people and train and manage them, so I see myself as a coach – I can’t stop,” says Mr. Parker.

So it was no surprise that the Runner’s Web founder went from running Sirius to helping athletes go for Olympic gold after selling his company in 2004. Mr. Parker is one of several businesspeople to support the Canadian Athletes Now fund, a not-for-profit group which raises cash to help Canada’s Olympic hopefuls pay for various necessary expenses.

“Being an athlete is often about learning that success comes from failure, about overcoming obstacles,” says the fund’s founder and executive director, Jane Roos. “It’s not so different from business … it comes with a lot of hard work, focus, courage, and it takes a lot to want to be the best in the city or province.”

A former heptathlete herself, Ms. Roos says she had “a lot of time to reflect on life and what was important” when a car accident just outside of Ottawa ended her athletic career and the life of a dear friend.

“In the beginning, it was just a project, but it grew into a charity that’s raised over $7 million and impacted the life of over 500 athletes,” she says, adding she hopes to raise an additional $3 million by the end of August.

The 11-year-old organization allows businesses to ‘adopt’ athletes and provide funding in two cycles per year, as athletes receive $6,000 for each cycle they are eligible. There are about 400 applicants each cycle, with about 320 who fit all of the fund’s criteria, and the fund is usually able to provide for about 280 or 290 of those who qualify.

Ms. Roos says $6,000 goes a long way for the applicants, especially considering that even top-level athletes receive only $1,500 a month from the federal government.

“It’s like getting seed money (in business),” says Ms. Roos of her fund, adding that athletes often use $20,000 to $30,000 of their own money to get themselves to the Olympics.

The fund’s efforts are especially timely in the face of Canada’s poor performance in Beijing thus far, which many have said is due to inadequate government financing.

Runner’s Web’s Mr. Parker says there’s a tendency to fund athletes only after achieving greatness, as well as to ignore aspiring Olympians in favour of what he calls “mercenary” professional athletes who already make millions.

“Once athletes achieve a gold medal, there’s lots of corporate sponsorship and at that point you get federal funding, but you don’t need it at that point; you need it when you’re driving to races and sleeping in your car because you can’t afford a hotel room,” he says.

He argues it’s a small investment for businesses, many of whose executives have benefited from lessons learned in sport.

Another who transferred athletic skills to the business world is Kevin Reed, a University of Ottawa graduate now running Grey Horse Capital Corp. in Toronto. He says he grew up as a hockey player and joined a pro team in Austria before getting a university education. The twin impacts of business and sport on Mr. Reed’s success meant it was a “no-brainer” to support Canadian Athletes Now, which he’s done for four years.

“Without sports being a major influence in my life, I wouldn’t get to do what I do today,” says Mr. Reed. “(There are similarities in business and athletics in) the lessons you learned: whether you’ve won or lost the night before, you have to do it all over again. You have your victories and you take your hits, but you have to keep driving forward.”

Adds Mr. Parker: “The discipline, persistence and toughness (that athletes have) make them successful in any venture including business … Just as in sport, the IT business in Ottawa is super-competitive; you can’t sit back on your laurels and … put your feet up, or someone else will eat your lunch and want your spot and want to beat you.”