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Volume 20 No. 41
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Sponsor RBC helping to expand program designed to discover new Olympians for Canada

The RBC Training Ground helps keep the pipeline of Olympic talent filled in Canada.
Photo by: COURTESY OF RBC (2)
In the never-ending struggle to activate Olympic sponsorships between Games, Royal Bank of Canada has created a program that keeps the brand alive in the off years by helping Team Canada find some unlikely medal contenders.

This year, RBC, the Canadian Olympic Committee and broadcast rights holder CBC are expanding the RBC Training Ground, a project first launched in 2016 to evaluate teenagers and young adults from outside the Olympic pipeline for potential.

In just a year, the program already uncovered Kieanna Stephens and Pierce LePage. Stephens is a standout junior hockey player who had never previously touched an oar but is now on track to wear the Maple Leaf for the rowing team in 2020. LePage was a college track athlete who struggled with injuries and never got into Athletics Canada’s development program. But he turned heads at the combine and six months later finished third in the decathlon at the Décastar leg of the IAAF World Combined Events Challenge.

RBC has pledged $5 million to the program through 2020, said Mary DePaoli, chief brand and communications officer at RBC.

“It really does serve a lot of things,” DePaoli said. “It helps Canada by investing in athletes, it fills a gap in the Olympic talent pipeline, and it allows us to have a more 365 view of the Olympic sponsorship beyond the Games itself.”

The RBC Training Ground combines, held occasionally in key markets, invite athletes ages 14-25 to be evaluated by experts from various Canadian Olympic sports teams for their potential to one day win a medal. The one-day tryouts are also a vehicle for the RBC and Team Canada brands.

In 2016, 400 athletes attended four tryouts, with 25 of them being selected by the participating sports organizations for further training. RBC pays those chosen athletes up to $10,000 annually for three years to continue development.

Through just the first quarter of 2017, more than 600 athletes have come through the program, DePaoli said. Twenty-six stops are planned for this year, but they don’t yet know how many athletes will win the recurring grants.

At each location, athletes are tested for endurance, strength, short-distance speed and a range of other qualities. The tests are designed to capture raw potential, and what each sport is looking for varies considerably.

National sport federations — equivalent to national governing bodies in the U.S. — make the ultimate decisions.

Peter Shakespear, director of national talent identification and development for Rowing Canada, said he was skeptical of the RBC Training Ground because each sport is so specialized. But with a deep-pocketed corporate backer and the Team Canada brand — rather than a single sport — far more athletes are hearing about the opportunity to begin with, crucial in the massive, sparsely populated country.

“RBC is giving this more publicity than we could ever do as a sport, and it’s trying to cast a net even wider,” Shakespear said. RBC’s funding to the chosen athletes’ next stages lends it credibility with the sports, too, he said.

Canadian Olympic Committee CMO Derek Kent, who helped develop the program with RBC, said the training ground’s very nature is ready-made for an offseason brand marketing campaign.

By locating the sessions around the country, RBC can activate at local branches and highlight athletes of regional significance, while still telling a national story. Meanwhile, broadcast partner CBC and Team Canada get an opportunity at each stop to remind the country of the next Games and the behind-the-scenes work of preparing.

And the athletes who emerge are natural storytelling vehicles, Kent said.