Keeping athletes afloat

FOR many athletes, the difference between being good and great can be measured in millimetres or milliseconds.

But finding that fraction of a centimetre or that split-second that means the difference between being an Olympian and watching the Olympics on TV can take years.

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Action Talent, a North Vancouver agency that represents athletes and stunt performers for commercials and television work, has recently branched out into the world of connecting athletes with sponsors.

"It was shocking to me how many Olympic athletes were coming in our office who were really struggling to make ends meet," says company president Connie deBoer, discussing the numerous athletes making less than $30,000 a year.

Many of the athletes suggested lobbying the government for more money, but deBoer suggested a different strategy.

"There's no sense trying to lobby the government for more money because we all are the government," deBoer says. "It's all of us and there's only so much that Canadians can afford to pay."

DeBoer decided to help secure sponsorship deals for athletes that let them chase millimetres and milliseconds for a little longer.

"The corporations would benefit and the athletes would get the funding that they needed," she says.

With 700 athletes on its roster, the company is currently sponsoring 11 Olympic hopefuls, as well as a host of snowboarders, sailors, mountain bikers, surfers, and rock climbers.

"We have to show the companies how under-funded these athletes are," says Cameron Hilts, a sports agent who works with Action Talent. "We have so many amazing athletes that have to drop out of sports because they can't afford to keep doing it."

As a former competitive skier and mountain biker who was forced into a suit and tie after a series of knee injuries and a broken shoulder, Hilts is well-acquainted with the rigours associated with being a professional athlete

"Some of these athletes actually have other jobs as well," Hilts says. "So this athlete may be waking up at five or six in the morning, going to the gym to train, working a few hours . . . trying to stick to their diet plans, trying to apply by email to other sponsors," he says. "And then at the same time getting out and doing their sport."

The partnerships will be good for all parties, according to Hilts, who often explains the virtue of sponsorship to corporate representatives.

"These athletes alone are getting . . . up to millions of spectators in one year, so the biggest thing for these companies is showing how visible these athletes are," he says.

It can be a challenge to convince an established company to invest in an X-Games athlete, but it is a worthwhile challenge, according to Hilts.

"It definitely is trickier because you don't have the Olympic background," he says, discussing top freestyle mountain biker and North Vancouver native Geoff Gulevich.

"Those are sports that soon will become Olympic sports," deBoer says of the X-Games events.

Part of the commercial value of many athletes is due to a societal shift to a healthier lifestyle, according to deBoer.

"A huge force in the market is healthy lifestyle, fitness and sport marketing," she says.

Action Talent rates sponsorships from bronze, which requires a $5,000 contribution, to full-title sponsorship, which requires $15,000.

"From the moment that we got the concept, which happened when we saw the need, the first phone call I made was to a corporation owned by people in North Vancouver, a construction company, and I explained to them, this is someone I knew had a great love for Olympic sports, and when I explained to him, on the phone, the situation with one of our Olympians, he said, 'You know what? Come right over and we'll discuss this.' And they did a gold-level ($10,000) sponsorship for Davey Barr."

Barr is a recently retired Olympian ski-cross athlete.

DeBoer said finding sponsorships is made easier when dealing with one of the many companies that profited from the Vancouver Olympics

"There's a lot of those people that really do want to put some of that money back in the hands of the Olympians," she says.

Having some money in the bank makes things much easier for the athletes, according to Hilts.

"They can wake up in the morning, they can train, they can make sure their diet plan is sticking to what it's supposed to be. Not only that, they can put those extra hours in to try to help promote their sponsors and be out there in their community," he says.

jshepherd@nsnews.com

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