Big brands follow Scotiabank in pausing Hockey Canada sponsorship

*This story was updated on June 29

Scotiabank’s decision to hit pause on its Hockey Canada sponsorship over the sports body’s handling of a sexual assault lawsuit could be the beginning of a wave of similar announcements, says one sports marketing expert.

“I think it’s likely,” said Brian Findlay, chief communications officer with Stellick Marketing Communications in Toronto. “I think the real key in these situations is to be first. The first to react gets the most kudos and attention, but it also takes the most courage.

“It becomes an ethical bar that someone else has set,” he added. “Other sponsors are maybe wishing they were first, but they will feel just as much pressure as they did before Scotiabank did this. History has shown that [sponsors] tend to fall in line, but it often takes a bold first move to get it going.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, other major Hockey Canada sponsors including Canadian Tire, Telus and Tim Hortons had all pulled out of the upcoming IIHF World Junior Championship in Edmonton.

“We are suspending support for the upcoming men’s World Junior Championship as we await details from Hockey Canada on how they intend to take strong and definitive action in the wake of the deeply concerning allegations connected to a Hockey Canada Foundation event in 2018,” said Tim Hortons in an email statement to The Message.

“Hockey Canada has communicated that it is committed to changing the culture of hockey to make it safer and more inclusive for all, on and off the ice. We have expressed strongly that we believe Canadians are urgently seeking concrete details from Hockey Canada about how it intends to do so. We will re-evaluate our sponsorship agreement once we have all the information we need to consider our options.”

Scotiabank was the first major sponsor to take action against Hockey Canada, announcing its decision via a full-page ad in The Globe and Mail on Tuesday.

In an email statement to The Message, Daniel Ehman, group account director with Scotiabank’s sports sponsorship agency MKTG Sports + Entertainment, said: “[W]e fully support our clients, the message they have shared, and their mission to change the culture of hockey.

“While we hope and believe that this letter will have a cascading effect into the hockey (and broader) world, we believe the best way to do that for the time being is to focus on the message in the letter and think about how each one of us can contribute to changing the game and preventing anything like this from ever happening again.”

The ad took the form of an open letter addressed to Hockey Canada, hockey players, fans, teams and all Canadians by Scotiabank president and CEO Brian Porter. The chief executive said he was “appalled” by the reports, stating that the alleged assault was “contrary to the beliefs and values that hockey is meant to embody.”

Porter said that Scotiabank would pause its sponsorship, including all planned marketing and events around the  upcoming IIHF men’s World Junior Championships, until it is confident that steps are being taken to “improve the culture within the sport—both on and off the ice.”

In a post on its website, Hockey Canada said it values its relationship with Scotiabank, adding “we both respect and understand their decision regarding their sponsorship.”‘

The sports body reiterated comments outgoing CEO Tom Renney made to Members of the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage last week, stating that it is “on a journey to change the culture of our sport and to make it safer and more inclusive, both at the rink and in our communities.”

The implications of any kind of significant sponsor defection could be dire for Hockey Canada—which draws 43% of its total revenue from business development and partnerships. In addition to Scotiabank, other major corporate sponsors include Esso, Tim Hortons and Canadian Tire.

The Canadian government also froze federal funding to Hockey Canada in the wake of its senior executives’ testimony before Members of the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage. The hearing was called after it was revealed that Hockey Canada paid an undisclosed sum to settle a lawsuit alleging that eight Canadian Hockey League players sexually assaulted a young woman after a Hockey Canada Foundation gala in June 2018.

Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge said that the funding, which represents only 6% of the organization’s annual revenue, would only be restored when the organization discloses the recommendations made in what the CBC deemed “an incomplete report” compiled by a third-party law firm brought in to investigate the alleged incident. St-Onge also said that Hockey Canada must sign on to the new Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner.

Findlay said that the government’s announcement was likely a key contributor to the decision for Scotiabank, which has made hockey sponsorship one of the cornerstones of its marketing for years. “They’re saying ‘If the government of Canada is convinced that this is the right thing to do, then others will too,'” he said.

However, Findlay said that Scotiabank’s use of the word “pause” in its letter, rather than more definitive language like “cancel” or “terminate,” also signals that the company—which calls itself “Canada’s hockey bank”—is unlikely to completely walk away from the sport.  

“It’s a really purposeful choice [of words], because it implies that they’re actively watching and not giving up on their investment,” he said. “They have a large investment to protect in terms of public perception and what they’ve become synonymous with. Scotiabank went really hard after [hockey] and got it, so it’s an essential investment.”

Scotiabank is in the midst of a five-year sponsorship with Hockey Canada that runs through 2024. Announcing the partnership in 2019, it said that one of goals was to grow the women’s game. It has also introduced CSR programs such as “Hockey For All,” which is attempting to make the sport more inclusive and diverse, and sponsors a local team, league or association in every community in which it has a branch.

In the open letter, Porter said that Scotiabank planned to divert its investment for the upcoming to the Women’s World Championship and also making a donation to the Canadian Women’s Foundation. “The time for change is long overdue,” Porter concluded. “We call on Hockey Canada to move with a sense of urgency in order to ensure that the game we love is held to the highest standards, and can truly be hockey for all.”

Findlay said that a “safe sport wave” capable of shattering the existing culture of sport has been building for about a year. Athletes from the worlds of gymnastics, boxing and bobsled/skeleton, for example, have all called for independent investigations into their respective sport in recent weeks, alleging abuse and mistreatment.

“Part of it is that sponsors for the past couple of years have really been attaching themselves to the culture of sport—not just signature [events], but diversity, inclusion and equity,” he said. “In the world of amateur sports sponsorship, this wave is coming and this is the moment it’s starting to hit.

“There will be a cascading effect, and the level will be interesting to watch.”

Chris Powell