GeneralNewsQ & A: Nordiq Canada and Biathlon Canada Discuss the Nordiq Sports Strategy MOU

FasterSkier FasterSkierJuly 30, 2020

On Wednesday, FasterSkier reached out to two representatives from Canada potentially impacted by the announcement of the Nordiq Sports Strategy MOU. Jennifer Tomlinson, Chair, Nordiq Canada Board of Directors, spoke on behalf of Nordiq Canada, while Heather Ambery, General Manager of Biathlon Canada, spoke for Biathlon Canada. They were interviewed separately.

In short, the four NGBs representing the nordic disciplines in Canada — Biathlon Canada, Nordic Combined Ski Canada, Nordiq Canada, and Ski Jumping Canada — have agreed to explore potential collaborations and possible unification under a single NGB umbrella. For now, they remain four discrete NGBs. A steering committee and numerous working groups have been established to guide the process and collect information. (You can find a Nordiq Sports Strategy FAQ here.)

 

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FasterSkier:  How can working together bring more kids into the sport? And how do you see this playing out so the two entities, biathlon, and cross-country are not necessarily competing for limited athletes but are allowing them to find what works best for them in terms of a specific sport?

Jennifer Tomlinson: Chair, Nordiq Canada Board of Directors. (Photo: Nordiq Canada)

Jennifer Tomlinson, Chair, Nordiq Canada Board of Directors: The whole reason for us to be even coming together to have a discussion is to actually find the answers to that type of question. We actually don’t know. That is exactly what the working groups are intending to do some research on.

I am actually a management consultant and part of my day to day job is working on organizational transformation. And the biggest mistake that many organizations make is that they pull the trigger on making change without having done the research. 

And we want to make sure we have done our research so we are going to go through the “Ready Aims” process, so that we understand what we are getting into so we understand what the benefits and costs will be and we can make a rational decision. Because frankly, we have the time to be able to do that given that we are doing it ourselves. 

The answer to the first question, I honestly don’t know. I know that one of the working groups is all about figuring out what is going on and how can our members benefit and how can the sports benefit together.

I am awaiting the answer from the working groups as they do their work on the research and the engagement on many of the topics that we have asked them to do. 

 

FasterSkier: There are many models internationally for grouping the nordic sports. Some countries have four discrete NGBs. Here in the U.S. biathlon and cross-country are separate. Is there a model out there that is of interest to you? 

Jennifer Tomlinson: There are a whole ton of different models that all work. That is what makes this so difficult to be perfectly honest. Because, I think it is Austria and Germany and Switzerland, they have that model where the four disciplines are all working together. Other countries have biathlon and nordic that work together. Other countries have everybody completely separate. 

And the reality is that these work. All of them are different circumstances. We want to find something that is going to work for us. We anticipate that there will be some benefits to working together and we also anticipate that there are going to be things that absolutely will not work together. 

We want to measure and do our research to identify where frankly the biggest benefits are. The models of working together can be anywhere from project-based and we agree to collaborate on a specific initiative because that makes sense, or this could be a full integration under one umbrella. 

We actually don’t know. Again, we have seen models that do that, cover that range, and we are willing to consider the full range. 

 

FasterSkier: Funding is always an issue. How do entities like biathlon and cross-country facilitate cooperation when it comes to designing a sustainable funding model? How do they cooperate or set priorities when it comes to securing funding and approaching donors?

Jennifer Tomlinson: That is actually one of the reasons why to work together, so you have a common story. And especially for outside the government, remember, Canada has a different system than the U.S. We do have significant support from the government for national sport organizations and our athletes. 

Those organizations have encouraged us to explore different ways of providing our services to our community. The funding part, I have no answer to that. I don’t know, I am going to say that part of what is going to be explored is how can we do our business development and our funding development better together?

 

FasterSkier: Just a follow-up question. In the past, you have had large corporate funders, Alta Gas is one example. What have you learned about the funding model for cross-country and seeking non-governmental funders or investors? 

Jennifer Tomlinson: The non-government funders have two key drivers. One is eyeballs. They want to maximize the number of people that are going to see their logo and they are looking to find sports and individuals who will help their logo be seen. 

That is a challenge for nordic sports in North America because we just don’t have a nordic culture. 

The other piece is some corporations are motivated by community. And that would be corporate responsibility and social responsibility. That is actually where nordic sports has a great benefit. Corporations can promote the outdoors, good health, and well being. 

A lot of corporations are seeking opportunities to be involved with those types of activities not only from their corporate social responsibility perspective but also for their employees and their immediate community. There is interest especially with COVID that nordic activity is something that appeals to people when we need to get outside. 

 

FasterSkier: For Nordiq Canada, is it possible to market the sport as healthy living and getting outside rather than using the high profile athlete? Is this a more sustainable model than relying on having that big personality or that athlete like Beckie Scott or Alex Harvey that nails the results?

Jennifer Tomlinson: We rebranded in 2019 to make it clear that we actually had a dual focus. We want to get all Canadians on skis. That means all Canadians, that means all communities, that means urban, rural, that means new Canadians and people who want to be Canadian in the future. 

We definitely want that to be part of our future. And getting people to embrace the sport, that is a big part of our mandate. Part of the reason for doing that is that the more people that try the sport the more people that fall in love with it. It follows that the more people who develop a passion for it, then the more people that may choose the podium. 

 

FasterSkier: Medals….that is one measure of success. How does this new group think long-term, work long-term, when in fact championship medals may not be a reality for three to four Olympic cycles? Lots of World Championship medal opportunities in between there, but I think realistically, medals are hard to come by at that level so the wait might be considerable. 

Jennifer Tomlinson: The more Canadians on skis the more Canadians on podiums. That is what we are pushing for. But we know it is a long-term strategy. And both of those statements are long-term statements. So we may not see the benefit from the medal count, actually, we definitely won’t see the benefit in the medal count immediately. However, if we have the right strategy and we are making the right investments in the right spots, we should start to see benefits across the board. So medals are only one of our performance measures. The growth of our membership base would be another performance measure that we need to track. 

The number of people buying skis and getting out on their skis would be another piece of data we are trying to track.

Medals, yes, they are definitely something that is important. That is definitely something that is tracked by our funding body. It is definitely a goal for us. That is why one of the areas that will be looked at in the nordic strategy is high-performance. They will ask how we can do better in high performance whether we are working together or we are working collaboratively? Or, whether we are working in our independent silos, is there a way we can do it better? So one of the key research areas will be to see if we can do it better. You never know. 

We may get greater benefit by working together but that is where the research comes in. We need to understand exactly what that means. 

 

FasterSkier: I’m making some basic assumptions here. Nordiq Canada comes to the table with the biggest piece of the pie. The biggest piece of the human capital pie if we are talking about the raw number of skiers. The largest budget. What do you see as a result of these working groups where you would say, “yeah, we are going to buy into this.” Or is it too early to ask?

Jennifer Tomlinson: It is a great question and it is too early to ask. Until we have some good information I honestly cannot answer that question. My background tells me that there should be some operational efficiencies that can be achieved across the board. Which is why the working group has equal representation across all four disciplines. It has to be something that is beneficial to all four disciplines, otherwise, it makes no sense. 

It is really focusing on doing the research and identifying where the benefits are. 

 

FasterSkier:  What have you heard from your high-performance constituency, the athletes, are they piping in? Or maybe they are just focused on training and staying out of politics?

Jennifer Tomlinson: They are focused on their training, and are doing a great job of it. I love seeing their social media posts etc. etc. What athletes have asked is, again, what are the benefits? They are trusting that the group does the appropriate research and the appropriate engagement at the right time to ensure that all the right perspectives are considered before any decisions are made. And with that, we are getting on with what they need, which is making themselves the best athletes and the best people they can be.

 

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FasterSkier: How can working together bring more kids into the sport? And how do you see this playing out so the two entities, biathlon, and cross-country are not necessarily competing for limited athletes but are allowing them to find what works best for them in terms of a specific sport?

Heather Ambery: General Manager of Biathlon Canada. (Photo: Biathlon Canada.)

Heather Ambery General Manager of Biathlon Canada: The biggest thing here is really that this is the purpose of the steering committee. We want to really understand and answer that exact question — how can we get more Canadians into nordic sport and interested in nordic sport and how can we get more Canadians on podiums? The MOU, I think, is the first step in the alignment among the four organizations and with deliberative attention by the organizations to take a deeper look at answering that question. 

I think, really, that is a huge part of what the steering committee is looking at and will continue searching. 

Again I don’t want to sound like a broken record, one of our working groups is a membership working group, looking at that question, how do we increase our membership? I will speak for biathlon, our membership numbers are fairly stagnate and have hit a bit of a plateau. If there is a solution here or a positive outcome of the nordic strategy and the signing of the MOU to increase participation across the four sports then that would be fantastic. And again, exactly that, not necessarily competing for the same athletes, but exposing more Canadians to the magic of nordic sport. 

I think that would be a great outcome so we can get more eyeballs and more keen interests in nordic sport across the country. 

 

FasterSkier: Just a follow up regarding the plateau in membership. Race and equity have been a topic of conversation when thinking about reforms. What has Biathlon Canada done recently that speaks to increasing membership by expanding into communities not typically represented in the sport? 

Heather Ambery: We had a community discussion as recently as last week about exactly that, how can we include more people in our sport and make it more accessible and make it more inclusive for anyone? Biathlon Canada did come out with a statement about diversity and inclusion in recent weeks. 

We implemented some actionable items directly as a result of having these conversations and looking at how can we make biathlon more inclusive and have greater exposure. Having a greater number of groups involved is something that we are talking about at the staff level, and we had an open discussion with anyone who wanted to join in our community discussion last week. I think the solution is still in the development process. To your point, it is something we are looking at quite seriously. 

 

FasterSkier:  Funding is always an issue. How do entities like biathlon and cross-country facilitate cooperation when it comes to designing a sustainable funding model? How do they cooperate or set priorities when it comes to securing funding and approaching donors?

Heather Ambery: This fits really well within the revenue generation working group. That is a subset of the steering committee that will be looking exactly at this. The limited resources in nordic sports are a challenge we have identified. We are asking exactly how can we approach this differently or what are some things we have not yet considered as a group of four organizations that may help with revenue generation? 

 

FasterSkier: Medals….that is one measure of success. How does this new group think long-term, work long-term, when in fact championship medals may not be a reality for three to four Olympic cycles? Lots of World Championship medal opportunities in between there, but I think realistically, medals are hard to come by at that level so the wait might be considerable. 

Heather Ambery: We have a working group, a high-performance working group, that will be working over the next few months on again that piece. The high-performance medal is one of the measures of success along with more Canadians in nordic sport. That is a substantial piece for the working group to consider and really dive into how we work better and collaborate to bring about more success down the road exactly within a few Olympic cycles or further down the road. We are really trying to research and understand how that might work. 

For Biathlon Canada we will still put the best team forward and we will still pursue the long term athlete development approach that we currently do. I don’t think us pursuing the MOU is necessarily going to exclude us from putting our best team together year after year to pursue Olympic medals as often as we can. That is really what our goals is, sustainable medal performance. I don’t think us taking part in the MOU is necessarily going to exclude us from also chasing biathlon international podiums year after year just as we are trying to do currently. 

 

FasterSkier: What are some outcomes from the various working groups that might push you in the direction of wanting to unify under a single umbrella?

Heather Ambery: I don’t think it would be one straw that would break the camel’s back to use that expression in a bit of a reverse way. I think there is so much information to gather. The steering committee and the working groups are gathering all of the information that needs to be considered for the big picture. I think there is a lot we want to learn from our community as well. 

We want to know how could some degree of collaboration help a club? How could it support a division or a provincial-territorial organization? What is the impact it is going to have at the national level? There is so much information. I don’t think putting one key factor ahead of others would be appropriate at this point as we are starting down this journey of uncovering what these possibilities may be.

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