The bank that built tennis in Canada

— by Christopher Johnson —

More than a decade ago, when Canada’s biggest banks were investing in golf, the National Bank of Canada in Montreal decided to take a risk.

“The folks at National Bank of Canada had a vision,” says Jonathan Prunier, the bank’s manager for sponsorship and donations. “Let’s go with tennis, since all the banks were doing golf. We’re the sixth of the Big Five banks. We didn’t have the money nor the desire to compete against the RBCs (Royal Bank) of Canada. There was an opportunity to build a niche through sponsorship of tennis. It was for strategic reasons. We hoped the sport would get a lift.”

They began by sponsoring the Rogers Cup for the past 10 years, and they have just signed an agreement to sponsor the event for years to come.

While many pundits have highlighted Tennis Canada’s role in developing fast-rising stars, the National Bank has been instrumental in building the sport from the grass-roots. The bank sponsors Futures and Challenger events to help players get off the ground, as well as the National Bank Roadshow in Ontario and the Tournee Sports Expert in Quebec. The bank is also sponsoring a WTA event for women in Quebec City in September.

“We’re helping Tennis Canada receive funds,” says Prunier. “Without that money, they can’t develop their programs. Our major investment is the Rogers Cup. It’s a non-profit to re-invest all the funds for the development program. As a sponsor, we’ve been an important player to help that happen.”

“It’s been our biggest sponsorship throughout our portfolio,” says Prunier. “In the last three or four years, we saw a bigger change in things, because we started investing in a major manner in activating our sponsorships by creating advertising, TV ads, print ads, promotions, and integrating product.”

Prunier won’t reveal dollar figures about funding, but the results of sustained sponsorship are clear and stunning. Milos Raonic from Thornhill, Ontario and Montreal’s Genie Bouchard have both cracked the top ten. Vasek Pospisil from Vernon and Vancouver won Wimbledon doubles this year, and he’s rising fast in singles.

Tennis Canada spokesman Louis-Philippe Dorais says five million Canadians — about one of out six people — play tennis occasionally, a rise of about three to five percent yearly since they began tracking figures in 2009. Tennis Canada now has an operating budget of about $35 to 40 million annually, employing about 100 people in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, he says.

The Ministry of Canadian Heritage says taxpayers contribute about $1.1 million in funding annually. With so many public courts available in Canadian cities, it’s probably easier to pick up a racquet and play tennis in Canada than any country on earth, though the long winter does limit outdoor play in many areas.

While crowds were relatively thin on the opening days of the Rogers Cup men and women’s tournaments held this week in Toronto and Montreal, previous events have set records, Dorais says. The 2011 Rogers Cup in Montreal hosted 213,760 spectators over the course of the week, the most for any pro tennis event, he says.

Though rain in 2010 and the Olympics in 2012 resulted in smaller numbers, Dorais says he expects this year’s women’s event in Montreal will break their previous record of 174,706 total spectators in 2011.

These numbers will surprise many in a nation which typically treats hockey as a religion. Tennis is a rising sport in Canada, and players across the country are inspired like never before.

“The difference came in 2007 when Tennis Canada started investing more money into development, building the National Tennis Centre,” says Dorais.

Like many players and observers, Prunier of the National Bank praises coach Louis Borfiga from France for coming to Montreal and developing young Canadian talents.

“He’s great. He’s very keen on developing and finding the right approach for the players, and having a system based on personality and the incentive to win instead of to participate,” says Prunier. “All of the people at Tennis Canada have had an important part in building these players. They’ve helped players gain confidence.”

He also notes the work of Eugene Lapierre, tournament director for the Rogers Cup in Montreal. “He’s put Tennis Canada on the map. He’s built programs and various Challenger tournaments in the regions.”

Since 2006, the National Bank has funded a “Little Aces” program to help identify budding stars among 6-8 year olds, keep them on Tennis Canada’s radar, and help them develop their talent. Prunier says they’re exporting the program from Quebec to Ontario this year. “It’s been great in Quebec. The program was mostly active in indoor tennis clubs. As of 2014, tennis clubs will also be supervising outdoor parks in their sector. We’re opening up the program not only to kids playing in indoor or private clubs, but kids playing outdoors. Each club supervises four outdoor courts on average. It’s meant to detect talent for a limited number of folks, maybe about 600 kids per year.”

The bank also organizes a clever “On the Ball” program to redistribute about 160,000 used tennis balls from tournaments and about 29 clubs in Quebec and Ontario. About 150 schools cut the balls open and put them under desks and chairs to reduce distracting screeching noises in classrooms.

He says Tennis Canada “were getting calls from school boards and schools wanting to know if they had used tennis balls,” says Prunier. “It helps to reduce the noise level and improves the learning environment. The school boards in Ontario and Quebec require parents to purchase tennis balls for that reason.”

Though the program is currently receiving more demand than supplies, schools and clubs can sign up on the program’s website: