Speedskating just got a huge ratings boost in the U.S. this week -- with seemingly everyone but Canadian athletes paying attention.
Colbert who? U.S. comic Stephen Colbert, that's who.
An unconventional new sponsorship of the U.S. Olympic speedskating team through Colbert's popular late-night show, The Colbert Report, had him calling on his fans to donate to the team, promising U.S. victory and throwing in a dig at Canucks.
"It's kind of unseemly how many Canadians I'm going to have to be dealing with," said Colbert.
He described the branding of the U.S. speedskaters under the deal: "On their enormous, billboard thighs, it will say, 'Colbert Nation.' Be looking for that logo as it comes around the final turn. It will be easy to see because it will be in first place."
Not guaranteed. The Canadian team -- both on the ice and in the bank -- is stronger than the Americans. The U.S. speedskaters performed well at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, but haven't matched that since. Their largest annual cash sponsor, the Dutch bank DSB, left them in the lurch after it declared bankruptcy in October and paid none of its promised $300,000 to the U.S. team.
Meanwhile in Canada, speedskating is our top-performing Winter Olympic sport, and Speed Skating Canada collects $2 million annually from many sponsorships.
"Financially, we are fortunate to be in an Olympic year where the Games are taking place in our own country, so it has some positive impact on our team," said Speed Skating Canada director general Jean Dupre.
Dupre called the Americans "a strong competitor of ours for sure," particularly in short track.
Funny as Colbert is, what's funnier is how none of the Canadian speedskaters seem to have noticed his stunt. Of course, many of the Canadian short-trackers are francophone. Also, athletes also don't tend to watch a lot of late-night TV. To them, having a famous U.S. anglo windbag highlight their sport means nothing.
"We don't know much about the issues," said Speed Skating Canada's Mylene Croteau. "It has no impact on us."
Over the next few days in Montreal, Canadian skaters will compete with athletes from around the world, hoping to secure the maximum quotas in each distance for the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games. Athletes finishing in the top 32 (top 36 for the 1500m) rankings combined from the Montreal and Marquette World Cups (to be held the following weekend, November 12-15) will earn a spot for their country in Vancouver.
While Colbert is milking his new athlete friends for laughs -- even if he mocks them, which I fear is coming -- it's for a good cause. The idea of "talent supporting talent" isn't new, as the Canadian Athletes Now Fund has recruited plenty of famous Canadians to help its fundraising. But is Colbert doing this to be charitable or for ratings?
The answer's easy for Toronto comic Mike Bullard, now hosting a weekly radio show in Hamilton, Ont. Publicity.
"Of course it is," said Bullard. "Why else would you do it? They're pretty smart marketers, boy. It's not going to cost him any money, he's going to do it through viewers. I think it's going to raise a lot of money for the team."
It would be easy for the Canadians to be envious of their competitors' vast potential for fame and fortune from Colbert's scheme. Fact is, there's no Canadian talk-show host who could pull off anything as big. But the best part of this story is how none of it concerns the Canadian team -- not now, or in Vancouver at the starting line. Or the finish line.