Last summer Yarden Gerbi’s family and friends were busily searching for a commercial sponsor, but eventually the promising judoka from Netanya flew to the World Championships without one. “I spoke about her to several companies at the time she was number one in the world rankings, but still none of them took any interest,” says Olympic medalist Yael Arad. “Only after she won the gold medal, stood and wept on the podium with the flag, it finally worked.”
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The new world champion returned home and was suddenly flooded with sponsorship offers. “There’s something very frustrating in Israel,” says Arad. “Many businessmen are involved in physical activity, but they still won’t invest in athletes who haven’t achieved something unique that makes the public love them. You must be a world champion who arouses deep emotions in order for 20 companies to approach you. A day before the Barcelona Olympic Games began, I received ridiculous offers from several huge companies; after winning the silver medal those same companies paid me 50 times as much.”
Fortunately for Gerbi, after being crowned world champion she received a flood of offers. “I spoke to some of these companies,” Arad says. “I told them Yarden already received three of four good offers, and maybe they should adopt another Olympic athlete. They looked at me as if I was nuts, as if they were saying ‘I’m in it for a winning stock, I’m really not here to help anyone and I’m really not interested.'”
High jumper Maayan Shahaf didn’t expect any help from commercial bodies and last summer appealed directly to the public for financial help via the Internet. “At the end of the day, the sponsors are commercial bodies and they want to gain something,” Shahaf says.
She believes the change should come from above. “If the state would offer the businessmen a tax incentive in exchange for the sponsorship, many would make deals. If the state doesn’t support athletes, why would businessmen want to do so? If you’re not the world champion, nobody here recognizes your existence. The funny thing is that in athletics, the moment you become successful you already don’t need anyone.”
Shahaf refuses to beg for help from commercial bodies. “I’m not one to grovel,” she says. “I believe that results speak for themselves. I keep training not because of hope that someone will eventually support me, but rather due to my love for sports. But that love, too, has its limits and I might just give up one day.”
Former leading judoka, MK Yoel Razbozov, also had problems finding sponsors at the time he won a silver medal at the European Championships. “I tried to find a sponsor because I was facing difficult situations,” he recalls. “It was hard and even humiliating, but when you hope to achieve your dream but don’t even have a place to work out, you must knock on doors. Unfortunately, companies with profits of hundreds of millions of dollars told me they were presently cutting expenses.”
Razbozov is aware of the low standing of athletes in Israel. “In our culture reality show stars are chosen for commercial campaigns. I really don’t want to criticize them, but athletes who achieved international success should be presenters and lead campaigns promoting excellence. Still, individuals who starred in ‘Big Brother’ achieve fame, and the commercial bodies stand on line for their services. There is also the problem of media coverage, because until an Olympic athlete wins a world championship, he is stuck under the heading of ‘other sports.’”
Yuval Arad, Yael’s brother and general director of a strategic consultancy firm, believes that the exclusion of athletes from the commercial arena is a great loss. “Athletes in individual sports are role models and usually very special individuals,” he explains. “Their complete devotion to their sport is astounding, and the values they represent are the values that companies hope to be identified with and have their employees identify with: competitiveness, success, refusal to yield. So far the main motivation for a connection with athletes is love of sports rather than the commercial appeal.”
Altshuler Shaham Investment House is one of the few commercial bodies that do invest in sports − and not due to hopes of financial gain. Last week, Gerbi signed a contract with the investment house, making her the latest in a long list of athletes to have Altshuler Shaham printed on their shirt.
“We support those who have potential but are limited by lack of funds,” says director general Ran Shaham. “Mostly it is assistance. We will support Yarden for two years, but I don’t know what we’ll receive in return. We might ask her to participate in community work and help make a few kids happier, but as far as the media is concerned she has no obligation to us. It’s our fun, we love sports and if Yarden wins a medal everyone will be happy.”
Altshuler Shaham has sponsored the Galil Elyon basketball team for the past decade with no expectation of dividends. “We joined the club as a contribution to the community; we fell in love with the club that represents Israeli youth and has a warm, friendly, green environment. We’re looking for naïve places, clkubs that nobody hates. Several years later, when the club won the championship, we received huge exposure, but we weren’t planning on it.”
Another example of splashing out cash for love of sports is Ya’akov Shahar, who, apart from owning Maccabi Haifa soccer club, supports swimmer Yaakov Toumarkin, gymnast Alex Shatilov and judoka Alice Schlesinger, as well as several paralympic athletes. “I don’t do it for publicity,” Shahar says, “but because I love sport and understand an athlete’s need to be focused on training. Sport brings people together, and if we have representatives who succeed, we gain international recognition of our athletes and our country. I've receive quite a support requests, but I can’t be the philanthropist supporting all Israeli sports.”
Shahar adds that his support doesn’t really leave a dent in his turnover, but for the athletes it could make the difference between outstanding and mediocre results: “It’s not such a huge expense for the sponsor, rather a small gesture on our behalf that might help them succeed,” he says.
Last year Arad was appointed to the directorate of the Olympic Committee of Israel, and she is currently working on a TV initiative that would present various Olympic athletes to the public and commercial community. “Usually, when an athlete tries to lure sponsors he stresses his hardships and presents himself as needy, instead of stressing his values and abilities,” she says. “We have to change that and show the qualities, not the neediness.”
Arad continues to meet with commercial companies: “I invite myself to a meeting with the general director and tell him that athletes ranked in the world's top ten make less money than his secretary.
Of the 55 athletes in Israel's Olympic squad, only 10 have sponsors. It’s frustrating, and a huge change has to be inacted if businessmen are not to feel guilty if they aren’t sponsoring an athlete. The Bituach Yashir insurance company met me only because I insisted, but after half an hour they were already enthusiastic. They invest in excellence in the Ethiopian community, so I picked out the most talented Ethiopian athlete, Tasama Moogas, the holder of the national 10,000-meter record. When I called him to tell him that I found him a sponsor, he couldn’t believe it.”
Arad is optimistic, and believes that within a decade things will change for the better: “Our athletes are so professional, outgoing and charismatic that I believe that commercial bodies will soon get on the wagon. When I run in the Yarkon Park at 6 A.M. I see all the most respected businessmen in the country. Those people, who appreciate the value of sports in their daily life, are the ones who should invest in the best and help them achieve their dreams.”