BioSteel has a long track record of signing top-tier endorsers but last week the Toronto-based sports nutrition outfit closed its biggest deal to date, selling a majority stake in the company to Canopy, a Canadian cannabis retailer. The deal aims to make BioSteel a player in the rapidly-expanding market for cannabidiol (CBD) products.
On Thursday morning the Toronto Wolfpack, five days removed from the biggest win in franchise history, kicked off a crucial new phase of the business by launching Rugby Strength, its team-branded line of hemp-based CBD topical creams.
The back-to-back developments signal that cannabis is on the brink of widespread acceptance in mainstream professional sports and that Toronto could function as an entry point.
It’s not clear when BioSteel’s cannabis-based products will hit local stores, but the Wolfpack’s pain-relieving cream is already being marketed and sold to athletes in the United Kingdom. Both companies are part of a growing list of sports industry stakeholders ready to integrate CBD products into training rooms when rules governing the substance allow it.
When Canopy acquired their stake in BioSteel, Dallas Cowboys tailback Ezekiel Elliot updated his BioSteel contract so he could also endorse the company’s upcoming products — once the NFL makes them legal. Right now BioSteel and Canopy are consulting with NSF International, the U.S.-based product testing and certification agency, to create standards for CBD products in sports.
“As soon as it’s certified for sport, you’re going to see it in every locker room,” BioSteel CEO John Celenza said. “There’s a genuine demand.”
Elliott is far from the first NFLer to promote the purposeful use of cannabis and related products.
Even before retiring in 2011, long-time Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman Eugene Monroe advocated for medicinal marijuana to help players manage chronic pain. And in a recent interview with The Bleacher Report, retired NFL receiver Percy Harvin revealed that he kept anxiety in check by smoking a joint before every game.
“There’s not a game I played that I wasn’t high,” Harvin said.
But advocates point out that hemp-derived CBD products don’t contain THC, the intoxicant that gets marijuana smokers high. They feel CBD products like oils, roll-ons and topical creams can complement and one day possibly replace addictive prescription painkillers for pro sports teams. In an interview with Sports Illustrated last year, hall of fame quarterback Brett Favre revealed he once took 14 Vicodin pills before an NFL game and that his addiction to painkillers led to three stints in drug rehab.
Wolfpack spokesperson Erik Grosman says his club entered the CBD market to help its players manage pain without courting the side-effects of pharmaceutical painkillers.
“Rugby is a gladiatorial sport (and) we felt we owed it to the players to try and help them recover and prolong their careers,” Grosman said. “This is a healthy alternative to the other side.”
The broader sports world is still trying to figure out where CBD products fit on a spectrum that spans legal supplements, situationally permitted prescription drugs and banned PEDs.
From a business standpoint, reviews are still mixed. Retired NFLers like Terrell Davis and Rob Gronkowski have become CBD oil evangelists. But an executive at NBA star Steph Curry’s investment firm, SC30, recently said the company would never back a CBD venture.
“With CBD, that, to me, is more of a brand decision,” SC30 president Bryant Barr said in an interview with Yahoo Finance. “That’s Stephen. He’s family first.”
Globally, the World Anti-Doping Agency no longer lists CBD oil as a prohibited substance, but the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, which oversees doping control domestically, tells athletes to use it at their own risk. The CCES cannabis fact sheet points out that some CBD products might still contain enough THC to trigger a positive test.
The Wolfpack’s CBD cream complies with the Rugby Football League’s drug policy, and BioSteel says none of its CBD products will violate anti-doping rules.
The NFL doesn’t permit CBD oil use, but BioSteel co-founder Mike Cammalleri says he used it with a doctor’s prescription during his last season in the National Hockey League to relieve chronic back pain. Cammalleri says contemporary players are less apprehensive about using CBD products, and eager for alternatives to prescription painkillers.
“It’s not viewed as a drug (among many athletes),” said the 37-year-old Cammalleri, a Richmond Hill native who spent 15 years in the NHL before retiring after splitting the 2017-18 season between the Los Angeles Kings and Edmonton Oilers.
“It’s viewed as a health and wellness play … I know it’s not there yet in the general population, but I’m confident it will (change) quickly.”
Still, there are limits to CBD oil’s utility.
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Gronkowski’s pronouncement last month that he used CBD oil to cure himself of the degenerative brain disease CTE drew sharp criticism from medical professionals, and a friendly correction from Chris Nowinski of the Concussion Legacy Foundation.
Celenza says CBD’s future isn’t as a magic cure-all but as products that mainstream consumers will come to consider a normal part of a healthy daily routine.
“It’s going to go exactly like protein did,” Celenza said. “Back in the day, who was it for? Bodybuilders, then it was for athletes. Now everyone’s having a protein shake in the morning … The same thing’s going to happen with CBD. In a couple years it’s going to be everyday practice.”
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