So you want to get sponsored?
Caveat added in May 2018: I no longer seek sponsorships, but I still get asked about them a lot, hence I have included this old article in the new site.
As someone who rarely wins races outright, yet also is fortunate enough to enjoy a number of beneficial sponsorship ‘deals’, I often get asked what the secret is to becoming a sponsored athlete. There’s no short answer – and probably no one right answer, either – but I thought it might be helpful to write down some thoughts designed to help anyone looking for sponsorship to assist them in competing (in sport of any kind, it doesn’t have to be triathlon).
In the ‘real-world’ – the world outside of the one where I pretend I'm an elite athlete giving the Brownlees a run for their money – I run marketing for a growing software company; so I am perhaps fortunate to understand the sponsor/sponsored relationship from both sides.
The following thoughts are purely my own and no doubt there are plenty of other opinions out there. But hopefully what you read below will help you find and secure the sponsorship you are looking for.
What is sponsorship, anyway?
Sponsorship can mean a great many different things to different people. In the professional sports world, it often means the exchange of cash in order for an athlete’s endorsement of a particular brand. Look at the Brownlees and Adidas… I challenge you to find a photograph of Alistair and Jonny NOT in Adidas kit (except I believe Adidas has yet to launch its range of formal wear…). They don’t do that out of pure love for the brand. For others, sponsorship usually includes free kit – at a pro level this can be bikes, wheels, run shoes etc. Again, in return for some commitment from the athlete – most commonly to use their image and name in association with that brand’s marketing.
Take the scenario down a few levels to age group and the situation is usually (not exclusively) quite different. Cash changing hands is very rare at this level – don’t go thinking you can give up the day job! More likely you will be looking at free or discounted kit, free race entries and perhaps the offer to ‘borrow’ or test new kit as/before it hits the market. Although it’s not exactly likely to provide a second income, with tri kit and race entries growing ever-more expensive, discounted deals can still be a major bonus to a cash-strapped triathlete. In return, you will be obliged to do anything from tweet about certain products/services to racing in team kit or securing publicity for the sponsor organization (e.g. getting your pic in the local press sporting said sponsor's cycle top!).
Why do companies have sponsorship schemes?
First and foremost, most organizations involved in sport (at least, on the kit side) are commercial entities – they exist to make a profit! To do that, they have to sell more kit. To do that, they have to spread the word as wide as they can that their kit is both available and desirable. One obvious way to do that is to get the kit seen as much as possible. Just read any copy of your favourite triathlon magazine and you can start to get a sense for how much money the major brands spend on advertising alone. An advert in a good magazine will cost upwards of £1,500 a go, probably more for a good location full-page advert. It’s an expensive game.
Another, potentially less expensive way to get word out about your brand and products is to have people talk about them and be seen in them. And this has never been more important than since the explosion of social media. Research shows peer review and word of mouth work when it comes to people selecting what brands and products to buy. From a brand’s point of view, social media is also a great way to expand their reach at a much lower cost than they would have historically had to pay for advertising and ‘personality’ deals.
Who do brands look to sponsor?
This can vary widely according to the brand and its philosophy. Some brands will only ever want to be associated with those at the very pinnacle of their sport. Some brands are much more ‘community’ minded. The vast majority, however, are somewhere in-between and will likely have several schemes for sponsorships, with different levels of exposure and cost.
Take a big run shoe manufacturer for instance (pick any, they’re all quite similar!). The brand will have ‘ambassadors’ that are high profile sports personalities in the fields most relevant to the brand’s products. That same brand also likely sponsors junior teams and events with a lower profile (and thus cheaper to sponsor) but won’t have much in the middle – i.e. age group athletes like you and me!
On the other hand, consider a brand where the individual price point is a bit lower and they are trying to break into the market. They don’t have the buying power to recruit top-name athletes yet, but they know that it’s people like you and me that are most likely to provide the bulk of their revenues. As such, they are much more likely to look at the age group market, as they know that peer review and word of mouth are a more cost-effective way for them to gain brand awareness.
And then don’t forget the middle-men, your friendly local bike shop or triathlon shop – they need ambassadors, too. People to spread the word, wear the kit they stock, extol the virtues of their brilliant bike mechanics and more. Most of the time, these guys have minimal (if at all) marketing budgets – so don’t expect freebies, but what they do have is margin. Margin they can sometimes take a hit on for a small number of athletes if it helps them generate more business.
How can I be attractive to sponsors?
It’s difficult to put the following points into any firm order of priority, as different potential sponsors will look for different things. But to be attractive to a potential sponsor, you need to tick at least some of the boxes below:
1. Win Races! Everyone loves a winner, right? Just like Adidas must love the fact the Brownlees dominate every race they’re in, so sponsors value being associated with winners at all levels. Even it’s a local event, a “1st” always looks better than any other result!
2. Build a network. Research has proven that peer review and recommendation are among the most effective marketing tools available. Put simply, people buy products that come recommended by people they know and trust. So build a community of people who listen to you! Whether on Facebook, Twitter, in the local tri community or in magazines – there are lots of different ways to build a network.
3. Be personable! It’s no surprise that the Brownlees, McCormack and Wellington are among the most sponsored tri professionals – they have a public persona as being people you’d like to meet, have a chat with, feel positive towards! You need to do the same – by all means have strong opinions, but be mindful how you come across to your network. Brands want to be associated with people who are liked and respected!
4. Be positive! No-one likes people who are constantly negative or try to bring others down. Sponsors especially don’t like negative people – negativity is not associated with success!
5. Have a good race schedule. If someone is going to give you free or discounted kit – they want exposure. Building a busy race schedule will give your sponsors maximum exposure to other athletes they want to target.
6. Add value. Just as this website is one way I try to add value to my sponsors, you need to look above and beyond the suggestions above and make yourself stand out from all the other sponsorship wannabes.
So there are just six suggestions; I am sure there are more. But hopefully you get the idea!
Don’t focus on you!
Okay, so you’re ready to pitch yourself to a potential sponsor. You’ve got a great CV based on all the points mentioned above; you’re good to go, right. Wrong.
Take a step back and go right back to the beginning of this article. Why do brands sponsor individuals? Because they are looking to generate revenue!
So it’s not about you. It’s about them. Don’t talk too much about you – or how you’d “love the opportunity to work with your favourite brand” and how “it will lead to my best season ever”. The sponsor doesn’t care! They want to hear “I’m going to help you gain exposure to a part of the market you’re missing right now” or “I’m going to re-inforce your brand values by winning these events and showing the world how your brand made those wins possible” or "I'm going to make sure my 1,400 twitter followers know how I rely on your products to help me race".
You’re selling your services. Make sure the sponsor understands why they want your services!
Be ready for setbacks. Not everyone is going want to, or have the funds available to, sponsor you. Be realistic in what you expect from a sponsorship package. Pick the organizations you want to approach carefully and ensure you tailor your pitch accordingly. Put yourself in their shoes.
I hope this article helps you decide if seeking sponsorship is right for you and, if it is, I wish you the best of luck!