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How to Get Sponsorships: A Concise Guide to Becoming a Sponsored Athlete

Posted by on Oct 4, 2011 | 3 Comments

Getting paid to run… isn’t that the American Dream? Imagine running as many races as you’d like at no cost to you.  Imagine getting free clothing and shoes.  Wouldn’t that be great?

I get many questions about sponsorship from runners searching for a way to get paid for doing what they love.  Many runners yearn for the utopia of sponsorships, yet have no real idea how to do it.  In my work with various companies, I get to see many of the requests they receive for sponsorship.  Quite frankly, most are terrible.  In most cases, it’s a decent athlete that posts marginal times in local races, then feels as though they are entitled to outlandish sponsorships without considering what they could do for a company.

This quick guide will shed some light on the often-misunderstood process and give YOU a leg up on others vying for the same sponsorships.

Step One: Understand why companies sponsor athletes, then identify good fits.  Ultimately it’s about selling products or services.  Different companies will use different marketing strategies.  Those that sponsor athletes use sponsorship as a form of marketing to sell their goods. The athletes they choose to sponsor usually represent their target market.  In some cases, that may be elite athletes.  In other cases, it may be someone that is exceptionally attractive.  Or perhaps it’s an outdoor company looking for the “Grizzly Adams” type or a company marketing to teens looking for an “edgy” athlete.  The idea- they’re looking for someone that represents their desired image that can help them sell products. 

When searching for companies to sponsor you, consider your own image.  Are you an elite?  Look for companies that sponsor elites.  Are you a young professional?  How about a mother?  Look for companies that market to YOU.

Step Two: Prepare by building an audience.  Simply appearing at a race isn’t enough,even if you do pretty well.  This fact seems to be lost on most.  You’re virtually useless if you don’t have an audience beyond the dozen people that may see you at a race.  By developing an audience, you dramatically increase the number of people that will see your company’s message.  A very select few can develop this audience simply by winning (think Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, etc.)  These individuals don’t necessarily have to actively build an audience.  The media coverage they receive serves that purpose.

For the rest of us, we need something else.  I recommend blogging.  It’s very cheap and easy.  It takes significant time to write enough to develop a good audience, but it is one of the easiest ways to build an audience.  I also recommend social networks.  Facebook, Twitter, Google+… whatever.  Having thousands of followers and/or friends is a ready-made audience.

There are other ways to build an audience.  Maybe you have your own business… your customers are an audience of sorts.  If you have a talent like art, design, music, or the ability to breathe soup, you can parlay that into an audience.  My book helps me, so that’s an option, too.  In sum, you need people to pay attention to you. 

Step Three: Figure out what kind of sponsorship you want.  They range from getting a discount on products to getting free products, race entries, travel expenses, all the way to getting paid.  Generally speaking, the more attention you can get, the more you can ask for.  There’s no set formula as every company will do a cost/benefit analysis to determine your worth.  Still, it’s useful to have a goal in mind once you contact potential sponsors.

Be realistic.  If you have a blog that attracts less than 100 hits er day, don’t expect companies to offer you loads of cash to represent them.

Step Four: Figure out WHO to contact.  Think about your audience.  What products or services would they use?  Knowing the demographics of your audience helps.  When researching potential sponsors, don’t dismiss small local companies.  They will be more likely to know you personally and it’s relatively easy to develop a local audience.  Once you find a few companies that appear to be good fits, figure out who to contact within the company.

Most large companies handle sponsorship through their marketing departments or PR firms.  It’s usually futile to contact their general information or sales people; they will likely ignore you.  To find the correct people, the best place to start is to ask someone who is already sponsored by that company.  Be aware- most sponsored athletes will not give out that information since their contacts typically get many such requests.  Respect their decision.  You may have to do your own digging.

For small local companies, it may be appropriate to contact the owners.

Step Five: Make contact.  Once you have an audience, a goal, and a company and their contact, you can begin formulating the actual contact.  My best advice here- keep it VERY short and to the point.  Tell them who you are, the size and demographics of your audience, and what you are seeking.  Shoot for between 50 and 100 words.  The people you’re contacting don’t want a biography; they want to know what you can do for them and how much it is going to cost. Be courteous and humble.  Arrogance is almost always a recipe for failure.

If you’re contacting a relatively large company, it’s likely they receive tens if not hundreds of requests like this per week.  In most cases, the companies will have identified and already reached out to the people THEY want to represent them.  You’re fighting for a tiny fraction of the remaining marketing budget pie.  Fortunately for you, ninety-nine percent of the people that solicit companies for sponsorship really don’t understand what sponsorship is entails.  Following these steps should give you a HUGE advantage over your competition.

What are your experiences with sponsorship?  Any tips to share?

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3 Comments

  1. Simon Goodship
    October 5, 2011

    This is timely! I just started a blog called Sponsor The Fool. I am having some fun with the notion of getting sponsored. Expect me to post about this article. I’ll let you know when I do. The advice is good. I may follow it if I actually get serious about it. Thanks.

  2. L3vi
    October 4, 2011

    Good thoughts on the subject.
    I think mostly a well developed athlete, who really doesn’t have any obligations outside training can fully benefit from sponsorship.
    At the moment there are too many people looking for turning their life into a running dream. You really have to offer something UNIQUE to get chosen.

    And people are so much focusing on running companies, they don’t think about other more simple choices. Asking there own workplace ? OR for instance Health shops, or a butcher, travel agency, a vegan farm… A weekly bag of free greens would save me 100€ a week.

    Be creative guys, develop a project, and create a clear targeted business plan !!!

  3. Rob
    October 4, 2011

    I’ve had experience as a semi-sponsored athlete. With team Montrail/Patagonia (then Montrail/Nathan) for many years (in the early days of the company) and later with Inov-8 and now mostly just our local Fleet Feet Sports running store.

    I can honestly say there are some perks: free schwag, or reduced cost on product, sometimes comped entries and lodging at events.

    However, the cons are HUGE! Fixed number of events you MUST do every year including possibly some events you really don’t want to do. Tons of travel (good and bad) and the expectation of high performance always.

    Now if you’re young in the sport and extremely motivated then sponsorship is great. If you’re like me and have “been there” and “done that” and are more of a “spur of the moment” type of athlete, sponsorship may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

    The freedom to do what races I want when I want is far more precious than getting some free stuff every now and then.

    Just my two cents.