Friday, April 20, 2012

Sponsorship 101: Want to Get Sponsored?

By Ryan Borger

Several people have contacted me lately about sponsorship, asking me questions such as: “How can I get sponsors?” “Am I a good enough athlete to get sponsors?” “What is the best strategy?” “What can I expect to get from sponsors?”.. etc. There are many questions to ask, but one of the best and most relevant questions to add to the list is this: “What skills and connections do I have that I can offer to sponsors?” “What value can I add to their company as a sponsored athlete?” “What ways can I promote them and get their product or company name out to market?” “How can I think outside the box in ways to incorporate being connected with a brand that communicates their mission to their target market?” These are the questions that will get you thinking the right way about sponsorship if you want to succeed, as companies want people who understand that it is a partnership, not a one-sided opportunity to take advantage of someone for personal gains alone.
            All parts of this article may not be relevant for every triathlete, and this article is  written primarily for and directed to top age-group and professional triathletes seeking sponsors, but here I share some valuable information that can relate to many other things outside of triathlon.It's more of a chapter as opposed to a short article, so get ready to read. As you will find out, sponsorship may have a lot less to do with how fast you are than you may think, and more about your community involvement and proving that adding you to the team can add value to the company.

What does it mean to be a sponsored triathlete?
Sponsorship is a broad term. Many athletes, amateur and professional alike, have sponsors. However, this often means totally different things. Some athletes receive 10% off at a local shop or from a gear-related company, which they view as a sponsorship, while others (i.e. Ironman World Champions or Olympic medalists) are earning over $30k a year from a single company sponsor alone. In triathlon, it’s difficult to obtain financial sponsors, unless you’re a professional at the very top of the sport. Triathlon is certainly a fast growing sport, but it’s still a baby in terms of top professionals securing big corporate contracts and even top dollar prize purses. Don’t get me wrong, the best triathletes in the world make a great living in the sport, but that many only be 20-30 athletes in the world, whereas the lowest minor league single A baseball players are earning a larger salary than 80+% of pro triathletes. There is a HUGE gap from the very top professionals to the 2nd tier professionals in terms of income earned from the sport. Most low and mid-level pros have side jobs or other  part time or full-time employment. Speaking of that, when I worked full time at my accounting job in California, I would listen to online interviews and triathlon podcasts almost all day long, as I was new to the sport and loved soaking in any info I could about triathlon. I remember listening to an interview on with Bob Babbit. He was interviewing 2008 Olympian Julie Swail-Ertel. Swail stated that although she had been an Olympian and one of the top female triathletes in the US, she’d never had a cash sponsor, only sponsors that gave her free product. That puts it in perspective a bit more. Only if our sport was golf (heck, or even crossfit now...crossfit?!) we would all be set.
  Some people love to brag to their friends and coworkers how they are sponsored. It feels good to have sponsors, and feels even better to tell people you’re sponsored. It’s every kids dream growing up. You feel like you’ve made it (at least somewhat) in the sport. When I tell people I’m a professional triathlete, many assume I am making a good living in the sport. The truth is, most of my income comes from coaching and side jobs as opposed to race earnings and sponsor cash, though the goal is for that to change over the next few seasons.
            Some athletes love to list sponsor logos on their blogs and websites simply to appear professional or like they’re the real deal, and many of these athletes are not professionals. They’ll list a company that has given them nothing more than a free T-shirt. I won’t go into whether I think they’re right in doing so or not, because it’s really irrelevant and it’s not my place to say whether they are truly sponsored or not. You can debate that in your free time, but it’s  somewhat an irrelevant conversation. Though their motives may be silly, you have to applaud them for being proactive and taking a great first step in promoting a company and attempting to start a relationship with them. Anything you can do to form relationships with companies and promote them is a way to get them to notice you in a positive way, which can be very valuable down the road.
            Let’s be honest. We all like free stuff; and we all like free money even more, right?! Just because this is true, doesn’t mean we are selfish and are sponsor-hunting simply for free kickbacks. Companies clearly understand money and free product is valuable to athletes, especially those in a with a tight budget. They also often realize that athletes couldn’t often continue what they’re doing without sponsor help, or at least do it on their given budget, especially if they are dedicated to the sport and have made a decision to forgo other full-time employment in order to train full time or near full-time. If most pros would calculate their hourly wage earned through prize money, factoring in training time, race time, and race travel time, among other time spent, they might just get depressed...though triathletes chose this lifestyle, and are hopeful they will keep climbing the ranks and this will change. Like any business starting out, the first few years are a hefty investment. The less outside income athletes have coming in, obviously sponsors become extremely valuable, and athletes are very grateful for them. Sponsors usually understand this. They often know what athletes are seeking and after learning a bit about you, they know what is most valuable to you.

So, what is sponsorship?
It can be a variety of things: cash, free nutrition products, free or discounted services like massage or physical therapy care, a bike, training and race gear, race travel airline fund donations, cash, and a slew of other products or services. Sponsorship can come in many ways. Sometimes it could be exchanging a service for promoting the company as a sponsored athlete, such as massage. It totally ranges. A top professional usually will have cash sponsors, a bike company sponsor, gear & nutrition sponsors, and other sponsors. Their cash sponsors are often triathlon related companies, and are also sometimes companies like banks or investment firms that have nothing to do with the sport. The middle level pro’s usually have very few or no cash sponsors, but often receive free gear & product, and sometimes the chance to earn money in other ways, such as if their photo appears published in a newspaper or an online article and a company logo is visible in the photo. This is the case with one of my sponsors, which provides product as well as this opportunity to earn cash in this way. 

Pro field athlete (shot put) Adam Nelson used to compete in a "Space For Rent" shirt. I noticed this on TV watching him throw while in college. The shirt got some serious TV air time. A few months later he signed a big contract with only if triathlon was on ESPN or ABC!
Why do sponsors support athletes? Do sponsors come knocking at your door simply because you’re a top pro?
There are still some top nationally-ranked pro triathletes will little or no sponsors. Why? Mostly because the athletes aren’t really concerned about securing sponsors nor have tried to do so. Unless you’re a top triathlete in the world, especially in the Ironman scene which is more popular than Olympic distance draft-legal ITU racing (in the US), sponsors do not usually approach athletes. The top athletes in the world, yes, sponsors come ready with an offer on the table; but everyone else needs to be very proactive in their approach. Sponsors need a reason to partner with an athlete. They want to see how offering money or product to a single athlete can directly translate to increased sales. Occasionally you do see companies willing to and wanting to sponsor athletes simply because they appreciate athletes’ sacrifices to have a chance to succeed in their sport, or company owners are either a fan or excited participant in the sport, but most often they are looking for a way to add value to their company.
            If you were a company, who would you sponsor? Athlete A is a middle of the pack amateur who races local races as well as travels a few times a year to race. They also are a coach of the local cross-country team, the head Masters swim coach at the local University pool, and write articles for a top endurance sports nutrition blog. This athlete also actively uses social media like Facebook and Twitter, and as extremely connected in many aspects of the community. Athlete B is a very good US pro triathlete, who is solely focused on racing and has no interest in having a personal blog or website. Obviously athlete A, although will never be on the podium on race day, may be able to offer more to a company through their network and connections tied to the sport and how they’re involved in it. I know an amateur triathlete who has a ton of sponsors. How? She adds value to companies through marketing. She has a following, with over 1000 Twitter followers and thousands of hits a month on her top-ranked endurance sports blog. Companies want to see blogs, websites, and their athletes to be connected to as many people as possible through online social media. Social media is powerful. What other way can you instantly communicate ANYTHING you want to 1000 people, and for free?!! Also, some companies choose to sponsor teams or clubs rather than individual athletes, even if the individual is a professional and the club consists of all recreational athletes. Why is this? Well, they often don’t have to offer the amateurs as valuable of a sponsorship, but they also understand that 30 people on a team all wearing their logo may reach more people than a lone individual.
            Companies want people who are involved in the community. They want coaches, teachers, instructors, businessmen who have friends in the sport, and who buy things. They want leaders of clubs and groups. They want people who volunteer at local events and races. They want people with a positive attitude. What is worse than being represented by a pessimistic athlete, who is constantly complaining, swearing, and simply doesn’t act nor dress professionally ever? Be professional in every way! Be a true brand ambassador. Put sponsor logos on your race jersey, and your website. Write blog posts about their products and do product reviews.  Heck, put a logo sticker on your car! Be a total brand ambassador for the company willing to support you. Commit to promoting them and none of their competitors. It’s important to understand you will have a commitment to them, which may mean cutting ties to any possible competitor brands.
Most importantly, they want people who understand what a partnership is, and understand business. Sponsoring athletes in any way is an investment for a company, most often financially, even if they are not offering cash. Companies must buy their product, so if they offer free product, it’s still cutting into their income statement. If they offer cash or product, still remember they can deduct some of this as a marketing/advertising expense on their profit & loss statement (...yes, I'm throwing in accounting terms just to feel like I learned something in my past job!). However, they want to support athletes as they believe in the athlete’s mission, as well as understand the potential in building a referral program through their athletes. Also, it’s a PR opportunity for a company, similar to donating to charity. Their media and marketing team can publish articles explaining how they are involving themselves in the community and investing in people – things like that. Companies’ reputations are extremely valuable, and when they become known as one that supports athletes, donates to charity, and runs their business with values and integrity, naturally their reputation grows strong.

How should you approach sponsorship?
Whatever level you are at, understand that sponsors are making a sacrifice. Also understand you can add value to their company. Both are important. In fact, the latter may be more important, as ultimately it leads to helping out the sponsor once you discover your full potential to be of value to them. If you understand this value and prove it in action, they will see your value and be happy to invest in you, as they have a return on their investment. Seek out ways you can add value to a company. Start your sponsor letters or phone calls by introducing yourself and explaining ways you can do this. Do not start them out by asking for things, and telling them what you need or want from them!  If you introduce yourself as a triathlete seeking sponsors, asking specifically for X amount of free product, you’re not going to stand out. You are not in line at the fast food drive through, and this is not your turn to place your order.  You’ll likely appear ungrateful and like you feel you’re entitled to things simply due to your level of competition in the sport. No one is entitled to anything from sponsors. Earn it! Be valuable!  Start your letters out by introducing yourself, explaining how you align yourself with their company values and why you believe in their products, and tell them what they want to hear. Tell them you contribute monthly newsletter articles for the local triathlon club that reaches 200 people. If you're a coach, tell them you’re a coach and have athletes asking you all the time for product recommendations. Tell them you interact with hundreds of people each month that may be interested in their product.  Tell them ways you can be a vehicle to deliver their message to their market.  If you aren’t a coach or don’t have a lot of these things on your resume, think outside the box of ways you can get their product to market or exposure for their brand. There is always a way you can create value!
            It’s important to believe in the people or companies you’re sponsored by. If you truly believe their products or services are the best, it’s not difficult to refer people to them, as this comes naturally. If you refer people to the best quality products and services, you don’t have to worry about your reputation being damaged, as you know they’ll be please with their experience.

Sponsor types
Sponsorship is like getting a job. It’s often all about who you know. In college business classes I was told, “your network is your net worth.” I always was a bit bothered by the quote, as it makes deep and meaningful relationships seem like they’re always simply established from wrong motivation, through taking advantage of someone where the goal is selfish benefit from them rather than honest relationship. However, it can be partially true. Who you know is valuable. It is the best way to secure a job, though not the only way. Connect yourself with local shops. Get to know the owners of the local running stores. Join the local triathlon club; participate in local events, group runs, and volunteer opportunities. Get connected! Talk to people! Be professional when doing so, and represent yourself well. The only way I was able to secure a sponsorship this past season was simply by knowing someone, who knew a company owner. They were able to put in a good word for me, explain how I was a decent guy and strong athlete, and I was able to get a foot in the door. Once in the door, you need to prove yourself. The owner didn’t previously know me, so we would be taking a risk in sponsoring me. Luckily, he was willing to take a risk with me. It’s often hard to get that foot in the door, but once in, then you have your time to shine over the next year and prove yourself further. Over time, sponsors will get to know you and you will have your chance to prove to them you are truly grateful for their support, and will commit to being a true ambassador for them. If you owned a company and were looking to hire, would you hire without looking at a resume or doing due diligence, or without an interview? Of course not. If a company doesn't know you, they're taking a risk by sponsoring you. If there's no connection with anyone you know and the company, this is how your blog or website can shed a bit of light about who you are.
There are a variety of relationship types in sponsorship, though all are valuable. Many large companies who sponsor many athletes simply give athletes a discount code for discounted or free product. Athletes can log in online to the order page of their website, and place an order. They may go 2 years without talking to anyone or seeing a face of anyone associated with the company. Now, there is nothing wrong with this and companies still see value in this type of relationship (and in fact sometimes it makes it easier for the athlete), but at the same time the most meaningful and long-term successful partnerships are those where a personal relationship is created.  It is spending time in person with company representatives where they will get to know you, and thus (hopefully!) want to support you further, and at the same time you appreciate the growing friendship and in return are more motivated to create additional value for them.  It is through those relationships where you are introduced to new people, a new network, and additional relationships and contacts are made.

What is the process for sponsorship?
As I mentioned, first do some brainstorming and see who exists in your network that may be a good fit for a partnership, or someone to approach. This could be contacting friends who own businesses, in and outside of the triathlon industry. Using your network to get a foot in the door is the first place to start.
Secondly, explore local sponsors, such as teams run out of local triathlon and running stores, and local athletic-related companies. Most teams have a paper or online application you can submit. Always include your race results, highlighting your best (and omitting your worst), but also always emphasize your community involvement.
Additionally, many large triathlon-related companies have online applications. You can often find out this info from their website, and you can almost always find a website of someone in the marketing department to send an email to if no sponsorship info is posted. A follow-up phone call is always a good idea, and when possible stop in in-person, as long as you’re not interrupting them. Asking them for an opportunity to introduce yourself in person ahead of time is always a great idea. 
There are different ways sponsorships are secured. Some have formal contracts signed by the athlete and company representative. If I was the owner or head of marketing for a company, I certainly would have athletes sign contracts. It is best for everyone, so there is no confusion and expectations are communicated. This can protect relationships down the road as everyone is on the same page. Some companies simply hand out free stuff, with no interest in discussing anything with the athlete about placing their logo anywhere or doing anything in return. In my opinion, they've missed a big opportunity here.

When do you need to apply?
Most companies have their next years’ budget set by the middle of the 4th quarter of the current year. Most triathlon-related companies have deadlines for sponsorship requests, and many are as early as the end of October, or mid-November for sponsorship for the upcoming triathlon. So, get them in early! It often takes months to hear back, especially from the large companies that receive hundreds of sponsorship requests.
There is not always one correct way to apply for sponsorships. You can be as creative as you like. Don’t be afraid to try a new approach and think outside the box. I have written many letters to companies who don’t formally have a group of sponsored athletes or a sponsorship request process, and I was surprised by how many were interested in offering me a few products for free, such as a few pairs of sunglasses, clothing, or some nutritional products, even though they typically don’t sponsor many or any athletes.

Is sponsorship worth my time?
Only you can ask yourself this question. Remember the opportunity cost principle from business class in college? Approaching sponsors takes time. If you have the opportunity to make money during the time spent applying for sponsors, you may consider whether it’s worth it or not. Remember, even if you don’t secure large sponsorships this year, a foot in the door starts a relationship, which would prove to be more and more valuable as time goes on, so it may end up more valuable than you first anticipate.

What can I expect to receive from companies?
I don’t know any non-professional triathletes receiving cash sponsorships. I know a few who receive free product, but most sponsorships with athletes at this level of competition involves a large discount off products or services. Now, I did mention it’s not all based on results. This is true, but being a great athlete sure does help, as naturally you have opportunities to be in the spotlight if you’re frequently on the podium. Sponsors want to total package. Unless you are a top professional, do not expect to secure a bike sponsor in the form of a free bike. The markup on bikes in retail shops is not nearly as large as something like running shoes for example, which you can usually figure costs a shop about half of what their retail price is. Bikes are a much larger investment for a shop, and thus shops don’t have the ability to offer free bikes. Large bike companies sponsor many of the top professionals a free bike (and sometimes additional cash), but unless you’re one of them, your best bet on getting a deal on a bike is going through a local dealer shop. You will have a much better chance through a dealer than contacting a bike company directly. Is a bike company more likely to respond to an email or phone call from you, an individual triathlete who’s done nothing for them yet, or a shop manager who just purchased 20 bikes from them?  Applying for a shop sponsorship or a bike company sponsorship with the help of a shop employee you have a relationship with is your best bet.
            If you’re a mid-level professional, a more realistic expectation is to be given the chance to buy a bike at pro pricing, or about 50% off retail. Now, if you get a pro deal on a bike, expect to be able to sell it at the end of the year for around near what you paid for it, or possibly slightly above that. Depreciation on new bikes is huge! That said, you may consider saving some time by buying a 1-3 year old used top of the line bike on Craigslist or ebay. You may save some time, yet again you may miss out on the chance to develop a relationship with a bike shop by skipping out on the attempt.
            Some people have told me, “Ryan, free stuff isn’t money, and therefore it’s not worth much.” Remember, especially if you already own current gear. If you are able to get new gear for free, such as a wetsuit and speedsuit, or a cycling trainer or bike parts, for example, you’re able to sell your old gear for cash. Therefore, I argue, free product is often equal to cash if you’re able to sell and replace your old gear with it.  It’s something to think about than many people fail to realize. Triathlon gear isn’t cheap!
There is no one right answer to approaching sponsorship. Honestly, you have to take each sponsor by a case by case basis – and truthfully, you never really know what will happen until you have tried.  Applying and reaching out can never hurt, if you have the time. You never know what possible relationships may come from the process, just be realistic in your expectations, be patient, and understand the importance that you create value for the company. Most importantly be truly grateful for companies being willing to support you, and communicate that gratitude with them.

I came across an interesting article written by Dan Empfield of titled Earn the Money about sponsorship relations and athletes earning their money in a variety of ways as pro athletes, acting truly as professionals in all sense of the term. You may find it interesting, as did I. The link can be found here (as if this post wasn't long enough for you!):

Now, who wants to sponsor me?
Ryan Borger


Anonymous said...

Thank You very much for very interesting text!
Triathletes face tests of endurance in swimming, biking and running, but it can be an equally task working to become help offsetting the costs of gear, entry fees, and nutrition.
As young, croatian age-group triathlete I finished many races in 2 seasons so far, but
I'm training and competing on my own (cannot afford professional triathlon coaching service) and I do not have any sponsorship or help.
Triathlon in Croatia is not so popular as in other countries in Europe or in United States and Australia, so I also try to promote our beautiful sport with writing blog and I'm glad that I found Your article about 'sponsorship'. I wrote last year about 'Sponsorship in Triathlon' but on croatian language and I'm keen to broadern my knowledge in sports marketing and triathlon business.
I wish You luck with finding new sponsors and many good races in next season! I recommend You web page ( with many informations, I think it would help You in future.
Jurica Cvjetko

Ryan Borger said...

Thanks Jurica. Thanks for reading all the way from Croatia! Good luck this season!

Thomas Gerlach said...

You make some good points but I don't think you should ever question your integrity for any sponsors. It might pay off in the short term but long-term my integrity is too important to me. I only accept sponsorship from companies and products that I truly support and believe in.

In addition, being able to communicate with sponsors regarding competitors is important to me. It doesn't have to be out in the public view, but as a Company it is too easy to get caught in fantasyland regarding a particular product or service because everyone is ignoring objectivity and refusing to speak the truth in fear of biting the hand that feeds them. In reality those peoples are just doing them a disservice as eventually the Company/Product/Service will fail and there will be no feed to pass out.

Thomas Gerlach
Professional Triathlete

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Ryan Borger said...

Thomas, thanks for the feedback. I agree, and did also make the point in the article in the importance of believing in the products/companies you represent. There was a paragraph in there on this, and how naturally it's very easy to be a great brand ambassador if you believe in the product.

Anonymous said...

Thank You so much Ryan for your post about different approaches to sponsorship. You have really opened my eyes and I appreciate it so much! Good Luck with everything :)

Andrew Sharp said...

Very indepth and knowledge filled article. Although I think that some of the points you make about triatholon as a sport, not a lot of top athletes and the gap between elite and second tier is really what makes it great. I enjoy the exclusivity of the sport and the fact that an amateur like myself can compete with the pros. How many people can say I won the Super Bowl or Stanley Cup? Those are spectator sports for most of us. But triathlon and it's non main stream buzz makes it accessible to all of us. I worry if it gets institutionalized and branded would it then remove its greatest attribute, age groupers. Look at Ironman compared to other events. It's marketing an sponsorship make it less accessible to the common man. What would happen if triathlon turned in to a super sponsor sport? Just a thought.


Tbonach said...

Thanks, Ryan. I'm an age-grouper training for my first Ironman, and as a teacher, all my "extra" cash will be going to pay for races this year, leaving me with not much else for entertainment - so it's good to know that even I could potentially get some sponsorship. I've also put up a Chip-In site, as I'd like to raise $50,000 for my school district - how might you spin this to sponsors?

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