People often think of sponsored athletes and see the Football, Baseball, Basketball and other high profile sports bringing in millions each year on top of seven figure salaries. That is the dream of any sponsored athlete to be at that level but the reality is a little more humble. Actually the next time you walk into a running or bike store, you could be talking to a sponsored “professional” athlete and not even realize it. Many sponsored athletes still have a 9 to 5 job which mostly supports their sport and yet they are still some of the best in the country and world at what they do!
From time to time I get emails from women who are looking for advice on how to acquire sponsorships, how I got mine, where to begin and what it means to be a sponsored athlete. After many questions, I figured it’s time to just write down a few of the basics to help the emerging new athletes in the sport with what I have learned over the past 4 years of racing.
Not All Sponsorships Are Created Equal
Sponsorships come in many shapes, sizes and forms and not all sponsorships are created equal. I like to categorize them into four different types from most common to rarest these days in sport.
1. Product Deals – Many times this is referred to as a brand ambassador and is an entry level sponsorship. Being a brand ambassador you normally receive discounts or wholesale pricing on the companies items, sometimes might get some free swag along the way. This is a great way to break into the world of sponsorships and get deals on items you already use and love. Most of the time in order to become a brand ambassador you need to fill out an application on the website and receive and email if you are picked. Some companies are harder than others to become a brand ambassador for. Brand ambassadors maybe renewed on an annual basis or may not have a set timeframe for ambassadorship.
2. Product Sponsorship – The second type of sponsorship and most common today in most non-mainstream sports (think OCR) is the product sponsorship. Companies sponsor people and in exchange give the an allotted about of product, monthly, quarterly or annually. Some companies offer product deals (see above) should you exceed your limit you are allotted. Most athletes seeking product sponsorships have to apply to the companies sponsorship program (most have a window each year) once they are one the team they have a one-year contract to represent that company. At the end of the year the company can choose to keep and athlete on or find other athletes.
3. Service Sponsorship – Service sponsorship is much like the product sponsorship above only you receive free services. This may include a gym membership, personal training time, physical therapy, coaching services, or maybe even free oil changes depending on the service. No money is normally exchanged in a service sponsorship, it just gives the athlete the tools to greater help them perform without the added costs.
4. Paid Sponsorship – This is the golden egg of all sponsors and in our economic environment and sports market saturation are rarer and rarer in today’s sports world. The paid sponsorship is what most people think of when they think of sponsorships but in reality they are very rare and in today’s world you have to work for them and once you have them work even harder. Really this sponsorship is rare and unless you are one of the best or have a huge social media following don’t expect one of these. Note this is a business agreement with the company.
5. Other Things – Any of the four types of sponsorships above can have extras added into contracts (that’s right once you are sponsored you are signing contracts and have a set of rules to follow). But contracts can have other clauses, whether it be a monetary, additional gear or services allotted some contracts a podium finish can sometimes mean a bonus, if it’s in the contract. Other things might be race travel paid to a certain event or events each year. Others may have appearance fees built in or photo shoot work. These are all normally additions at the end of a contract.
What Is Expected of You…
Many people think, hey I am a fast (insert sport) athlete, I should be sponsored! And yet look around at a variety of sports and find fast runners with no sponsors and wonder why that is? Well ten or twenty years ago being fast or having a pretty face might have gotten you far (and still can in high profile sports) but for the rest of the sporting world it’s about what you can give to the company. These days you don’t just get stuff for free without giving back to the company, each company is different but if you want to be sponsored expect to give back in the form of performance reports, social media requirements, and exclusivity requirements. If you are a writer expect to do some writing for a sponsor, a great coach – expect to put on some clinics. No one gets a free ride anymore.
Where to Start…
Sponsorships are as much about who you know as what you do. When seeking out your first sponsorship look local. If you are part of an organization (law enforcement, military, education, large corporations, etc…) look to see if they have a sponsored team in your sport or if they have ever sponsored athletes in the past. Maybe there is a wellness fund at your place of work that will help cover an entry or two. This totally depends on your work environment but start by looking at the places and companies around you. Do you train at a small gym but podium a lot at races, see if you can race for the gym.
The other thing to note about where to start is use your connections, do you have a friend who works for a health food shop or company, maybe you can get a free bar or two from them in exchange for a logo on your gear. If you are looking for national recognition from a company you should have a healthy mix of the following:
1. Be the Best – You need to be a recognizable face in your sport. Someone people already know. Basically you need to be the best at what you do.
2. Social Media Reach – Companies want to know what they are getting back for investing in you. They want to sponsor people who have an established face in their sport, whether it be as an athlete, or coach. If you want to get sponsored, you should already have a Website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Google+, and other social media outlets. You can check your social media reach with Klout. Sponsors want their athletes to have established followers.
3. Can You Write – More and more companies are looking for not only for their athletes to succeed on the field but also to be able to write about those experiences and their products. It’s not uncommon to see sponsored or pro-team athletes submitting articles and blogs to companies. If you want a high profile sponsorship be ready to write about it or and Tweet, Facebook, Instagram and pin it.
4. Be Authentic – There are a million athletes out there in the world looking for help to get them to their top levels to catch the eye of a company you need to be authentic, be yourself and be worth listening to. Everyone has a story but what makes you different from the other 100 or 200 vying for the same spot.
5. Believe in the Product – Getting a sponsorship does you nothing if you don’t believe in the product. You need to be 100% behind the company so when someone asks you at a race or on the street about you, you better be able to tell them all about the company and why you love it. Companies are not looking to give away product to people who don’t use them, they want people who truly believe in what they preach and live it.
6. Have one Hell of a Story – Depending on the company some look for a good story. Something that they can share with the world to help promote you and them. People love a good story, and that’s the truth.
This is by no means the end all be all on sponsorships but it’s a place to start for someone looking to get into a sport seriously. Just remember it’s hard to become sponsored, harder to stay sponsored and you need to work at it. Each sponsorship is a partnership and you enter into a contract with another company and are bound to those terms. If you like changing into different shoes from different companies every race, be careful before signing with one shoe company as that is the only shoe you will be wearing from now on. Work hard, and good things will come! See you at the next race.