I am not a PR person, I do not have an MBA, I know nothing of “marketing” except that it is an often over-and-mis-used word, and it seems to me anyone can “market” these days. I have no idea what companies get out of sponsoring amateur athletes, or how amateur athletes demonstrate their value to said companies. I subscribe to the theory that the Internet is a series of tubes inhabited by lolcats, and the Google and its algorithm is an incantation of witches. I have hardly talked to anyone about any of what I am about to type, so keep all this in mind if you continue reading: the opinions expressed below are my own, are based on solely my experience, and the conclusions I’ve drawn are very likely wrong.
We are nearing the end of the year and triathlon season, and teams and sponsors will soon be putting together their rosters for 2013. The Wattie Ink. Elite Team application, for instance, will be available Tuesday, November 13, 2012. For Chicago athletes, the Well-Fit Elite Team is accepting applications through December 7. Last year I blindly sent out a number of applications and got positive feedback, and yes, plenty of rejections. A few people have asked me to advise and opine on amateur sponsorships. So, this is a little post about SPONSORSHIPS: how do you get them and is it worth it? A secondary aspect is “team” relationships: a lot of sponsors have teams, but what if you’re already on a team that has a sponsor? How do you merge the two? Follow me?
OOOOHHHHH the irony of my writing on this topic, now. I know. Even aside from myself, I think a lot of sponsors and teams and people are trying to figure out this balance these days. There are misunderstandings and growing pains all over the place, but I’ll get to the politics of it all later (“conflicts of interest” section below).
First of all, let’s talk about WHAT “SPONSORSHIP” IS, really: from an AMATEUR athlete’s perspective, it’s access to STUFF for free or at a discount. That’s it. RARELY is an amateur going to participate in market research or provide feedback to a company, as Crowie does (interview here). From a company’s perspective, it is good ol’ fashioned word-of-mouth advertising, in a digital age. Almost everyone is on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram these days. These outlets are basically designed to disseminate photographs and links among your peers, and if a picture is worth 1,000 words, a picture popping up in everyone’s feed is worth like… a dollar? Depends on who your peers are, I guess.
Step one is to get your ass on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram and start making noise. I am triathlete, here’s a picture of my pain cave! You know those friend-of-friend-of-friend tri people on your friend request list? Friend them, it’s free. Put yourself in the “room” of like-minded “strangers” and start a conversation. That said, no one cares about your recovery runs. If you feel the need to talk about your workout, it better be a performance breakthrough or particularly epic in some way.
I don’t personally care about online privacy issues –but then I don’t use Facebook as a journal or an outlet to get particularly editorial or emo on. Facebook is mostly for cheap jokes at the expense of yourself or public figures (like, who would win if Sara Palin and Paul Ryan entered a marathon together? Answer: the American People, because that would be fucking hilarious to watch them lie their way to sub-3 BQs). Beyond that, let’s face it, it’s a big advertisement for yourself and what you do, and sponsors want a piece of your time. If you take yourself or your online persona too seriously (i.e. post self-portraits or your inner-most thoughts about your relationships/feelings/family/religion/politics/wine habit/loneliness) this part of being a self-promoting product whore may not be for you OR your would-be sponsor.*
*Save this poop for your real friends. Also, “self-promoting product whore” is maybe a second definition of what it means to be sponsored. It isn’t a bad thing unless you let it be.
Fewer people have self-serving blogs (why, like this one!). I don’t read a lot of blogs, and I’ve only started regularly contributing to my own recently and now that I have a lot of free time. The only thing about a blog is it helps broaden your reach a little. Some sponsors require a blog. I don’t think any of mine do, but their contracts do say stuff about putting their logo on your homepage, which is a not-so-subtle suggestion to start one. I haven’t figured out how to logo myself up yet… hm.
Say blog again.
Anyway, step two-ish is to get your application material ready. It’s just like applying for college except a shit-ton easier. Like schools, different teams and companies have different personalities, but they all want to know some of the same things: what are your race results from prior years? What are your goals and planned events for next year? What is your experience with the product(s) in question?
I was really lucky to have qualified in 2011 for Kona 2012. In my applications, I talked about my qualifying race as proof of performance, and I obviously had a future goal at the epicenter of the triathlon industry as my big thing for the following season. I had a year to build a relationship and identity with my sponsors before arriving at the big show and they knew it. This year, notsomuch, so I have to figure out a new angle. That’s probably step three: figure out exactly what you bring to the table
Prepare by going to Athlinks.com, claiming your results, purchasing your best race photo of the year, and jotting down some thoughts. Google “your name + triathlete” and see what comes up. Oh, and if you’re applying for PowerBar, think of your favorite song. That one took me by surprise.
IS IT WORTH IT? It all depends on the sponsor and their product. Some have free race entries (WORTH IT), others have sick gear (WORTH IT), some let you be you and don’t care if you say FUCK a lot (WORTH IT). A lot of sponsors are a combination of the above.
The most common type of “sponsorship” for an amateur athlete is what I like to refer to as a “glorified discount.” You may get a few items for free –stickers, water bottles, visors, a kit, and maybe even a pair of shoes? After that, there’s a decent-to-significant markdown of your sponsor’s products, like 20-50%. You have to be the judge of whether it’s “worth it” or not. Do you have a big year coming up and you need a lot of new gear? Will you be training for Ironman and consuming 10,000 calories worth of your sponsor’s nutrition products per week? If yes, then sure, who doesn’t like a sale on the items they’ll use anyway?
Some sponsors require you to buy items you wouldn’t necessarily spend your money on. Like, “in order to get 20% off our product, you have to buy one of our kits.” Buuuut, what if you weren’t really in the market for one of their products, and they want you to purchase $150 of spandex? Probably not worth it. The lesson here is to judiciously choose who you send applications to based on YOUR needs and what brands YOU believe in and if you can comply with what they’re asking of you in return. You don’t want to feel obligated to make a major purchase just to fulfill a contract. (That said, don’t worry, no one is going to sue you unless you REALLY mess up the relationship.)
There are varying degrees of time commitment for this stuff too. Not all sponsors/teams just want your mentions on social media: you may be required to volunteer your time handing out product or working at expos. Some may STRONGLY URGE you to race at larger events for increased visibility, or to travel for a team race. Do you have the time and money? Because, like triathlon itself, no one is paying you to do this.
If you have a personal relationship with a retailer or brand, you can also just put yourself out there and ask for what you need. This also doesn’t cost anything, except maybe a little bit of pride. Some brands have ambassador programs set up where you get to know the product line, get a bunch of it, and share it with your friends one way or another (product reviews and the like). Local retailers are usually not that formal, but ASK ANYWAY. In my case I knew I had gotten to the point where I was limited by my budget and technology: my beloved bike was just not going to help me get any faster, but I couldn’t afford a new one. I spoke to my friends at Get a Grip Cycles who set me up for success with a beautiful new bike frame that happened to have their brand all over it. They made sure it would work for them, took a chance on me, and we all know I still owe them for their generosity. Win-win.
CONFLICTS OF INTEREST
Some sponsors have rules, some don’t. Some rules are enforced, some aren’t. If you’re on multiple teams you’ll be required to disclose any conflicts of interest: like you’re on one with a nutrition sponsor, and then you get your own nutrition sponsor, and they’re different entities… I mean, all you can do is clarify if there IS a real conflict. In the example above, is one an on-course drink, one a recovery drink, or one just an energy beverage? These don’t necessarily compete. Gatorade v. PowerBar? That’s a conflict, as both are entire systems of performance nutrition. Blah blah blah.
Most teams want you to wear their kit in training and, preferably, in racing. Also, most teams don’t want you to alter your kit in any way, so don’t sew a patch for your individual sponsor onto your team kit. Some are lenient, some are not. Read your contracts and know that there are some ways to get around a conflict. Namely, be upfront and talk to your team director and see what you can work out. Wear a visor or a temporary tattoo. Some people do it NASCAR-style with a blank kit and iron-on logos. WHATEVER WORKS, homies, just talk it out. It isn’t hard.
Wanna know what’s hard? TEAM POLITICS, that’s hard. A real training team is a cohesive unit that spends a lot of time together, um, COMPETING. It is most commonly signified by the wearing of an identical uniform by its members. Even if your coach or director doesn’t enforce wearing the team kit, if you chose not to there could be consequences among your peers. By making too much noise on behalf of anyone else, your presence and loyalty may be questioned despite your participation, promotion, and results. If things get really bad, pretty much everything you do could be misinterpreted. Life crumbling apart, having a bad day, and accidentally cry? Quit pitching a fit, you cocky entitled princess! Dare to take pride in the one thing that’s going your way? You’ve clearly forgotten who you are. Simple misunderstanding? “Everyone” hates you! BEWARE.
I love that movie.
Anyway, I’ve blathered on and repeated the same word a few too many times. Questions? Ask. I can refer you to people who know far more than I do.
The upshot is the sponsor/sponsee relationship is kinda like adopting a dog: you do the research, but in the end, they pick you. Or so I’m told. I don’t have any pets. Anyway, look at your lifestyle and preferences. What products do you use and believe in? What team(s) mesh with your personality? How much time do you have to walk this thing, and can it thrive in a small apartment?
I look forward to establishing and continuing symbiotic relationships next year.