"How did you get your sponsors? How do I get sponsors?"
It's a simple question with both simple and complicated answers (which I'll get into on this post). I'll definitely sound like I'm rambling throughout this post - as the vast majority of ideas are tossed together in no particular order - but hopefully I can hit on a couple of things and ideas that might make understanding sponsorship a bit easier. Keep in mind this is just my point of view and it will, obviously, differ wildly from another person.
First off, let me say that I am NOT a professional triathlete/runner. I do not have the talent or ability to compete on that level in any shape or form - nor do I have the time, ambition, or drive to put in the effort that those guys put in on a day to day basis. So, when you take this post into consideration, please realize it's coming from the perspective of a sponsored amateur athlete. The professionals (while there are probably several parallels to the ideas this post covers) operate on a different level with a different set of rules.
With that said - let's get the simple answer out of the way.
"How do I get sponsored?"
"Make it worth your sponsor's while to send you free/discounted products/services."
It's that simple. It works like that across the board with next to no exceptions (one exception could be that you're good friends or family members with someone that can "gift" you a sponsorship - but if that's the case, you wouldn't be asking the question in the first place). I've been on both ends of this - as a sponsored athlete and working through a company setting up sponsorships/teams. In both cases, the bottom line is ALWAYS whether an athlete can offer value that justifies a sponsorship.
The complicated answer is a bit different - as many different companies have many different wants, needs, requirements, hopes, etc for the athletes they sponsor. However, in the end, it all comes back to the simple answer.
It's about what you can do for them - not what they can do for you. Companies who sponsor athletes want exposure for their product that can translate into sales. They want this any way possible and it's YOUR responsibility, as the athlete, to show them how you can give them the exposure that they need.
I've been on varying ends of setting up sponsorships with companies - whether it was through me seeking them out directly, applying for a sponsorship/team through a submission process, "winning" sponsorships through contests, or being approached by a representative of the company to represent their brand. While all of these are different to varying degrees, the end results is the same. You have to show what you can do for them and whether or not that fits with what they're looking for.
So what tips can I give to someone who is seeking out sponsorship? In no particular order, keep the following in mind:
Actually use the product and believe in the product.
Nothing comes off more hypocritical than someone who receives product from one company, is actively promoting that company's product, etc - but uses a completely different product (whether it's through training, racing, whatever). It drives companies nuts to see someone promoting one thing only to find a picture of them racing with something completely different posted online or whatnot. In my mind, this can't be stressed enough: If you have a relationship with a company where you're receiving product in exchange for exposure - then you cannot promote (directly or indirectly) their competitors. It paints a bad image for the company (Why is one of "their athletes" using a different product instead of there own?) and a bad image for the athlete (Why are they receiving free/discounted product and still using something completely different?).
In my opinion, why would someone who is serious enough about their sport even WANT to get "sponsored" by a company that they don't use the product for? For me, I'd only want to receive product from a company if I was actually going to use it. If I'm not - then there's no point (either for me as the athlete, or for them as the company).
I can also say that companies look for this. If you're sponsored by shoe company A and you're competing in a race while wearing shoe company B's shoe - they won't be happy. Oftentimes, it's grounds for them to end the sponsorship. Also - the sponsorship directors for companies are, more often than not, all chummy with one another. Don't think that it goes unnoticed that an athlete got free product from one company just to get free product and then "jumped ship" to another company.
Have something to offer the company that sets you apart from the rest.
So you won your age group at your local sprint triathlon? You set a PR at your local 10k? That's great and all - but guess how much value that has to the vast majority of companies out there? 0. Zero. Nada. Zilch. Do you know why? It's because EVERY SINGLE RACE has a winner. Every single age group in every single race has someone who placed first place and can claim that they won their age group. All of them do. Do you know what means? It means that there are millions of people out there who "won their age group." So, while it doesn't belittle your accomplishment any, it just means that there are so many people who have done the same thing - and a placing in a race doesn't set you apart. Granted, there ARE exceptions to that (i.e. "I won my age group at the Ironman World Championships", or "I always win my age group and I'm always on the podium") - and sometimes, with a long history of success, race results alone will get you sponsored (or at least in the door - but we'll touch on that later).
So what does someone who isn't an elite athlete do to get sponsored? Again, the simple answer is show that you can provide exposure for the company. Maybe you have a million twitter followers and you can save them advertising revenue by simply sharing company advertisements. Maybe you're a coach or manager or group leader with a direct line to people that the company is wanting to get their product out to. Maybe you're a gorgeous super model who a company would love to have their product on and they can save money by "sponsoring" you rather than paying a model who doesn't know anything about their product. There's lot of ways that a company can have value in a sponsored athlete outside of just being a great athlete. Get creative and find what works for you.
Race results don't matter, but they still do kind of.
As I said above - winning isn't everything when it comes to getting sponsored. Winning races will not get you sponsored alone simply because there are so many people winning races that you don't get set apart. With that said, it doesn't hurt. A company likes to have their product represented on the podium at a race, or through race pictures. Or through any kind of exposure, really - but doing well at races definitely doesn't hurt.
It's important to keep in mind that a race result doesn't necessarily mean a win or a podium for a lot of athletes. Most companies will be happy to promote you using their product and having success in your race - whatever that may mean to you. The inverse of that can be true too. If you have a string of races where it looks like you're having a miserable time and bringing those around you down - it can have a negative impact on a sponsor. That's never any good.
I would imagine it's very rare for the amateur athlete to be dropped because they aren't doing as well in races as they typically do - but it's possible that, for sponsorships that put a heavy emphasis on that kind of thing, an athlete won't be renewed the following year during the application process with poor race results.
The bottom line is this: Race results don't matter in the grand scheme of things in most cases - but they don't hurt.
Social Media is great - but only if used the right way.
Many companies (or endurance sports teams) who sponsor people will do so in the form of creating a "team" or a "group." This is a really good way to get everyone together so that people are on the same page in going in the direction the company wants the group to go in. Using a social media platform like Facebook as an example, a company will often create a "Facebook group" to put all of its athletes in. Oftentimes, you'll have people posting content, pictures, reviews, etc to that group - but not out in the public.
Brutal honest news flash: If you're posting how much you love a certain product (through pictures, reviews, whatever) to a private group on Facebook where the only people in that group are sponsored athletes and employees of that company - you are NOT using social media correctly. The whole point is to promote the brand. If you're preaching to the choir - you're not doing that. You should be posting publicly about the brand - otherwise it does no good.
Social media interaction is something that a lot of companies value very much - and it doesn't do them a whole lot of good if your postings are set to "Private mode" where only you and your friends can see them. While there are some exceptions to this (like if you have 10 trillion friends or something), most companies want that to be public for everyone to see.
Another social media thought: If you're just going to be a regurgitater of statuses and never actually provide any social media content - then you'll likely need another avenue from which you can provide value to a company (again - this thought doesn't apply if you have a massive followers/friend list). Having been on the other side of things (helping run a team of athletes), I can say that when you post something - there should be something personal FROM YOU about how you enjoy the product. Not simply clicking the "retweet" or "share" button. That kind of social interaction, with very few exceptions, has little value to a company. Even a quick line like: "Look at what *company A* is doing to change the industry!" or "Check out how my teammates are doing in their races on our blog!" goes a long way to showing that you actually care and represent the company - and not that you're just clicking a button to fulfill your obligation after getting free stuff.
Companies - and the general public - see through your bullshit.
This won't apply to everyone - but it does apply to a lot of people who I've been on teams with, sponsored with by the same company, or have seen sponsored through various companies.
Companies know that people want free stuff. It's just that simple. No one would apply for a sponsorship if they weren't getting free or discounted product.
However, most companies can see right through it when someone is just trying to get their hands on free product for whatever reason with no intention of doing anything to earn that product. This is why companies will turn down way more applications than they receive.
However, occasionally, one of those applications slips through the cracks and you get someone who tells people how great a product is - only to jump to the next product in a couple of months. This is usually followed by a slew of badmouthing on the original product they left, and they will usually jump ship to the next product afterwards. These type of people typically don't last long and are weeded our pretty quickly - mainly because the public just isn't buying (both figuratively and literally) it.
This touches a bit on believing in a product you're representing. The type of people I allude to above obviously don't. I can guarantee you that it will become apparent VERY quickly in the sponsoring company's eyes whether or not you are fulfilling your obligation to the company and they will know, and rather quickly, whether you're just doing it for "free product." Furthermore, the general public will catch on quick as well. If one product is the best thing in the world one day, and then terrible the next as you promote their competitors - the general public will look at anything you say with a questioning eye.
In fact, to be honest - whenever someone is sponsored by a company - people will assume that anything the sponsored athlete says or writes about that product is incredibly biased. Or they'll just assume it's complete bullshit because the sponsored athlete is just trying to fulfill some kind of obligation.
It's the sponsored athlete's job to show the general public that they truly are invested and love the product and that it is a vital part of their day to day athletic life (or life in general). The ability to do that changes the sponsored athlete from "someone just trying to please their sponsors" to "someone who I can talk to about this product and see if it's right for me".
There are lots of ways to do this. First and foremost - be honest about your assessment of a product. Point out the flaws and the strengths. Remember, when you're exposing the public to a product - your job isn't just to get them to buy the product. If someone buys the product and hates it - you haven't done your job. I've steered people away from products I use because, after talking with them, I've thought a product wouldn't work for them or they would ultimately be unhappy with it. Your ultimate goal should be the same goal as the company you are representing - to have happy customers. You don't get that by lying to them about a product you received for free.
My motto always has been: I will only represent something if I believe in it and would spend my hard earned money to buy it without a discount anyway.
So becoming that with a company is the easy part - the hard part is getting a company to recognize what an asset you can be if they bring you on as a sponsored athlete. Sometimes it's easy to get in front of the right people, sometimes it's not. Each company is different is different in how they handle things and, with enough effort (which you should be willing to do) - you'll eventually find the right person to talk to and see if you're a fit.
For me - things I look out for when "getting sponsored" are:
- How much I use the product and if that use translates to the needs of the company. Do I really want to put the effort into promoting a product I hardly use? What use is that to me or the company I am representing?
- What requirements they have for sponsored athletes? For example, if there are "sales requirements" then I will not accept a sponsorship with a company. There is a difference between a salesman and a sponsored athlete - and if I am required to "sell x amount of product" in order to obtain or retain any benefits I may receive - then that's something entirely different than what I am looking for.
- Will promoting this product interfere with other sponsors or my day to day life? If the requirements of a product require you to promote competition from another sponsor you may have - then a choice needs to be made. For me, I will not promote a direct competitor of one of my sponsors. This type of scenario most often presents itself when you're a member of a team (i.e. the team has one sponsor for a product and you have another sponsor for the same product). I've found the best way to "promote" your team's sponsor is by thanking them for the support of the team and letting your personal sponsor know that's what you're doing so there is no confusion. It's something that's doable - it just takes some creativity. Obviously, if the requirements for a sponsorship interfere with my day to day life with my family or whatnot, then I will not accept a sponsorship. At the end of the day, endurance sports is a hobby and an activity I use as a part of my life - it's not my entire being. There are lots of things more important than endurance sports and if representing a company interferes with all of that, then I will simply walk away.
Just some food for thought that may or may not help people who are looking to get sponsored. Remember - the bottom line and the key thing is: Ask not what your sponsor can do for you, but what you can do for your sponsor. With that mindset - you'll end up on the right track.
Also - keep in mind that the stuff above is just my general thoughts and definitely not a bible by any means. It's just what I've found has worked based on my experience as a sponsored athlete and with helping run a triathlon team who (indirectly) sponsored athletes. It doesn't apply across the board and there are exceptions, I'm sure.
For example - a professional athlete will be on a totally different mindset. If they're representing one shoe company and their contract is up with that company and they have an opportunity to move to a completely different company for more money - then more power to them. I have no problem with that in the slightest bit and it's completely different than someone being an ambassador/sponsored athlete for a company. The main difference is - this about the pro athlete getting paid. It puts food on the table. They're providing a service and an advertising platform for a company and doing it strictly through athletics as their full time job. So I understand that completely and don't fault anyone in that situation in the slightest bit. It may come off as slightly hypocritical on my part - but whatever, it is what it is.
To end things - my first foray in "athlete sponsorship" (outside of companies sponsoring athletic teams in high school and college) was when I was dabbling in mixed martial arts. Long story short, I wrestled in college and wanted to get my fix and thought mixed martial arts would be a good idea. I managed to secure a fight and was approached by a guy who was trying to kickstart a business called Underratedfighter.com. He told me that if I wore his shirt walking to my fights and immediately after the fight - he'd supply me and my gym mates with plenty of gear. So I did that:
|This is such a LOLworthy picture.|
|This is more or less how the whole fight went - I lost via split decision (which was BS in my mind, but that's another story).|