Four Tips for the First-Time Sponsor Seeker

With everything we know about the difficulties of securing a lucrative sponsorship, you might think that when a sponsor says “We’d like to make you an offer” that your reaction time to whip out a pen and ink the deal should be somewhere around .2 seconds.  But agreeing to a sponsorship deal is not a time to get jumpy, and it is definitely not something to take lightly.  Here are a few things to keep in mind when seeking and negotiating sponsorships to maximize the value and protect your most valuable asset: you!

Sell your product, not yourself

Many times when I’m out hitting the sponsorship circuit I can’t help feeling that I’m George Bigalow: Track and Field Gigolo. (I often express this thought somewhat less artfully, but let’s keep this site family-friendly.)  As an athlete, you are your own product – your career, your achievements, your efforts and your visibility are what you offer your sponsor.  It’s vitally important, though, that you separate “you the person” from “you the product.”  Talk to your coach, agent, colleagues and friends to come up with a list of red lines that you’re not willing to cross no matter what the deal.  Compare the sponsor’s offer to these limits, and be prepared to push back or even reject the offer if necessary.

Some areas that you’ll want to set boundaries around are the sponsor’s exclusivity requirements, appearance demands, and personnel restrictions.  If you are negotiating with a local headgear company, will their contract prohibit you from making a deal with any other company that manufactures or sells running hats? Since most apparel companies and running stores offer hats and headbands, would this deal prevent you from gaining a sponsorship with one of these companies?  If so, the deal better be worth it.

How much control does the sponsor wish to exercise over your racing schedule, and is this explicitly stated in your contract?  Are they going to push you to race three 10K’s and appear at 2 expo’s each month to maximize your visibility?  If their demands on your racing or travel schedule are going to adversely affect your training and performance, then they are defeating the entire purpose of having a sponsor.

Ensure that your sponsor respects the rest of your training team: your coach, training club, gym and sports medicine providers.  If they recommend you to other options, consider these alternatives.  But if they attempt to strong-arm you away from your team, they may be trying to reward their friends and partners at your expense.

Align the message

You’re fresh out of college, a real outdoors-adventure kind of person and totally aggressive in competition.  You get a sponsorship offer from a company you’re not too familiar with, so you look into them and discover that their target market looks like an AARP golf outing.  Is that really what you want people thinking of when they think of you?  Knowing that people are going to associate you with your sponsor, how will the deal reflect and influence your professional identity, and is this the direction you want to go?  Most importantly, how will your current sponsor’s brand impact your ability to get future, larger deals?

Companies have many different reasons for sponsoring athletes, and their athletes should reflect these reasons.  In the example above, maybe the company is launching a new marketing effort to target a younger, more athletic audience and they want you to introduce the new brand.  Alternatively, the company may just like the sound and prestige of saying “We sponsor elite athletes,” and they can’t tell the difference between you and the next guy.

Also factor in the company’s general reputation and brand perceptions.  Do people take them seriously in the business world – particularly in sports business – or are they considered incompetent or unsavory?  Many companies include a good morals clause in their sponsorship contracts that allow them to immediately sever the deal if the athlete does anything unsavory that could reflect poorly on the sponsor’s brand (Hi, Tiger!!).  While you won’t get the company to include a morals clause that applies to them, it should be something to think about.  Do you want to be linked to a company that has been featured in lawsuits, investigations and “Idiot Business of the Week” blogs?

Do you believe?

A defense attorney doesn’t have to believe that his client is innocent – he just needs to convince the jury that the client is not guilty.  The best sponsorship would be for a company that you’re already loyal to and whose products you are happy to endorse.  More realistically, you might not be a huge fan of the product whose logo you now have on your jersey and blog.  How much will this matter?

Sponsorship is no longer static.  Your sponsor probably won’t be satisfied with you simply wearing the logo at a given number of races, and using the product at a expo.  They’ll expect you to be seen using it, tweeting about it and attributing some level of success to it.  How convincing can you be about this?  How convincing do you need to be?  Will you be so satisfied with the product that you’ll endorse it because you want to, and not just because you have to?

Will you be expected to use the product all the time, or just during competition?  Is there any consequence if you are seen using a competitor’s product while you are in a non-official capacity?  I’m sure the Let’s Run trolls would love to gin up a scandal from paparazzi-style pics of a Gatorade-sponsored athlete chugging a Powerade.

Financial vs. In-kind sponsorships

When you or your sponsor are just starting out, the sponsor may not have the cash on hand to provide financial support; or, they may want to limit their investment until they are more certain about what return you offer them.  In-kind sponsorships – where your sponsor offers you goods and services instead of money – can be a huge help to an emerging athlete.  More often than not, an in-kind sponsor will be offering something you already use, or something that you’ve considered trying: a new drink or food, apparel, training gear, sports medicine services or equipment.  Bottom line: you’re getting free stuff.  Free stuff rocks.

On the long-term side, having these sponsors will help show your next batch of potential sponsors your “sponsorability.”  You’ll develop skills negotiating with sponsors and learning what works in a contract and what doesn’t, before you go up against a large company’s team of legal sharks wielding boilerplate contracts.  You’ll also be seen racing with a jersey covered in logos. Other companies and fans will view you as a known, already-vetted commodity.  Think of it like when a musician or bartender puts some “seed money” in their tip jar at the beginning of the night.  So what if those companies aren’t major labels?  You send the message that you and your brand are in demand.

What other tips can you think of to help out the first-time sponsorship seeker?  Did you learn any rough lessons or have any strokes of genius passed along to you?  Keep the conversation going in the comments below!

photo credit:   baldguitars


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