Friday, November 09, 2007

How To - Sponsorship

Winter, at least in the snow belt, brings a whole new world of cycling to the forefront. Cyclocross. Jackets and tights. Face masks. Studded tires.

And the eternal search for sponsorship.

Now is the time for wrapping up sponsorship requests - you know, the calls and emails and meetings with various businesses or their representatives to get some schwag for the team for next year. Or, if you've landed a nice one, some cold, hard cash. Unless you're a pro team (and even then perhaps you may be spiraling into oblivion) you're probably in the same boat a lot of other non-pro, strictly for-fun teams regarding sponsorship.

The biggest question is "How do I get some?"

As someone who's been there, I have some suggestions. I've asked sponsors for money, negotiated with shop reps, essentially restarted and ran a collegiate team, managed a shop that had a team (and ran the team), owned a shop that had a team (and ran the team), and now have a tiny team that has no shop (and virtually no sponsorship at this moment). I've also asked for stuff for a race series I've promoted for 15 years as well as miscellaneous individual races or events. All this experience has taught me a little bit about sponsorship and cycling.

For the non-pro, there are two kinds of sponsors - those that don't know you personally and those that do.

Sponsors you don't know want to make money on the money they give you. Some of their sponsorship benefits are not measurable. For example, how do you measure getting the name out for a local restaurant? Other sponsorship items allow them to measure their return on their investment on you. Such things include coupons for that same restaurant (with an ID code that identifies the team) or unique phone numbers for ads relating to your team. Remember one thing about sponsors that don't know you - they are a business, not a charity! Keep that in mind whenever you deal with them.

Sponsors who know you are giving you stuff because they don't have the heart to say no. It's like asking for $20 from a friend. Not quite as easy as asking your parents for money but still easier than convincing a stranger to open their wallet to you.

Sometimes people you know get caught up in giving you sponsorship. The company I work for has two partners. Over a few lunches they asked me about my races and my racing. I showed them pictures - the races, the leaders' jerseys, my bike. They got to see the jerseys and bike firsthand since I had the jerseys shipped to the office and I regularly brought my bike in (and they'd see me riding in the evening). They queried me on the leader's jersey.

I explained to them that we give away a leader's jersey to the overall winner of the Series. This makes the overall fight very fierce because only a few such jerseys are handed out each year. I told them that they usually end up framed in a shop or in someone's house (or tossed into a drawer but I didn't want to say that). They promptly asked if they could be on the jersey for the Series going on right now - I told them I'd want to do that but it'd have to wait till next year.

Ultimately they gave me thousands of dollars (cash!) over a few years to be on the jersey. And I never asked them for anything. We used the money to redesign the jersey. We hired the guy that did the Saeco team jerseys, Spinergy, Sobe, etc, and we used the rest of the money to pay various permit fees and race costs (portapotties etc). In return we linked to their site from the race site - and we're the biggest source for hits on their website so they think giving us money was great.

Anyway, think of the following:

1. If you ask someone you don't know for money, you need to be able to show them some kind of return. If I had a business and had a choice between, say, buying $100 worth of roast beef for deli sandwiches for tomorrow's lunchtime rush and giving $100 to a bike club, guess which one I'd buy? As a business I'd think about which one makes me more money, balancing out long term gains versus short term ones. If my deli was brand new, it might be worth it to have 20 racers zipping around town with my name on their backs. If I have an established deli, such publicity isn't necessary - but perhaps giving some money plus handing out sandwich coupons might be worth investigating.

2. Make sure you don't get too much negative publicity for your sponsor. I guess the Festina doping thing was okay (as was Phonak), at least for those businesses, but they're international companies getting international coverage. After all, Festina gets free publicity whenever someone talks about the "Festina affair" - and that was almost ten years ago! However, at a local level, such stunts typically backfire. If you get yelled at or honked at regularly locally, no one's going to want to be associated with you. One shop's team (since disbanded) got banned from riding in a town after they flipped off the Chief of Police (he was in an unmarked car). Good for business? No way. Make it clear to the sponsor that this will not be the case with your team.

This makes the sponsorship hunt seem pretty negative, right? I mean how does a team earn money for its sponsors? You're not out there waiting tables or having tag sales or anything.

There's hope yet - hang in there, it's like being the tail gunner in the field, 10 laps into a 50 lap race. Things get a touch better from here on in.

Cash is precious - it's unusual to get cash. But you can get a lot of what you want or need to race from sponsors through equipment and discounts. And if you pay even scant attention to your race budget, you know that virtually all your money goes into equipment. Cycling related companies want to be the first name on these "serious" riders' lips when their non-cycling friends and family ask about bikes so they're willing to give some to get some.

1. Bike shops. Approach your local shop and ask for a discount in return for the name on the jersey (maybe they pay for the artwork on the jersey, perhaps if they really like the jersey they can sell them in the shop). You want to get the riders used to going there, recommending others to go there, etc. Choose a shop you like if you're in a town with a lot of bike shops.

2. Once you have an in at the shop, ask them to ask their vendors for deals. Virtually all big manufacturers have some kind of "club deal". You order 10 or 20 of whatever (frames, helmets, shoes, shorts, pumps, pairs of tires, etc etc), you get them in matching colors, and you get a serious break on price. One helmet manufacturer sold $150 or so retail helmets for $40 to the shop for its team - that's more than half off wholesale. This doesn't mean anything is free but it's still a good deal and helps make you a "team", attracting other sponsors with your "professional appearance". Usually the deal is the team pays up front, the shop pays upfront, you get an early batch, and you're all set. As a team make the process as painless as possible - have your matrix of sizes clear and ready so the shop simply faxes or hands the matrix out to the vendor (or, more probably, to the vendor's rep).

3. Bikes are virtually never on the amateur sponsor list, at least for free. You might get a deal on a mass purchase though (see #2 above). A domestic pro team I know of gets "free" bikes - but the rider has to return his three bikes or pay for them at the end of the year. A pro/1 women's team around here had no bike sponsorship - they all ride their own bikes. Framesets maybe - again, a discount on frames pre-ordered for the team, but you go through the shop.

For the regular racers out there, the ones that don't race full time, the idea is the manufacturer wants to get the shop involved so you go and patronize the shop (and the shop buys more of the manufacturer's bikes and so on). This means you don't say to the shop, "Dude that's a ripoff - I can get it cheaper on eBay!". What the shop doesn't need is to have the beggars they're helping get mad at them. Not worth the trouble to essentially give money to someone to have them yell at you. Maybe it'll fly in one of those dominatrix houses, but it won't fly in a bike shop.

4. Energy bar/drink/gel etc - the local reps usually have some freebie budget - usually for sample sizes and such. They'll really give you a lot of stuff if you hold a race. We got a 2000 pound pallet of drink mixes from an energy food manufacturer for a 6 week series of races - 2000 pounds! That's a freaking lot of stuff. The truck driver used a forklift! That's serious! Even with 300-450 racers a week we couldn't give it all away. We gave away boxes of the stuff at every race, gave them away at registration, gave bunches to the ones we term "good guys" - influential racers in the community, and used it personally for the year the stuff was still unexpired. Think of other opportunities - new sodas or drinks, new bars, etc.

5. Hold a race.
This last item is important. If you can hold a race and keep costs under control, you can make money for the team's budget. Basically you get other people to come and pay to race, and don't give all of the money away. You'll make some cash money. However, races rarely make money when they start off - but you can use the race as a vehicle to ask for sponsorship. If you have a nice picture of the start/finish (or a sprint or something) with some sponsor opportunities, you can ask around for some sponsors to fill that gap. For example, if you don't have a start finish banner, you can ask for sponsorship in exchange for the sponsor's name on a new banner (and perhaps renaming the race - like the Tour de Trump becoming the Tour du Pont). Every year set aside anything you can get to start off next year's race, team, and whatnot. Buy a loudspeaker or a registration tent or something you needed to borrow this year to make the race happen. In 5 or 6 years the team will own all the stuff it needs to hold a race and hundreds of eager racers will stream to your course every year to pay the team money and race on the course. It's hard work holding a race, more than you'd ever think. The payoff? The sense of accomplishment is tremendous.

By the way, this leads to a pet peeve of mine (as a long time promoter).

I have a rule about people who complain at races - only those who have promoted or helped promote a race before can complain. Everyone else should hold their own race first, figure out a way to address their own complaint, and then suggest their solution to the promoter that doesn't do it. If you go to a race and start to open your mouth to complain, stop, think about what doesn't seem right, then figure out how to address it when you promote your own race.

After you promote your race? Go back and complain your head off - you totally have the right.

By the way, if you watch race promoters at other races? They virtually never complain. Maybe a suggestion or an idea, but they never complain. There's a reason why that's the case.

Back on topic, whatever you do for sponsorship, don't expect something for nothing. If you sour any relationship (with the shop, a manufacturer, local sponsors, promoters, school, whoever) you're screwing not only yourself but many years of future cycling club members as well.

The first venture in race promoting I witnessed occurred in the town I lived in until I was five years old. I have an emotional connection to the town and when my team decided to hold a road race there, I was ecstatic. I trained for it and hoped my home town advantage would propel me up the biggest climb, a 0.8 mile drag up a wide road, no protection from the wind.

One of the nation's top woman racers showed up (and destroyed the field) and we had a fantastic Cat 2-3 race. Unfortunately someone in the town's organization had left the Chief of Police out of the loop. He watched the race and commented "I ought to pull every one of those guys over for not riding in single file."

You want to guess how many races we held there in the next 24 years?

Zip. Nada. Zero. The big donut (or "the bagel" as my math teacher once told me, and yes, it was my exam he was talking about).

Sponsorship is a delicate thing because most small businesses (the ones you're going to approach) don't budget for such "marketing". The bike companies do budget for this so it's easier to approach them for discounted gear.

Keep in mind that November is about as late in the year as you want to start as far as a sponsorship hunt goes. By January the money is gone. Call your local shops now (or better yet, talk to the owner/s after you buy a winter jacket or a pump or booties or something).

And good luck with your team.

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