If you are looking for product and/or financial support for your next expedition, this article may help. It explains sponsorships types, the sponsorship process, and what companies want in return for their sponsorship.
What it means to be “sponsored”
There are about three levels of sponsorship:
- Tier 1: Free or discounted gear;
- Tier 2: Tier 1 + an expense stipend for race fees, travel costs, and lodging; and,
- Tier 3: Tier 2 + a salary
Within each tier there can be significant differences in the level of support provided by the sponsor. For example, does the sponsor fulfill all gear requests or does it impose a budgetary cap? Does the sponsor pay for a rental sedan or for a Winnebago? And does that “salary” still require a day job or can it allow for full-time training.
Most athletes sponsored by companies in the outdoor industry only receive gear. Some athletes receive a stipend for competitions costs and/or a small salary. Very few athletes earn a salary that adequately supports a lifestyle. If you are looking to get sponsored, expect to start with Tier 1 and hope to move up as you begin to prove your worth to them.
The Sponsorship Process
Some companies have a strict sponsorship request process that they require applicants to follow, which they do in order to cut down on processing time and to standardize applications. Other companies have a looser process, and some have none at all. If the company provides you with very specific instructions on how to apply, follow them. If there is some leeway in the application process, you may want to take the following steps:
Draft a “Sponsorship Proposal” that includes to-the-point descriptions of who you are, what you do, what you want from the sponsor, and what you will provide in return. Previous communication with the company can be really helpful here—if you understand their objectives and priorities, you can explain how you will help them. Otherwise you are just guessing about what they need.
Submit the proposal to the appropriate person. To determine who the appropriate person is, look online or call Customer Service if it’s not posted anywhere. If you have a contact at the prospective sponsor (either directly or through a friend), try to get them to deliver your proposal.
Follow-up with this person after giving them a reasonable amount of time to look through your proposal. Be persistent, but not obnoxious. If you have left several voice mails and/or have sent several e-mails without getting any response, you have essentially put the ball in their court—they’ll get back with you if they are interested. There’s not much else you can do.
Expect rejection. Companies like GoLite receive literally thousands of sponsorship proposals every year yet they sponsor only a handful of athletes and events, many of which they have been sponsoring for several years, i.e. there are few opportunities for prospective sponsorees. Outdoor companies are generally small and many prefer to invest their limited resources in efforts that have more tangible and identifiable results.
What Sponsors Want
At the end of the day, outdoor companies are in the business of selling product. They may love what they do, and they may want to improve the outdoor experiences of their customers, but to stay in business they must make money, and they make money by selling product.
The best way to get sponsored, then, is to show how you will help your sponsor sell product. Do not think of yourself as a charity—think of yourself as someone who can contribute to the bottom line, which should entitle you to a proportional fraction of it. Sponsorships are give-get relationships—they provide gear, pay for travel expenses, and offer salaries; and you have to do things in return for them, including:
- Being an excellent ambassador for their brand by speaking highly (and, hopefully, genuinely) about their products and by strengthening their company identity;
- Promoting your relationship when featured in large-circulation outdoor magazines, regional and national newspapers, and television programs;
- Achieving podium finishes in major races;
- Giving product feedback and testimonials;
- Putting their logo on your heavily-trafficked team/individual website;
- Offering photos for catalogs, advertisements, and dealer support;
- Having your writings and images published in magazines, catalogs, and YouTube-like sites; and,
- Allowing them use of your image and likeness in advertisements and on their website.
Miscellaneous Thoughts on Sponsorships
- Getting the first sponsor is the most difficult, especially if you don’t have much of a portfolio. Once you have proven your worth to your first sponsor, it’s much easier to get more and/or bigger sponsors—so treat all of your sponsors, even the small ones, really well.
- Do not be tempted to do something for a “cause” just to increase the likelihood of getting sponsored, perhaps because you think the cause may help to generate more public interest and therefore a higher return for the sponsor. Only do something for a cause if it actually motivates you—if you are truly passionate about it. Otherwise, it’s just disingenuous, and people are likely to see through it and may think that you’re a narcissist.
- It really helps to have a sponsor who is willing and wants to promote you. This avoids you being in the awkward position of having to toot your own horn, and gives you more time for training and performing.
- Develop great relationships with your sponsors. Keep them regularly updated on your achievements, PR hits, outreach efforts, and anything else that provides them with value. Invest time and effort in your sponsorship because that will yield greater returns in the long run, both for you and the sponsor.
- Do not seek sponsorships from companies whose products you don’t believe in or won’t enjoy using. In that case, there is no benefit to the sponsor or to you, except to say that you’re “sponsored.”