The Why, How, and What's Next Guide to Athletic Sponsorship
Athletic Sponsorship. These words mark your acceptance in an elite group and are like gold to some athletes. After all, who doesn't want free stuff, or a team's endorsement that your riding is among the best? In my experience, it's not that simple. Sponsorship is a job, and it takes good planning to pull it off so you stay motivated and having fun and keep your sponsor happy.
I'd like to share some tips based on my own sponsorship experiences that I hope will help riders looking for support. So far there are very few sponsored unicyclists, but as our sport continues to grow so will the opportunities for professional riding.
If you want to be sponsored as a unicyclist, there are several important questions to ask. Why do you want sponsorship? Why would a company benefit from sponsoring you? How do you get started? And once you're sponsored, how will you keep both yourself and your sponsor happy?
Question No. 1: Why?
The first question, why do you want sponsorship, is the most important. Is it for public recognition? Free stuff? For others to tell you that your riding is good? Do you dislike commercialization in sport but still want the freebies? Or do you love riding for its own sake but have personal goals that a sponsor could help you achieve? Do you want to just cover some of your costs, or make a living from riding? Asking these questions will help you decide whether the effort needed to obtain sponsors is worth it, and whether sponsorship is really what you are looking for.
When asking yourself why you want sponsorship, it's also important to be honest about your personal goals. If your favorite activity is solo distance touring and you hate telling anyone about it, you likely won't find many sponsorship takers. If you feel that your values are compromised by letting a company have any say in how you act or what you do, you probably shouldn't seek sponsors either. In addition, don't assume that because you are a great rideryou “deserve” sponsorship. There are lots of great riders out there, and there is usually someone better. Being a top rider will open the door for you, but that's about it. The skills you have at public relations are more than 50% of the sponsorship equation.
Question No. 2: How?
To figure out how a company can benefit from you, you need to know what they want. Companies sponsor athletes because they have goals that an athlete can help them accomplish. Those goals include growing a brand image, increasing their market share, and supporting a cause that the company cares about. Getting sponsored means showing your sponsor you add value.
Here are a few tips:
Find ways to build your riding career before you look for sponsors. Build a trials demo setup and do shows. Build a website and video page. Make sure you're known to the worldwide online community. Go to major unicycling meets.
Learn to film and edit videos or find friends who can film you. Communicating about your riding is your most important asset, and online videos are your #1 tool to getting your name out there. Also, build a collection of high quality still photos. Great stills are much harder to find than videos.
Treat applying for sponsorship like a job application. Make a professional, up-to-date resume and cover letter. Spelling and grammar do count - this is your face to the potential sponsor.
Seek sponsors that share your values. If you want a drink company to sponsor you but you actually think the stuff tastes like cough syrup, you will have a hard time believing in what you do.
Seek mainstream clients willing to pay for demos or performances irrespective of sponsorship. Growing a trials or street demo business is a great way to get paid to have fun and learn to run your own business.
Get a talent agent if you also like to act. Commercials and films are hard to land but are potentially very lucrative. Some agents specialize in adventure sport athletes.
Be realistic with your expectations if you pursue sponsors within the cycling industry. Remember the unicycle industry is still very small and only a handful of the very top riders get any support at all. Look for local support first, perhaps at your local bikeshop.
Outside the cycling industry, don't be afraid to think big. Dan Heaton is a major part of Columbia Clothing's Fall 2008 ad campaign, and there's no reason that the right rider can't become a household name as the face of a large, global company.
Be persistent with your prospective sponsor, but don't take it too far. Many cycling industry sponsors review applications in September-November and may not consider proposals at any other time. If they're not interested, don't take it personally. You may simply not be a good fit with their program. For example, some cycling companies focus their sponsorship program on events, not individual athletes, and that has nothing to do with your skills.
The best part about sponsored riding is not the freebies. It's that it can open doors to meet people and have riding and travel opportunities, and that it puts you in a position where people listen when you speak about things you care about. If your primary interest is discounts on gear, it is much more efficient to get a part time job.
Take time to improve your public speaking and writing skills. Your ability to interact with the public and with the media are just as important as your ability to ride. These skills will build your confidence and help you to ‘sell’ yourself. Landing a sponsorship is really similar to landing any other job. If your technical skills are not world class, you can often make up for it with great people skills.
Question No. 3: What's next?
In other words, once you're sponsored, what do you do to keep both yourself and your sponsor happy? This involves making sure that you both understand each other's expectations. Here are a few tips:
Communicate regularly with your sponsor. Let them know what you are up to, especially if you get media exposure or do well at competitions. Send them all your photos and videos.
Don't ever let pro riding (or returning to recreational riding) affect your feeling of self-worth. Sponsorship is a tool to help achieve goals, not an end-purpose.
Realize that different sponsors appreciate different skills. Mainstream sponsors are not usually impressed by technically difficult tricks if they don't understand why it's hard.
Don't slag other companies or products. Giving honest feedback is one thing (and companies often want that) but negative comments can really come back to haunt you.
Realize that sponsors love it if you do well in school or have a cool day job.
Don't forget that other riders, especially kids, watch you and look up to you when you are talented. Whether you are sponsored or not, other riders WILL notice how you treat your riding environment, how you dress, and most of all, how you treat other people.
Wear a helmet and safety gear! Companies often require helmets as a condition for promoting your photos and videos. Few things are more frustrating than great photos or video worth nothing or worse to a sponsor because the rider is not wearing a helmet. If you get hurt, that might be the end of your sponsorship.
Remember that media photos and video are forever, and that they are always out of context. That video of you damaging public property might have been funny at the time, but consider how it looks to strangers online.
Thank your sponsor with a formal letter at the end of each season. Provide a summary of everything you did over the year and a proposal for next year if you want to continue. Be as specific as you can. Over the season, keep a written record so you don't forget what you did.
I hope these tips are useful to figure out whether sponsorship is for you. Try not to take it too seriously. No matter how much you love it, it's really just a fun game. In the end, the only thing that truly matters is how feel when you ride.
Kris Holm. Kris was the world's first sponsored mountain unicyclist. He has been sponsored by Norco, Roach, Arc'teryx, and Rider's Eyewear, and is currently riding for Horny Toad Activewear.