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How to get sponsors in sports

During my work, both as a volunteer and as a professional in sports, the most frequent question I get is how a sports organization can get sponsors. Let me give a couple examples: Soccer federation This federation organizes a competition for amateur clubs. They didn’t write press releases and at that  moment they didn’t even [...]

Business 28 Mar 2012, 07:34 IST

During my work, both as a volunteer and as a professional in sports, the most frequent question I get asked is how can a sports organization get sponsors. Let me give a couple of examples:

Soccer federation

This federation used to organize a competition for amateur clubs. They didn’t write press releases and at that  moment they didn’t even published schedules. The focus was on playing the game and making use of the resources that already were available. They had an audience, but just didn’t know how to leverage that.

Aikido club

My daughter (almost 8 years old) has been practicing aikido at a club for 6 months now. This is a pretty small club, with their own dojo, and they have lessons for adults and the youth. During a barbeque party at the club one of the instructors told me that they were just not succeeding in getting any new training mats. He said that it was very difficult to get sponsors.

I thought about this afterwards, and I found it strange as I saw some very dedicated and serious people involved in the club. They had nice publications on the bulletin board, they have a digital newsletter and recently they even had a school delegation participating in a clinic.

It was remarkable though that none of the school kids (that I saw) became a member. Personally I also didn’t read anything about the club in the press. I felt that a strategy to attract new members was missing.

Boxing club

I once had lunch with the president of a boxing association. He had problems with getting funding for his sport. He asked my opinion on an idea he had about raffling a car to generate funds. He had good contacts with some car dealerships, and even showed me the calculation of how he expected to make money out of it. My initial reaction was to just try the raffle to see if it would generate any income.

Looking at the context though, this association didn’t organize any local boxing championships, nor did they have any international boxers in the last 5 years. And there was no real board; it was just 1 person running everything. And I have learned that the raffle hasn’t yet taken place…

Apart from the frequent question of how to get sponsors,  I also hear another common remark from many officials claiming that their sport is so different and specific that general tips and advice will not work for them. I can’t count the times that I’ve heard a line like this -

“But you have to understand that our situation is specific……”

So let me go back to the examples of Soccer, Aikido and Boxing. Can I compare these situations? My answer to that is YES and NO.

NO, you can’t compare these sports!

Of course you cannot compare a team sport like soccer with individual sports. The surroundings are completely different. Not only in terms of costs, but also due to the difference in playing sports outdoors and indoors. Soccer is the most practiced sport around the world, so it goes without saying that getting attention should be easier.

Another reason for being very careful in clubbing together the above-mentioned sports is that martial arts/boxing can be perceived negative by certain persons/organizations. A sport like boxing has to deal with prejudices that a sport like soccer simply doesn’t (for the moment, let us disregard soccer supporters’ occasionally violent tendencies).

YES, you can compare these sports!

On the other hand there are also reasons that justify comparisons between these sports. First of all they are sports, which are characterized by being a leisure activity especially focused on younger people. They all take place in a structured way, by licensed instructors, and are governed by an association or club. Additionally, these sports have international bodies responsible for their overall regulation. The official, internationally accepted definition of a sport (according to the umbrella organization Sportaccord) is:

  • The sport should have an element of competition.
  • The sport should in no way be harmful to any living creatures.
  • The sport should not rely on equipment that is provided by a single supplier.
  • The sport should not rely on any “luck” element specifically designed into the sport.

So based on this context my advice will be the same for the above-mentioned sports, as they are in the beginning phase of marketing, and therefore need to have a strong basis.

One of the most basic steps to achieve success in this field is to evaluate your internal organization. You absolutely have to have a strong internal organization if you hope to make it out there in the sports marketing world. Does this mean that if you’ve just started your sports organization, of if you aren’t very internally strong yet, you cannot get any sponsors?

Not necessarily. You may be lucky enough to get sponsors through a friend of a friend, or perhaps even by direct mailing. But I have my sincere doubts whether such sponsors will stick around after they have become familiar with your sports organization.

My biggest advice to anyone is to give marketing time, and to thoroughly analyze certain crucial features of your organization, like -

1. What do you stand for?

Every sport club should have a constitution or a set of bye-laws that stipulates why the organization exists. This ‘core activity’ should be your number one priority. Your whole organization should know this and also agree on this. Stick to your core activity, and DO IT WELL!

I am not talking about having the best trainers and facilities of the world, but more about a healthy environment where the fun in your activities is clearly visible. The training sessions should be planned structurally, and there should be a backup for each person active in your organization. If the trainer gets sick, who will step in?

This seems so simple but is often overlooked. Looking at the examples above, the boxing club was definitely not covering this aspect.

2. Create a community

Whether you are in an individual sport or not, the social aspects between the members are important. It is a common belief that most of a club’s members are active because they like the sport. BUT THIS IS NOT ALWAYS THE CASE.

Some of your members are simply there because their friends are. And there others who just want to identify themselves with the specific group participating in your sport.

So think of ways how your members and athletes can identify themselves as being part of the community. You can have your members write and publish a newsletter, or you can have a Facebook fan page only for your members. With the creation of a community you create a common goal, which goes further than just training together. Your members feel at home in your sports organization, and in the long run sponsors will also aim to be part of your community.

3. Communicate what you are doing

There are so many volunteers working their tails off, but outsiders just don’t know what they are doing. Without being cocky about it, you should communicate constantly what you are doing as a sport organization, and whether you are achieving any success. This communication should not only be towards your (internal) members but also to (external) stakeholders. The newsletter mentioned before is an excellent tool for this, but don’t forget to send press releases at least once every 3 months. Email messages and sms text messages are also a frequently used way for communication.

4. What image do you have?

Have you ever thought about what image your sports organization has? How does the ‘outside world’ perceive your organization?
This is very important, as potential sponsors see you in this exact same image. The best way to analyze this is to do a short survey once a year. Any student can do this for you, where he/she makes a short list with questions, and then approaches people (non-members, of course).

You should make a strategy based on this survey, in order to either improve your image, or perhaps do some promotion so that people know of your existence.

And if you are part of a fighting sport/martial arts group, you already know that you need to take away the prejudices against the aggressive nature of your sport.

5. Diversify

In the same vein as building your image, you can use diversification to get some attention. This means that you actively look for a group of new members. You could organize special training sessions for girls, deaf athletes, prisoners or perhaps even elderly people.

Yes, this takes extra time, but you will lead to several advantages. One of them is having more members, and consequently more income from contributions. With these kinds of projects it will be easier to get press coverage, which then would have a direct influence on your image-building.

6. Your colleagues are your competition!

Remember that whenever you approach a company, there are a number of other sport organizations which have also approached them for sponsorship. So that means that your proposal has to compete with the ones of table tennis, archery or badminton. The group which has a combination of a clear core activity, a tight community, communication, a positive image and a diversified group of members will win!

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