It’s a lot of fun to watch influential runners travel to international destinations, race, and get sweet gear. As the sport grows in popularity and offers more and more places for athletes to race, getting sponsored is becoming more accessible to more athletes. You don’t have to be winning races (or even fast) to be a sponsored athlete and be part of a brand or other ground of runners. There is plenty of opportunity out there! Here’s how to start.
Why Brands Sponsor Athletes
On the base level, a brand sponsors an athlete to be an extension of their marketing efforts. Brands want to be seen, borrow the influence of the athlete, and cross-promote ideas/products/events that mesh well with the athlete’s audience. For much of modern history, a professional or sponsored athlete was somebody who performed on a world-class level. Giant news networks and newspapers followed the athlete and put the brand in the spotlight as well. As social media started to become a thing in the 2000’s, brands realized that not all people relate or pay attention to superstar athletes. People like and relate to people who are like them, not superstars who can never be met! And the world of athlete marketing started to change.
What Brands Are Looking For
AKA eyeballs. Attention is the greatest commodity that every brand is searching for more of. It helps to have a large blog following or social following… or Youtube or Twitter. Essentially, being able to lend some of the attention from your viewers to a brand is going to help you in your quest for sponsorship.
Some great ways to boost viewership on your channels is activity (like comments that add value, guest posting, or writing in deep detail on a specific topic). Learn a bit about SEO to help your blog or YouTube channel stick out to search engines. Also, consistency is key. Social algorithms and search engines love being able to know that your content has a reliable stream.
They keys to getting views in a social world is quality and… sociability. Take great photos, but spend time color correcting them (this is usually free on an app like Snapseed and looks way better than a filter). Tag brands with their product in use with a great photo. Start a conversation and ask questions with your audience. Seek input from them on the topics you cover.
Brands like people who are connected to a larger community. If you run with a club or a team or are a frequent volunteer, that is going to look really good on your athlete resume. It means you will be using their gear in the environment it is intended, and people you know (and trust) will be seeing you with the gear in use.
It is really easy to find a running club with a search here. If you have a local running store – or a few – they almost always have running clubs. Brand reps usually show up to run club nights and are a great way to network and try out gear. In the same way that brand reps show up to run club night, see if there is a way that you can collaborate with your local run shop. Spread your knowledge. Do a presentation on a topic that you are knowledgeable on, or a workshop that will help athletes prepare for a big local race.
Volunteering is also a sure way to build connections and trust with races and the race’s sponsors. Races always need volunteers, and it is always appreciated.
If you are good at writing or with video, using your platform to review products and offer honest, critical feedback can bring lots of value to a brand and could incentivize them to want to send you more gear.
The same goes for just about anything though. Are you an expert in any running related topic? Nutrition? A specific region of trails? Material science? Psychology? Anything? Offer to guest blog for local gyms or sport shops or companies in the running industry to spread that knowledge. Brands will notice and want to latch on to borrow some of that expert credibility.
Relevance means making sure your message as an athlete aligns well with what your audience is looking for. i.e., if you’re a trail runner, you’re probably not going to be trying to attract the attention of formalwear companies. Though, if you run in a tux, please send us pics, we want to see. Nike probably won’t look much at a mud obstacle course racer – it isn’t relevant to the segment of the market that nike covers. But, a boutique mountain apparel company is damn sure going to want to see you taking their gear on top to a sunrise summit. If you match the style of your message to the style of the messages a brand is sending out, you’re doing something right.
Your Personal Brand
What makes you stand out? Is it great world-class photography? Is it environmental advocacy? Your involvement with a cause? Teaching people a certain skill? Climbing technical routes? Being fast? Your personal brand is what makes your segment of audience want to keep coming back to your content time and time again. Your personal brand is built on consistency, a strong message, and authenticity.
Okay, I’m Doing That Stuff. Now What?
Know what you want.
The most common sponsorships for athletes are free or discounted gear. Percentages of 20-50% are pretty common discount levels. Brands that give athletes free gear usually will give somewhere in the tune of $500-$2,000 MSRP/yr. Really though, it depends on the above factors and the type of gear the brand works with.
Many brands have hookups with local races for complementary entires. If there is a race that you really really want to get in to, perhaps arranging a deal with that brand could help you find a way in. Athletes on the team might be able to get a slot in the race for free or for a heavy discount.
Travel and lodging is another offering, but starts to get a bit more tricky. Usually these offers are reserved for athletes that are able to perform well at a race and or able to be part of a tradeshow or event. You’ll be directly representing a brand face-to-face with other people who interact with that brand, so the element of trust and added value needs to be high.
Finally, monetary compensation is the most difficult level of sponsorship to achieve. Semi professional and professional athletes usually have an audience of many thousands or hundreds of thousands of viewers before getting a paycheck. Getting a paycheck is a result of you having a direct impact on the company’s revenue. Being able to use your platform as a way to influence voluminous sales is the biggest factor of receiving a paycheck. While not impossible, this will take lots of involvement and potentially years of perfecting your platform.
If you are just starting off, local companies are likely to be able to offer you some gear discounts for quality social media shouts. Don’t expect anything huge. If you’ve been at the game for a few years, a national brand might bring you on as an ambassador and throw some free gear and a couple of comp’d races your way. If you can bring a huge audience and industry influence with you, there might be an accounting team at that national company that has a few checks to spare. Keep in mind most professional runners, especially trail runners, are making a modest, humble salary while busting ass. This isn’t a sport that enables athletes to live lifestyles like Peyton Manning.
Make an Athlete Resume
Show your creativity and stand out with an athlete resume. Just like you make one for a job interview, treat your ask of sponsorship in the same way. After all, it is a partnership between you and a company. It sets a good impression and builds trust right off the bat. Check out canva.com for free superdope resume templates that pop with unique designs and colors that fit your personality.
Things to include:
City and State
A short bio of yourself that shows character
Races you have done in the past couple of years
Your social handles
How many followers you have and where
Places you have been featured
Popular articles you’ve written
Volunteer positions you’ve worked
Photo(s) you’ve taken of you looking awesome running.
Add Value in Your Ask.
No doubt, marketing managers at national companies get thousands of athletes reaching out every year wanting to run for them though their various channels (Social comments, social messages, email, etc). Most of these messages are structured like “Hey, how can I get sponsored? I did this this and this and your brand is really cool.”
That’s it. Plain text. No personality.
Add some value. Show that you know what that brand is up to and tell them why you are a good fit. Use the why, how, what approach to your writing. It might look something like this:
Hi Marketing Manager,
I saw you posted [Article Title] about how your brand is involved in X and did Y things to help that community. That really meant a lot to me. As an athlete, I’ve always believed in doing X too (your why), and have been [some kind of involvement, event, or thing you’ve done – your how] and I feel like we would be a good fit together. [What] opportunities do you have for athletes to represent your brand, and how could I get involved further?
Boom. You made that massage about why you are a good fit, and wanting to bring value to that brand, not asking the brand to give something to you. The brain understands statements that begin with a “why” way better than with a “what” because “why” creates a personal connection.
Most brands start thinking about their athlete team rosters in August or September and are finalizing applicants in December. Make sure you are reaching out sooner than later to make sure you can find a spot.
Don’t lead with naming what you want in the first message (i.e. gear/travel/money). Instead, leave it to discovering how you can get involved first. The company will spell out terms for you in an agreement or a contract if a sponsorship were to happen. At this point, if you feel you’ve got the influence to negotiate for more, give it a go, but be grateful with the initial offering if they say no.
Find the Right Person
Don’t just spam every person you know with an email or a message. The person messaging back on Instagram might not be the one making the final choice on how makes it onto the athlete team… but they might have some pull in it. Do a bit of research on LinkedIn, the company’s website, asking around your community, etc. to see if you can find out who the decision makers are for the athlete team. Usually a marketing manager or brand manager is who you want to be looking at your information. Pro tip – Google that person to see if they have written any articles or have any involvement of their own in the community. It might be a good way to connect through a question or a congratulations.
If a sponsorship doesn’t work out, don’t fret about it. It takes time. It takes multiple attempts, and a little bit of luck. Most companies also offer pro deals, which get you a nice gear discount, usually somewhere in the 30-70% range. Google “Company Name pro deal” to find out if they offer one; they typically don’t publicize them. They are generally an application process. If you work in the industry, volunteer lots, or can just make a good case for why you need their product (hint, you use it in a way that matches their brand image) there might be a decent shot at you getting approved. Brands have less risk with offering you a discount than they do with a sponsorship, and it can still help their sales, so this can be a good alternate route to try if you’ve got the ‘cred but didn’t make the team.
Use this as a way to build your platform as well. Document yourself using the gear in photos at races or volunteering or in the community. When next year comes around, bring that to the table when you reach out to them.
Keep Doing What You’re Doing
Sponsorship or not, running is still a community sport. Running is a community of people who enjoy waking up (way) too early to get sweaty, dirty, and having fun in doing so. Keep on meeting people in the community and on the trails. Those friendships and experiences will always be more valuable than gear or money. But, if you do luck out with a sponsor, enjoy the ride, keep being an amazing part of the community, and run happy!
What are your thoughts on getting or being sponsored? Leave a comment below!