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MKTG Insights: When Athletes Don’t Attract Sponsor Interest, Creativity is Required

MKTG Insights: When Athletes Don’t Attract Sponsor Interest, Creativity is Required

Sponsorship marketers are often exposed to headlines of record-breaking athlete endorsement contracts. From David Beckham’s $161 million Adidas deal to Kevin Durant’s Nike deal that could pay the NBA star more than $300 million, there is a high price of entry for brands seeking an association with the world’s top professional athletes.

For some athletes though, particularly in the amateur ranks, sponsorship dollars are harder to come by. Whether it is a niche sport that only captivates the public interest every 4 years in an Olympic year, or an up-and-coming athlete without the pedigree to attract sponsor interest, many athletes are unable to attract corporate support. And without corporate support, many athletes are unable to compete. It is a vicious of cycle in the absence of sponsorship. 

For sponsors facing pressure to optimize their portfolio and ensure that their investments are driving an impact for the brand, amateur sports often end up on the chopping block versus higher reach professional sport investments. These market forces have resulted in desperate times for many amateur athletes. And in desperate times, athletes have been forced to monetize their brand in unorthodox ways.

This winter, the Canadian Freestyle Ski team received financial support after their pitch on CBC’s Dragons’ Den. Despite achieving success on the slopes, the team’s ability to finish the season was threatened due to financial troubles. In an unorthodox approach to sponsorship sales, the organization’s CEO pitched high-profile Canadian investors on the CBC reality TV show. Not every NSO or amateur athlete will get their ticket to see the Dragons though. Instead, the digital age has produced a variety of tools that can be leveraged to help athletes secure funding in the absence of support from corporate sponsors.

When Sponsors Don’t Come Knocking: Alternative Sources of Funding

Crowdfunding sponsorship: it is the opposite of the “Fewer, bigger, better” approach employed by many properties seeking to reduce sponsor clutter. Crowdfunding (raising money for a project or cause from a large number of people via the internet) has been popularized in recent years by sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. While traditionally used to help fund ventures such as new technologies, movies, albums and just about any other business you can think of, this mode of raising money has now become popular for athletes to secure financing for training and competing. Within the world of crowdfunding, there are even dedicated resources designed for athletes seeking funding for training; resources likepursu.it, makeachamp.com and rallyme.com. By telling a unique story that strikes a chord with the public, athletes are able to crowdsource sponsorship revenue. Like any traditional sponsorship deal, athletes must provide “inventory” (typically product, content, or time) back to their donors. Rewards typically include things like personal “thank you” letters and signed merchandise.

Case Studies: Leveraging the Crowd

1.       Alex Duckworth, Canadian Olympic Snowboarder

In order to achieve her dream and compete at 2014 Sochi Olympics, the women’s snowboarding star from Nova Scotia endured serious financial challenges. Alex was required to fund all costs associated with training / competing in the games (ie: travel, coaching, access to facilities, etc.) Duckworth crowdfunded over $10,000 in order to help her compete in Sochi. 

2.      Jamaican Bobsled Team

Jamaica’s bobsleigh team qualified for the 2014 Sochi Olympics but was unable to raise the required $80,000 needed to cover their competition expenses. Leveraging the team’s cult status from 1990s movie “Cool Runnings”, the team was able to raise $21,000 on Indiegogo and $35,000 on Crowdtilt. Additional crowdsourcing opportunities presented themselves when an online currency named Dogecoin entered the mix. Dogecoin, like Bitcoin, is a type of currency that is strictly used online. The Dogecoin community saw this as an exposure opportunity and to increase the validity of their currency. They donated 25 million Dogecoins (equivalent to $35, 547) to the Jamaican Bobsled team’s cause. Dogecoin has also lent financial assistance to other Olympians and sponsored NASCAR driver Josh Wise as well.

The Transference of Brand Attributes in Crowdsourced Funding  

Sponsorship is a vehicle for brands to validate desired brand attributes; a platform for them to increase their authenticity in a property genre (sport, cause, etc.) or even within a set of brand attributes (Canadian, intense, caring, etc.) by associating with a partner. The same way that a partnership with a domestic Olympic committee could help a brand appear more patriotic, or an association with a Tier-1 sports apparel brand could validate an up-and-coming prospect, partnering with “the crowd” can impact athlete’s brand attributes as well. By seeking funding via crowdfunding platforms, athletes can gain the following transference of attributes:

Relatable: While consumers admire stars and their lucrative endorsement deals, they are difficult to relate to. The idea of “needing a hand” is something consumers can connect and engage with.
Tech Savvy: Crowdfunding platforms typically appeal to early-adopters. By maintaining an active presence on these platforms, athletes can appear digitally savvy and modern.
Entrepreneurial: The direct appeal to Canadians can help athletes appear self-starting and hard working.

There is a humanizing component to appearing on a crowdfunding site that, in the right circumstances, can help shape an amateur athlete’s brand in a way that may actually be appealing to traditional corporate sponsors in the future and serve as “bridge funding”.

Takeaway for Athletes: Keys to Success at Crowdfunding Sponsorship

Tell a unique story: When looking for crowdfunding, it is important for athletes to be able to communicate their story to the masses. In order to resonate with fans / consumers, athletes must establish emotional connectors.
Be transparent: As with any investment, investors demand transparency. By sending training and competition updates, consumers can see how the athlete is doing and what progress is being made.
Leverage social to drive interest: Athletes with a strong multi-channel presence can drive traffic to funding platforms and increase awareness for their efforts.

Takeaway for Sponsors:  

The desire for athletes to leverage crowdfunding is typically born out of an area of need – a last resort when traditional sponsorship appears to not be an option. While stepping in to save a financially struggling team or an athlete can have a positive influence on the sponsor’s brand and give the brand a “hero” moment, there is a flip side to this generous gesture. A shift in strategic direction by the sponsor may cause them to migrate away from a deal originally signed out of “need”. This may cause the sponsor to be seen by the public as inauthentic in their support for grassroots athletics or even responsible for future financial struggles. Regardless of how a sponsorship deal comes to life – whether it be through online platforms or through more traditional negotiations – sponsors must ensure any partnerships are aligned to their overall brand and business objectives.  

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