What do sponsors want?

February 14, 2014 § 47 Comments

The typical bike team sponsorship cycle goes something like this:

  1. Dude who owns company also bikes, gets into racing.
  2. Dude joins a club, gets asked to sponsor the team.
  3. Dude kicks in some money, gets his company’s name on the jersey.
  4. After a few years, Dude loses interest in racing.
  5. Sponsorship ends.

The only sponsors who stick around local racing for the long haul tend to be those with a day-to-day stake in the bike business. Bike shops, the mainstay of team sponsorship, also come and go, however. Their trajectory looks like this:

  1. Shop sponsors team.
  2. Riders all swarm to team “deal” from the shop.
  3. Shop runs the numbers at year’s end, learns that it is losing all its profit margin on team sales but not making those margins up in new business steered to the shop as a result of the team.
  4. Shop pulls the plug.

What’s interesting to me is looking at the way bike racers view sponsorships and comparing it to the way that sponsors view their investment.

It’s not about winning

I have yet to hear a sponsor say, “My sponsorship is dependent on race results.” I’ve never even heard a sponsor mention it. Yet the thing that racers can’t talk enough about — these are the guys and and gals who wear the clothes and represent the product — is their race results.

I get it, of course. Men and women who orient their lives around bike racing are filled with excitement and pride when they win a race. But do sponsors really care? Most don’t, and they don’t care for a lot of reasons. First off is because only a handful of people actually win the local races. Second, the “big win” is only big to the winner. Outside the niche-within-a-microfissure of amateur bike racing, few people know, fewer people care, and fewer still remember. Third, winning a bike race and tying your product to an industrial park crit victory is unlikely to bring you any new business.

So what matters for a sponsor?

Well, it’s pretty simple. Most sponsors who spend money on bike racing teams understand that it’s not going to have the ROI of an ad spend on, say, a winning NASCAR driver. Instead, they look at it in more general terms. “Do more people know about my business?”

Given the way that bike racers “promote” their sponsors, the answer is a resounding “No.”

Word of mouth is king

When it’s all said and done, word of mouth is what sponsors are paying for. Did the sponsor’s investment in your team increase the number of people who know about their product or service? Yes? Then it’s a success. No? Then they probably won’t be around to subsidize your hobby next year.

Posting long encomiums about your great victory, along with blow-by-blow accounts of how you muscled through the pain and up the climb and out of the pain cave and onto the podium thanks to #sponsorsnamehere is not what most sponsors look for. They look for something much more basic and under the radar. They want to know that when you’re on the group ride, you’re talking about their product. They want to see comments and posts and tweets that mention the day-to-day value of their service. They want to hear that YOU are telling OTHER PEOPLE about what they sell.

It’s not that hard, but it’s really hard. Sharing the benefits of your sponsored products with other people will keep your sponsors happy. Sharing your awesomeness and incredible wattage on the Big Climb … not so much. By helping the people who help your team, everyone wins. So as the ad says, “Just do it.”

§ 47 Responses to What do sponsors want?

  • chris says:

    One of my friends who owns a shop and “sponsored” a handful of us in our local flailings sat down with me for a beer about 13 years ago. He wanted to run a shop club/team that was both registered with our provincial body and insured. The main focus of his questions were how to present it and operate. My advice to him at the time was “Ignore all of the ‘serious’ racers.” (By serious I mean typical local masters crowd)

    If you look at the customer base of the typical shop the vast majority of sales are to entry level or mid level sales and customers. We focused the club on getting new riders involved and learning about group riding.

    Within two years his sales almost doubled. The size of the club is consistently around 75-100 strong and separates now into three levels of group rides (who all start together). There is everything from 13-80 year olds (two 80 year old guys, one who rode Paris-roubaix in the 50’s)
    , newbies to nationals racers, who all are loyal customers.

    Race teams typically are too inwardly focused to be good ambassadors for a shop.

    • fsethd says:

      Exactly. Also, racers don’t talk that much. They’re too busy training. Club riders enjoy speaking to other humans while they pedal. They exchange information and talk up the things they like, especially sponsors. Racers are also notoriously cheap. They will choose the lowest price over the sponsor’s product even with a discount. And their loyalty is often for shit, especially Cat 1 and Cat 2 dreamers who think they’re on a stepping stone to a pro contract at age 28. Forget about the people who are serious about themselves, because they’ll almost never be serious about your bike shop.

    • channel_zero says:

      Racers are probably the single worst kind of customer at the average bike shop. They are cheap, disloyal, and generally extremely difficult to close on a sale, and, generally, service their own bikes. At least in SoCal, they are generally terrible ambassadors for the sport, never attracting new customers to the shop…. Wanky excepted.

      For the delusional Wall Street Exec dreaming of how cool it would be to own a bike shop with the millions made from your State-funded finance endeavours, send €30,000 for my bike-shop-success-consulting services to the Nigerian Prince who emailed you yesterday.

  • girl on a bike says:

    I couldn’t have said it better myself, Seth.

    I have always said that the most important things for a amateur team it to “give back” to it’s sponsors and the community and being positive role models and ambassadors while on the bike and off.

    I see that so many “sponsored” riders lose sight of that. I’ve spoken to the head guys at one of the biggest bike companies in the USA and he even said that they don’t care about race podiums and race resumes of amateur riders. They pay the pros for that. What they want is to see their representatives being positive role models and ambassadors in the community.

    Amateur riders really need to have a reality check and see that sponsors want to grow their name/product in the cycling community. The *sponsored* riders should be an example that racing and riding our bikes is FUN, and that bringing people into a *welcoming sport* should be the priority. Not one full of aggro and elitist attitudes.

    Many elites/ex-pros can’t get it in their head that they aren’t being paid to race anymore (not all, but clearly several of them). They feel entitled instead of realizing how lucky they are to get money to continue to be able to race, free kits, bikes, etc when the majority of riders out there have to pay for all these themselves. Sponsors are giving it to them as a part of their marketing and adviertising budgets. So if the riders aren’t doing that, then they are just dead weight.

    • fsethd says:

      I agree completely. It kills me that after all of our local races people post their podium pictures and throw in a few hashtags for their sponsors, as if that’s representing. What riders need to do is slow down and talk to people, educate them about services and products, and show that it’s a good time — as you said, that it’s “fun.”

      We are happy when people simply recognize us and know what we do. We don’t care who wins the race, or at least not from the standpoint of our services. Some of the best investment dollars anywhere are not in the amateur sport but in the clubs, where it’s still sociable, where there’s no drama, and where people have the time to exchange information.

      It’s pretty hard to talk about a sponsor when your nose is on the stem and you’re drooling snot at 32 mph.

    • channel_zero says:

      They feel entitled instead of realizing how lucky they are to get money to continue to be able to race, free kits, bikes, etc when the majority of riders out there have to pay for all these themselves.

      The lucky ones getting money, most are being paid less than a bar tender with no employee benefits! The last time I heard, maybe 3 mountain bike riders in the U.S. are paid a living wage. The rest spend to be involved in the sport. Road racing is better, but not much. The federation set things up this way intentionally.

      • fsethd says:

        True, but at the masters level and for the vast majority of Cat 1/Cat 2 racers, it’s a hobby lifestyle they choose, not a vocation. Sponsors make it easier to pursue the hobby, so you’d think it would be easy to show some love. But it isn’t …

        • Whenever I think too much about sponsorship and hear amateur racers whine and feel entitled, I think “does Joe Schmoe whose hobby is bowling expect someone to buy his ball and shoes and pay his lane and league fees? How about Ed Jones whose hobby is golf? Or Sam Spade whose hobby is surfing?” Why do we underwrite the hobby of amateur bike racers but not the hobby of others who participate in amateur competitive sports?

          • fsethd says:

            Because bike racers come the closest to “being pro” of any other fake sport hobby group. Weekend hackers can’t play Augusta or Pebble Beach for the most part, and they certainly can’t play a few rounds with Tiger. But cyclists are so close being “pro” that they imagine they really are pro, so they create a verisimilitude that reinforces their delusions. Of course they’re no closer to Sagan than Freddy Bumblefuck is to Tiger Woods, but it’s the image that matters.

            Amateurs have teams, uniforms, and equipment that is SO PRO, the only thing missing are the lungs, legs, heart, mentality, and ability.

  • Ward Thompson says:

    Yeah, man, I’ d like to dedicate my totally awesome sprunt victory today to my training partner, Eddie. He’s the vicious pit bull on my street who chases me on my bike helping me build speed and power. Eddie is healthy because he uses our sponsor, Adobe Veterinary Clinic.

  • ipdamages says:

    Thanks, Seth. When I went to my CEO and made my case to sponsor my team this year, it was never discussed whether anyone podiumed at Chuck Pontius or PV Hill Climb, or even San Dimas or nationals. Neither of the two crowdfolks at the podium for those magical moments can see the sponsor’s names other than the one across the chest, anyway.

    • fsethd says:

      Perfect. It’s word of mouth, not blab-of-Facebook. And you don’t have to win to be an ambassador. From the sponsor’s perspective, just talk about our service when it’s appropriate. People outside the sport don’t know and could care less — even those inside the sport roll their eyes after a certain point.

  • Rick says:

    Yup. That’s the math. It is funny to me how many cyclists don’t think about it.

    • fsethd says:

      It’s because they’re just trying to calculate their discount above and beyond the discount that the shop is already giving them.

  • Tom Paterson says:

    Excellent comments.

    If I were a sponsor, I would underwrite non-racer group rides– possibly in the form of providing sag support for regular and “special event” beginner-and-up group rides.

    There are a couple of local bike orgs known for bringing along newbies. I’m proud to be a member of one of them. And, FWIW, when the alums come together, you don’t have to listen too hard to hear the medals jingle.

    “Hail the civilians!”

    Thanks, Mr. Wanky

  • Joe says:

    Good read. Love the concept of promoting new and returning riders. I’m embarrassed by about 90% of the riders in my local, non-racing club. Won’t even give you a hello, or go to hell when they pass you. Or see you at a group ride. Wish they’d take the jersey off. And then they wonder why so many people are going MTB.

  • jorgensen says:

    I guess I am old fashioned. My view was when wearing the team jersey, (yes this was from a time before the term team kit) one had the responsibility to conduct oneself in a manner that reflected well for the sponsor. Winning races was part of it, but being gracious was more important.

  • CW says:

    Good read. And I have to say that the SPY folks do a good job of this too. Coming from Texas I hadn’t heard of SPY a few years ago now it’s all I own. And when I’m back riding in Texas I still don’t see much there, you guys need to fix that!

    • fsethd says:

      SPY is great stuff, agreed. Part of the team’s ethos is to be a good ambassador for the brand. Win bike races if you can, but first and foremost show people that riding is fun!

  • Winemaker says:

    Couldn’t have said it better…several years ago I had a Corporate VIP deep on the hook,took his group to a medium sized local race and the Amgen thang, and they said, “You need how much for this?”…the rest of the conversation was centered around how rude and self centered the Cat 1/2 Pros were that they were introduced to…too bad, it hasn’t changed much in the last few decades.

  • Bob Young says:

    Count yourself as one of the good sponsored riders. My next pair if glasses will be SPY because of your comments.

  • cannibal says:

    What sponsors want is to have the wisdom and intent of their support underscored by the actions of those who fly their branded flag; don, ingest or otherwise use their products in the scope of their multifaceted lives; and behave in such a way that those in the community see their actions and want to emulate them. It’s more about a day-to-day way of living than about bravado on a hidden 4 corner crit in Pacoima, which includes driving the front on group rides (not waiting for the sprint), stopping to help others, encouraging new riders to assimilate into the peloton safely, and being grateful to do what we get to do because we are all privileged.

    it’s also about sharing the positive aspects related to their products in the most organic and honest of ways, not hashtags and faux expressions of gratitude in a post or tweet.

    Mostly, its about human connections and the positivity that can be shared amongst new and old friends, which leads to more positive interactions and experiences for others. Sponsors want to connect with people on the most personal of levels, in their normal, day to day lives.

    Essentially, the actions, demeanor and spirit a team rider brings to every day is the most powerful endorsement for any sponsor, if the rider is happy, conscientious, deferential and clubs baby seals to death (but, only after apologizing first).

    • fsethd says:

      Recently I’ve been doing more slow rides with one or two local teammates. Sometimes it’s with other riders, sometimes it’s just us. Slowing down greatly facilitates conversation in a way that having your nose stuck to the stem doesn’t. That’s where discussions about products and services takes place, not interval training up VdM. Sponsors want people to engage with their products, especially in the small niche of road racing, where everyone knows the only real connections are personal ones.

  • Sponsorship should drive not only word of mouth but, most importantly, sales! That’s the bottom line. No one sponsors a team or club long-term if there is no measurable ROI. A logo on a jersey does not translate to sales. Active promotion of your sponsors promotes sales.

    When our team made the transition from a road racing team (with 40 members) to a multi-discipline team of road racers, mountain bikers, cyclocrossers, and recreational road riders (who lead all our club rides), our sponsors were included in the decision-making process and were thrilled, because we offer a wider range of exposure than just a road racing team. Our 25-member sponsored team actively promotes our sponsors through sampling, events, word-of-mouth, and media/social media promotion. We also strive to develop long-term relationships with our sponsors. We don’t hop from sponsor to sponsor each year based on the best deal.

    Sponsorship is a relationship and there should be as much give as get.

    • fsethd says:

      Totally agree, but sales in the road racing scene for local sponsors are driven by word of mouth. If people aren’t having vibrant, engaged conversations about the products and services they use, there’s no way that the little dab on the jersey is going to close a sale. People get enthusiastic when they engage, and it’s not engagement when racers “give back” by empty hashtags and vacuous tweets. If you get product or use a service, then the way you pay it forward is by talking about it honestly.

  • Dogg says:

    Encomium-had to look that one up. Wife said “nice word”


  • fsethd says:

    Here’s a very cool comment by a guy who’s been supporting cycling for a very long time, sent to me in an email and published with his permission:

    Hi Seth. In reading your post on this topic I reflected on the history of club sponsorship by my firm. It has endured for about fifteen years for one club or another, and sometimes several. We never did it for business, but rather just to provide some support for organizations that are without much funding and whose organizers work very hard with little to show for it other than personal enjoyment and a sense of satisfaction. We feel that we do a little good, and our return is that feeling and nothing more. I can also say that no one knows my name from what is on a jersey. Funny micro world we live in.

    Enjoy your posts, and have no idea how you have the time.

  • Don Walker says:

    Another nail on the head!

    As my old coach used to say;”bicycle racers are the dregs of society”
    Butch Stilson (R.I.P)

    I’ve never seen more folks with a handout for free than Cat. 4’s or Masters 1-3. As a framebuilder, I’ve heard the phrase “build me one for free and I’ll ride it around and advertise for you” so many times that I swear if someone says it to me now, I’ll punch them in the face.

    I sponsor my own racing team out of my love for the sport, yet it still comes with its let downs of people being, well, people. All I ask for is that they represent my brand professionally on *and* off the bike. That’s it. I don’t expect anymore return than that.

    Although reading some of the comments above, maybe a club roster might be more profitable… I’ll look into that.

    • fsethd says:

      To expect the average bike racer to do anything “professionally” is right up there with expecting to find unicorn farts and pixie dust under your pillow.

      The professional photographers who spend hours at races are also repeatedly offered the “free exposure” that generous racers provide by stealing their copyrighted work and plastering it on FB, on promotional materials, and of course team web sites.

      Kind of makes you wonder why Disney doesn’t let us promote their registered trademarks for free as well, right?

  • amos says:

    “The professional photographers who spend hours at races are also repeatedly offered the “free exposure” that generous racers provide by stealing their copyrighted work and plastering it on FB, on promotional materials, and of course team web sites.”

    right a story on this – too much photo stealing entitlement for the clueless.

    On the flip side there are too many photographers that make it way too easy for peeps to steal there photos and post too many pics outside of their stores and screw other photographers in the process.

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