As the depth of the sport has steadily grown, many age group athletes at the pointy end of the amateur ranks have performance progressions that may have started to plateau, due to the lack of recovery when fitting training around work and other commitments. For many, the logical step is cutting down work. The term ‘weekend warrior’ is certainly not accurate when you apply it to the top half of the age group field in competitive events. Furthermore, if your definition of ‘pro’ means not working full-time to focus more on training, then there would certainly be a lot of age-group athletes on the podium falling into the ‘semi-pro’ category. In fact, there is often very little in lifestyle that separates some top age group athletes and many athletes with a professional license. Both take their training very seriously while fitting in another income source around triathlon to support the habit.
In the more populated age-groups categories, there is an increasing respect given amongst the triathlon community for those who can stand atop their age group podium and rightly so. The times, particularly in long course non-drafting events that many of these age-group winners are doing, would have won them races outright in the not so distance past. In addition to training like a pro, many amateurs, particularly the younger generation with a solid understanding of social media platforms, are getting a degree of sponsor support. The general feel I get from pro athletes is a sense of resentment towards the sponsorship of age group competitors. My take? All power to them. If the athlete provides value to the sponsor then why shouldn’t they be ‘sponsored’ and many of the age-group athletes I’m aware of who do have a level of sponsorship, primarily in the form of free or heavily discounted products, provide a great level of exposure for the companies that support them.
The more serious you become, the more the expense of triathlon adds up. So how can you start to break into the category of age-grouper who is getting some support to start to offset some of the cost? Since I began taking triathlon seriously as an age-grouper in 2008/2009 and getting some free gear and discounts to my now 6th year as professional, where with the help of my BPM management I now enjoy the security of some salary paying sponsors, I’ve slowly gained a more solid understanding of the sponsorship game. Here’s what I’ve learnt:
Results matter, but they’re not a pre-requisite for gaining or retaining sponsorship.
They are but one of many means to gain positive brand exposure for sponsors. There are pro athletes like Jesse Thomas and Linsey Corbin who I really admire from a business perspective. Both athletes have had great careers so far but were faced with the unfortunate circumstance of missing nearly an entire year due to injury. Unlike most professionals who would typically lose the majority of their sponsorship during this time, I think they both came out of these periods with more sponsors. Instead of lying around sulking that they couldn’t be training or racing, they simply used their time to heavily promote their sponsors in alternative ways including writing articles for magazines, creating videos, creative photos on Instagram and utilising all the other social media platforms to maintain relevance and exposure for their sponsors. They probably did more for their brands that support them during their time off racing then when they are racing. The same can be applied for athletes of all levels when trying to gain sponsorship. If gaining top results is not a reality or is not currently happening, then think very hard on how you can gain exposure for potential sponsor support in other ways. Formulate a business plan and get working on it.
Build a personal relationship
As mentioned, I’m fortunate to have had Evan Gallagher from BPM Athlete Management as my manager pretty much since I turned pro. Early on, I figured that I should leave the entire sponsorship and self-promotional side of things to Evan. Despite Evan’s tireless efforts, with no real athlete reputation, a limited catalogue of results and no personal contact from myself to potential sponsors, we struggled to gain the support I needed to really focus on triathlon as a full-time job. Once I woke up to the importance of building a personal relationship with current and potential sponsors, we could use Evan’s business acumen with a personal touch from myself to see a rapid increase in sponsorship. Instead of just being a random name amongst many athletes I was someone they had actually met. Face to face time, and consistent personal contact is integral to gaining and sustaining sponsorship.
Don’t oversell your results or what you can actually do in return for sponsorship. It’s too small an industry. For example, less discerning brands might not know initially that you saying you won a certain race actually refers to winning your age group in a certain race. When they find out the difference, they may not be stoked. Additionally, regardless of whether it’s in a written contract or not, honour what you’ve agreed to. It doesn’t take long to earn a bad reputation amongst industry sponsors.
I know many pros and age group athletes who have bought followers on Instagram or Twitter. It doesn’t take much to work out whether the athletes’ following matches the level of engagement and who has purchased a few thousand triathlon fans from India.
Think outside the box
Within the tri-industry there are the common brands that everyone tries to gain some support from. The pie is only so big and so your slice, if you get one, will likely be small. Some of the best sponsorships often come from outside the industry. There could be a lot to be gained from finding a company who is only willing to hand out one slice to triathlon and you might get to eat that whole piece yourself.
Thinking outside the box also applies to how you promote your sponsors. The typical ways on social media certainly have value work but sometimes get put to shame when an athlete like Trevor Wurtele comes out with a new and innovative way to do entertaining race reports on Youtube.
Avoid burning bridges
All good or bad things come to end. Sometimes when a brand tells you they won’t be renewing sponsorship or when you want to move on the temptation is there to lay the boot in and give them a verbal spray as a parting gift only to later realise how lucky you were to have them at all. Even worse, you may need or want go back to them to potentially work together again down the track. Understand it’s business and try to part on pleasant terms.
Are you actually getting any benefit?
Companies are very clued in to triathlete egos and the desire to show they’re ‘sponsored’ to their mates and training partners. So, they offer discounted products in return for the athlete to promote on social media, on their race kit etc. It’s brilliantly simple but effective. The brands would rarely lose any money on what they’re selling at a discounted price, in fact most still make money on their sales but gain free exposure. If it genuinely benefits the athletes involved by saving them money on products they would buy regardless then that’s a great win for both sides. Of course, if you’re buying and using that discounted product simply because it’s part of a ‘sponsorship’ deal then it’s not really sponsorship.
Time spent vs actual benefits
Are the blogs, daily Instagram pics, cheesy Facebook posts and tweets worth it? If you’re spending hours a week on promoting yourself or brands that give you some product that time may be better spent doing a few extra hours of paid work that could allow you to purchase that product you’re promoting many times over as well as fund the weekly shopping.
Companies and athletes – be realistic!
With the rise of sponsored age-group athletes, there has definitely been some effect for pros on sponsorship. Some Aussie industry sponsors in particular, expect similar logo placement and promotional activity from professionals as they get from the age-group athletes they support for product sponsorship. It’s not realistic. If the pro has salary paying sponsors it’s not fair to those sponsors to treat someone giving far less in the same way. However, that in no way means that the pro can’t add great exposure and value. Perhaps I’m biased but what equipment athletes use that are better than me has a huge bearing on what products I would consider buying. I don’t need those pros to actively promote those products for me to notice what they’re using as it’s still obvious via inadvertent cross-promotional work or when I see their equipment at races or in training. In fact, if they’re not actively promoting I realise that they probably using that product out of choice, which actually inspires me even more to consider purchasing.
Being realistic also goes for the athlete. Shooting for the moon won’t necessarily leave you amongst the stars when looking for sponsorship. It could end up in the conversation ending very quickly. Try to get a feel for what your market value is, for sure, start a little higher than what you expect to get but within reason for what you can offer in return.
Remember that you’re selling to a potential sponsor what you can do for them, not what they could do for you.
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