Getting paid to play ultimate doesn't have to be a dream.
January 7, 2015 by Kyle Weisbrod in Analysis with 7 comments
Let’s face it, ultimate can be an expensive hobby. Competitive ultimate players are paying for uniforms and gear, team dues, tournament entry fees, and the biggest line item: travel. For a nationally competitive college team, individuals are paying upwards of $1,500/year to participate. And the costs can run even higher for top club teams, teams in areas that have to travel more, and teams that are invited to compete internationally.
Every year, these expenses force teams and leagues to take a look at their balance sheets and figure out ways to find revenues to support the habit. But with the recent growth in Ultimate, there is also a growing opportunity to reach out to businesses to form partnerships that help defray the costs of playing.
Most teams fail to secure sponsors because their pitches are not much more than thinly veiled pleas for someone else to pay for them to play ultimate. Identifying and attaining sponsorship partners takes some real thought and effort. But the work of gaining sponsors is worth it because it can not only lower your costs of playing but help you develop some valuable skills that will be applicable outside of the sport.
Last year, U of Washington Element worked with three separate partners: Runa (an energy drink company), Sprio App (a sports team management app developer), and Ren Fitness (a Seattle-based, ultimate-focused training specialist). While the structure of each deal varied with each sponsor, all the partnerships were very productive for both us and them. Based primarily on these experiences, here are some tips identifying and closing productive partnerships.
Take a hard look at what value you can provide potential sponsors
For-profit companies aren’t in the business of handing out money for nothing. You have to provide value. As the saying goes, “If you’re not paying for a product, you are the product.” And, if you are the product, you’ve got to find ways to make paying for your product as worthwhile as possible.
– Social Media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, website, etc): Work to extend your reach as far as possible. Part of doing that is providing consistently valuable content. If you’re a top team, you’ll probably draw a base of followers without much effort, but PoNY’s Twitter following shows that if you’re not great, you can at least be funny. Once you have a solid following and have established yourself as a trusted content provider, positive tweets about your sponsor serve as qualified recommendations to your followers.
– Uniforms: While uniform space is the most obvious benefit to pitch to sponsors, the truth is, that doesn’t result in very much exposure for the sponsor if your uniforms only get visibility at games. Here’s where investing in Ultiphotos photo packages or other media can pay dividends. Logos on uniforms become more valuable when pictures and video of your team doing cool stuff makes its way around social media.
– Events: If you host activities such as clinics and tournaments, provide opportunities at those events for your partners to gain exposure. Also quantify that exposure: provide estimates of the number of players and non-playing spectators and their demographics for your sponsor. You can even pitch “title” sponsorship for an event as a way to sweeten the pot.
– Your Players: There’s two sides to this. First, you have access to a large number of players and can use e-mail to reach them. This works particularly well for large leagues. Second, sponsors might need representatives for events. You can rally players to work for your sponsor partners.
Use your network to find sponsors
In the last article, I wrote about the network. Here’s a great place to put your network to use. Cold calling (or blind e-mailing) companies asking for money is, most often, not a great return on your time and effort. When selling something to someone (and you are selling when trying to obtain a partnership), emotional appeals (pathos) are often the hook that helps you pitch the logical appeal (logos) of value. For college teams, parents and alumni are often a great place to start your search for appropriate sponsors.
Identify sponsors that have value for and share the values of your team and audience
In order to connect your sponsor with your prospective audience, it’s going to be critical that the sponsor’s product is something that your audience might use. Even better is if the product is something that you believe in. Runa has signed on for another year with us, and we love the product. Not only is it an energy drink–a type of product that we we are using anyway–it’s organic and fair trade, which speaks to our team’s and community’s values. When we tweet or post on Facebook about Runa, it feels natural and authentic. We are exposing people in the community to a product that we think they’d appreciate and that feels like a win for everyone. So think about the types of products and services your team and community use on a regular basis and look for sponsorship partners that provide those.
Companies do more than sell products and services: they also hire
For leagues, one underutilized area of partnership is local employers. The Ultimate community is filled with young, smart, well-educated, and hard-working individuals. Recruiting job candidates can be expensive, and your league’s members are the exact demographic that many employers are looking to tap into. Moreover, job opportunities are a huge benefit to your league members. Connect with fast growing employers in the area and see where you can help each other.
Think beyond cash
It’s easy to get caught up in thinking that cash is the holy grail of sponsorship relationships. And, while cash is flexible, there are many other ways to structure a partnership that can provide as much or more value. If you follow tip #3 and your prospective sponsor provides a product or service that your members use regularly, in-kind donation of or discounts on the product can be just as good as a cash sponsorship. After all, not spending money on something is just like getting money that you would then spend on that thing. For leagues, discounts at local bars, restaurants, and local stores can be a valuable league benefit.
And some sponsors may want to provide you with something that you might need and include their brand on it. For example, a sponsor may want to purchase discs for everyone on your team/in your league with its logo on it. Don’t be so cash-oriented that you don’t explore other ways of structuring a partnership that can provide mutual benefit.
Don’t stop thinking about value after the deal is signed
You should be thinking of your sponsorship as a partnership. In order for that to work, you need to be constantly thinking not only “how can this business help my team?” but also “how can I help this business?”
When you go to tournaments with photographers, ask the photographers to get some shots with the logo on your uniforms visible, commit to searching through all the photos to find nice action shots with your team and the logo visible, and send them to the sponsor with information on how to purchase them. Take pictures of your team using your sponsors’ product and tweet them and post them to your Facebook page. Offer to assist at events where your sponsor may be in need of extra people. Generally, make efforts to go above and beyond the terms of your agreement. Not only does that engender good will, that frequent communication means that when you go back to ask for a renewal of the sponsorship, it’s not after a year of no contact.
Team and league marketing in Ultimate is in its infancy but with the increased awareness and exposure of the sport, opportunities to obtain sponsors are growing. You can offset your playing expenses without selling out if you can hold true to your values while working to provide value to potential sponsors.