Enough with the sponsorship requests already. Cycling might be the only sport I know of where amateurs and hobbyists hunt out sponsors. There was a point in my racing endeavors that I thought sponsorship and racing for companies was so important not only for myself, but also for my sponsors. But now that I’ve seen it from every side, I’ll never ask for it again.
If you don’t know who I am or don’t think I know what I’m talking about, here’s a quick history. Turned “Pro” in 2002, raced mostly endurance mountain bike events but also raced cross, road, downhill, and slalom, I worked in the industry at shops, owned a shop, worked for two brands, created a brand, was the creator and race director at The Boston Rebellion UCI race, and managed a large Boston club. I’ve seen sponsorship from every angle over the years, both getting it and giving it. And here’s what I’ve learned.
First up, sponsorship is supposed to generate revenue. Pure and simple. It’s not a loophole for free stuff or big discounts. The entire goal with sponsorship is to generate more money for the company. Keep that in mind.
James Huang says it best, “sponsorship is not about you.” Yet everyone still makes it 100% about themselves. Every sponsorship resume starts out with the same BS that you’ll provide a huge amount of exposure, you want to build a lasting relationship, you’ll put a tiny logo on a jersey that no one will see, and you’ll do all these social media posts. The best part is that you don’t even try very hard. You use the same form letter, but change the company name using Find and Replace. Basically, you’re just trying get the best deal on whatever products you can. But then the reality sets in, and those social media posts rarely happen, or you decide you’re taking a “different direction” when you get your teeth kicked in at the first race. Then, next year, you’ll start the process over again hunting for an even better deal.
The other great pitch I see is that you’re a pro and you’re starting a pro team with an elite amateur team for development. But is your team really a pro team? Probably not. It sounds like it’s just a club filled with faster riders all working together to score the best deals possible. Listen, I get it. You have a pro license and looking pro with tons of sponsors is just as important as being a pro. We all want to be like Nino. But for most pros, myself included, this is still a hobby. We all have to go to work on Monday.
So let’s talk about the number one thing everyone says they’ll do, create exposure. Every racer says they’ll increase brand awareness. That’s great, but who is your audience? Do you reach 25k people, 10k people, or even 2k? Not a chance in hell. If you’re a MTB racer in New England, your market reach is maybe a few hundred at best, and that’s if you’re well known and you’ve been around a long time. So let’s assume you’re well known and you’ve been racing in the area for ages. You offered GU a logo on the back of your jersey. Who sees that logo? Maybe the same few people you race near each race, maybe. So you’ve exposed GU to 3 people. See what I’m getting at here? Hundreds of people aren’t seeing you eating GU and going on to win a race. “Yeah, but I gram all my GU products and all my cycling buddies favorite my posts.” Oh, you mean all your cycling buddies who have super specific tastes when it comes to race food, and who also are all “sponsored” by a nutrition brand.
That’s the other thing, everyone seems to be “sponsored” by some cycling brand. It doesn’t matter if it’s a local pro or a beginner class rider. Everyone’s a sponsored rider these days. And that makes your market reach even smaller. Your job as a sponsored rider is to get more customers. But, as more riders get sponsorships, it just leads to more sponsorship request. Joe sees that all his peers are sponsored by Brand A, so instead of buying Brand A, he requests sponsorships from brand A and all the other similar brands using his form letter from above.
Back to your exposure and products. When a product is a low cost item, say GU, grips, Bar Flys, and even tires. Sponsorship is sometimes justified, especially if they are giving you a discount on the items. On low price items if you convert just one person, they have probably made a profit. So, if you get a few boxes of GU for free or a discount and give some out to friends and they start buying GU, then the sponsorship worked. If you don’t get anyone to convert to GU with your free product then it was a low cost attempt for them (if you bought it at a discount, they made a profit, they are just selling consumer direct at wholesale or employee pricing). In the long run, when it comes to these low cost items, if you neeeeeed free grips, then you neeeeeed to be reminded that this is your hobby and you should just buy them. Seriously, just go buy the grips you like and tell your friends.
As the product price goes up, the sponsorship dynamics change. For large price items, say wheels, groups, and bikes for example, the game changes even more. As much as I’d love a Specialized sponsorship and quiver of S-Works, they would never see a return on investment if they sent me even just one frame, I bet they wouldn’t even see a return on a free pair of shoes.* My market reach is small, the items I’d be trying to promote are expensive, and everyone I know either already owns a Specialized or has a “sponsorship” with a different brand.
If you do have sponsorships or partnerships let me give you some advice. Stop telling people you’re sponsored. Nothing is worse than asking someone how they like their tires, and the first words out of their mouth is, “I’m sponsored by them and blah blah blah.” Seriously, your job isn’t to tell people you’re sponsored. Your job is to say, “These tires are awesome. I’ve used them all season and they are great in nearly every condition. I’m going to try their [other model] next.” But if you post stuff saying look at all the stuff my sponsor sent me, it almost guarantees that I’m never going take your advice on a product. If you’re lucky enough to have product sent to you, don’t show that off to the world. Instead, show what you’re doing with it. When Shimano sends you a build kit, post a video of you building your bike, or let people know you’re excited for the new brakes, post a video showing how easy it is to set up Di2 or whatever. But for the love of god, stop telling everyone how much free shit you got.
However, I do feel there are times when sponsorship does work. Mostly for new bike companies and companies not related to cycling. More so for companies not related to cycling. When a new bike company enters the market, the best way to get the word out is through riders, not racers, but riders in general. That’s because racers expect sponsorships. But expecting them to give you everything or anything for free is ridiculous. You’re just not going to provide them with the returns they need (see above about your exposure).
When it comes to products that are not related to bikes, that’s where you can probably make a difference. Coffee and beer are great examples (but this department is already pretty saturated, so start thinking of others). They are low cost but highly profitable, creating room for both sponsor and sponsored rider to benefit. If you can create a partnership with one of those companies you may even be able to generate revenue for not only the company but also yourself and team. For example, Acme Coffee might create a roast named after your team and use part of the proceeds to buy or sponsor your clothing. And you may be able to sell their coffee through your team website and at events, generating revenue for both sides. Then you can use that revenue to offset costs while building a customer base for your sponsor. Think outside the box on this, food companies, ice cream companies, etc. Keep in mind, a jersey pocket logo isn’t going to do Jack. But riding in a kit completely dedicated to one company may actually help them. No one cares that your team has 10 bike brands all over your kit. And when you do, it just blends in with the rest of the crowd. But a single ice cream company will get people’s attention. And since it doesn’t conflict with others own bike sponsors, they probably buy a pint.
Keep in mind what sponsorship is about when asking for sponsors, “it’s not about you.” As much as you’d like a sponsorship and a lifetime of free crullers from Lil’s, they don’t need you. They already have a line out the door.
*Specialized, if you’re reading this, feel free to prove me wrong, 42.5 shoes, 52cm road/cx, medium MTBs
** I know you’re thinking, “dude, you got sponsors all over you in the pictures on this site.” While it may look like that, keep in mind, these things. At Bar Fly I was an employee and I own Ride Maple. As for the others, most of them were or are sponsors of the events I hosted, like The Boston Rebellion UCI Race. Kenda has a been a long time sponsor of the race and the series in general in New England. Stages sponsored the race and is a power meter I strongly recommend for training. Plus I also sell Stages for athletes. And Flat Black Coffee has been slinging coffee at our events since the beginning of time.