Sponsorship is a Two-Way Street
By Steve Crandall
Vice President, Sales & Marketing
Ashaway Racket Strings
Like most sports equipment manufacturers, Ashaway sponsors many players at the amateur level. I made a special point to meet with "our" racquetball players at the recent U.S. Open in Memphis, to hear their concerns, and to express ours. I also spent time talking with management from other corporate sponsors, and with some of their players as well.
You'd think that sponsorships are a good deal all around: the player gets free equipment, in exchange for which the sponsor gets bargain-priced exposure. Instead, I heard a lot of dissatisfaction on both sides of the relationship. Players' comments ran along the general lines of:
"Sponsors are always trying to get you to sell, sell, sell. They're only interested in what we can do for them." and, "These 'team' meetings are a waste of time. It's all one-way communication, from the sponsor to the players."
Surprisingly, I also heard players complain that they are not given enough information about the products and the company they are supposed to represent. These players feel they're treated like low-level employees, rather than "part of the team."
On the other side, sponsors' complaints included:
"These 'team' meetings always turn into gripe sessions for our players, who don't want to hear what we've got to say." and, "All we ever hear from players is 'what else can I get from you?' They don't seem interested in the payback side of the relationship."
Both sides, it seems, have nearly identical complaints: the other guy isn't listening, and isn't holding up his or her end of the bargain.
Let's step back and review the foundations of the sponsorship relationship.
Companies want to sponsor players who will represent them in a positive manner, and who will help them sell products either directly (through active recommendations), or indirectly (by providing visibility). Specific selection criteria differ among manufacturers, but most are looking for players who: reach the semis or finals with a fair degree of consistency; are responsible and well-spoken; and are respected by, and influential among their peers.
From the sponsor's point of view, the player has three main responsibilities:
In addition, the sponsor may want the player to use specific equipment, in order to support the company's marketing objectives. This may mean asking the player to trade up periodically, to provide visibility for a new product model. It is never in the sponsor's interest to give the player less-than-excellent equipment, for it is by winning that the player best serves the sponsor's objectives.
- The player should display the sponsor's logo on equipment, clothing, gear bag, etc.
- The player should talk with his peers-both friends and competitors-about the sponsor's equipment, always placing it in the most favorable light. The level of direct selling and persuasion expected may vary with the sponsor and the individual.
- When given the opportunity (such as, when winning a tournament), the player should promote the sponsor to a wider audience. This generally entails thanking the sponsor publicly (along with the player's family, coach, lucky troll doll, and anyone else who helped him or her win).
From the player's point of view, the sponsor should provide:
While players all want the best equipment available, some resist being moved into new models. They may feel comfortable using the old model, and fear that having to adjust to a new one will harm their game. Both sides should try to accommodate each other on this point. It does nobody any good if the player loses; on the other hand, there may be little benefit to the sponsor if the player wins with a discontinued product.
- The best equipment possible, in sufficient quantities.
- Enough technical information about the equipment to be able to appreciate and explain its benefits fully.
- An opportunity to become a true member of the sponsor's promotional "team," possessing real influence. The sponsor must be willing to explain marketing objectives and strategies, and must be willing to listen carefully to players' suggestions. Sponsored players are often a company's best source of input when it comes to new product development, and may be in a better position to know what kinds of marketing "messages" will be persuasive among players.
Sometimes, sponsors provide players with equipment that is still under development and not yet for sale to the public. In doing so, the sponsor hopes to give players a competitive edge or, at the very least, expects to obtain feedback about what works and what could be improved. Again, the intent is to provide mutual benefits, so both parties must be willing to make concessions.
The opportunity to try development-stage products is one way in which sponsors give players advance or inside information. "Team meetings" at tournaments are another. Both parties should use these meetings for give and take: they are the ideal opportunity to get information and air concerns. Be prepared to talk, but be prepared to listen as well.
Should sponsors help make players famous? There's nothing sponsors like better. All sponsors hope their amateur players will become a Sudsy or a Cliff, a Michelle or a Cheryl, and that they'll be able to say truthfully, "I owe it, in part, to my sponsor's great equipment." The key to getting there is working together, and remembering that communication has to flow both ways.
This article previously appeared in Racquetball Magazine.