Hi friends. My name is Sara, and among a few other sharp tools in my Swiss Army Knife, I’m a strategic communication professional. In that capacity, I’ve been helping people and brands share their stories in ways that generate word of mouth (ideally, positive) since the mid-90s.
I’m also an active MotoAmerica team sponsor (my business, Red Currant Collective, sponsors riders and contributes sponsorship dollars to teams) and an active sponsorship seeker and manager for our own MotoAmerica team, CW Moto Racing.
Presumably you’re reading this because you’re a motorsports athlete looking for support from sponsors to help fund your racing activities. You may have visions of dropping emails to your favorite brands, asking them for money, and virtual checks landing by the thousands in your Venmo or PayPal accounts. If you’re a little more realistic, you may be imagining boxes of gear arriving on your doorstep in exchange for putting a sticker on your bike.
The sooner we let go of those expectations, the better.
Instead, let’s start with looking at your job description as a professional (or aspiring) athlete.
You may see your job description as:
As a sponsored athlete, my job is to ride the motorcycle around the racetrack as fast as I can.
When really, that is only one part of your job. Let’s try that again:
As a sponsored athlete, my job is to
- Ride the motorcycle around the racetrack as fast as I can.
- Share my story/stories, so that fans get excited about my on-track performance and the person behind that performance and pay attention to what I’m doing.
- Represent myself, my sport and the brands I love authentically AND with professionalism.
- Share how the brands I love (and ultimately work with) help me do #1 better / faster / safer (whether that’s on or off the track).
Let’s break that down.
Number one is not my territory. That’s why you ride the bike and I schlep your tires. I’ll let you figure that one out.
The rest: I can help with that.
To borrow a line from Field of Dreams: If you build it they will come. To expand on that line, though, with an update for 2021: if you build it they will come, very very slowly (unless you are in the tiny percentage of people who do something that lands you on television)(and that may help or hurt, depending).
The other 99.9999998% of us must get comfortable with attracting and maintaining attention. Attention has a chance of converting to audience and your audience is a valuable asset to potential sponsors.
When you’re attracting and retaining attention, you must:
- Build and nurture your audience. Having people who listen when you talk (and value what you have to say) is one of the items of value that you have to share with your sponsors. Make sure you own your social identity online, that you’re easy to find when someone looks specifically for you, and that you show up in circles where motorsport fans and enthusiasts are already assembled.
- Amplify the attention you receive (to attract more). Watch for ways to show up frequently and with some regularity online (and ultimately, when you’re ready for it, in the press). This means things like writing and sharing social media posts regularly showing all parts of your program: behind the scenes, training work, travel, race rounds on track and behind the scenes and then building a post-race habit for sharing highlights and then amplifying (sharing) any coverage you receive or mentions you get from others in social.
- Work for positive word of mouth (and be ready for negative, critical, and crisis-based attention). Positive mentions and outcomes are our goal, and setbacks happen. Be ready to make the best of bot. When something bad happens damage (including to partner brands) may be done in a matter of minutes with massive virality given the network effect of social media. Be ready to handle the “bad days” in social media with a calm, professional hand (and in partnership with your sponsor brands and teammates).
Authenticity and professionalism
There are a lot of layers to this, but as both a sponsor and someone who has been a sponsored athlete myself over the years, I cannot tell you how important it is that you operate with both authenticity and professionalism. If your life and career experience mean that you aren’t sure how to put that into practice, I encourage you to find a coach, mentors, or other people you can watch and learn from to help you build this part of your toolkit.
As a self-sponsored privateer, paying your own way personally or with the help of friends and family, your reputation is yours and yours alone and what you do with it is your business. You can be 100% you – totally authentic – and as professional or unprofessional as you care to be.
But the moment you shift gears and pursue sponsorship your actions and reputation on- and offline affect the business of every patch on your leathers, every sticker on your bike, and every brand you’ve mentioned in social media (whether past or present supporters). Your reputation is your business, and your business is your reputation (and riding that motorcycle as fast as you can). Being authentic is important: for people to connect with you and your story, you must be “the real you” when you move through the world including in your social and digital life. And being mindful that other peoples’ businesses depend on the choices you make is an element of professionalism that you must embrace for other brands to trust you with theirs (and give you gear or money).
- Reputation is contagious. I hope this is clear by now: your behavior reflects on the brands you work with, and brands will do diligence on you prior to signing you as an athlete. We’ve passed on potentially talented riders for our team because of the risk their online and offline behavior presents to our brands and sponsor brands. Expect brands to do their diligence on you because they must trust you with their brand in order to do business with you.
- Professionalism includes how you collaborate. You are “the talent” and it’s true that this sport doesn’t operate without riders. And part of the rider’s job is helping the rest of the team do what they’re best at. At best, be a great partner to your collaborators. Actively work to make your teammates jobs easier, and they’ll do their best work for you. At least, do not make their work harder.
- Sponsor obligations are your business obligations. Say what you’ll do, do what you’ll say (and when you can, overdeliver by a little bit). Get ahead of sponsor needs (like end of season recaps) and be ready to show the value you’ve provided to make renewal and expansion conversations easier.
Ambassadorship part one: understanding why brands sponsor sports (and why they don’t)
Brands only very rarely write checks because they believe you’re special and potential-filled and want to be a part of your potential being realized.
Most brands write checks because
- you’ve shown them what value you will provide for their brand and they believe you can deliver
- their team trusts you with their brand and its reputation, and
- they believe you’re their best bet to reach the audience you’ve convinced them is of value to their brand.
Targeted sponsorships (where brands sponsor you to race) are few and far between and rarely available to the lion’s share of even professional athletes. The rest of us live in the world of content and product sponsorship, where as athletes and teams our participation in the sport provides opportunities for partner brands to show up in new and exciting ways to the consumer audience, and we have to do the work to make that happen.
Ambassadorship part two: delivering on sponsor obligations (aka you’re a content creator now)
Most athlete sponsorships today involve making a commitment to create content featuring partner brands and/or mention sponsors in social media. Think of these obligations as co-creation: you’re working with a brand partner to make sure you deliver on your sponsor obligations in line with their needs and brand standards.
These relationships may involve:
- Placement, where the brand or product is visible in your content but the content item is not specifically about the brand or product;
- Product integrated content, where the product is mentioned or worked into your content; and/or
- Branded content, where you’re creating entertainment content with a brand partner featuring their brand and / or product.
Some riders are most comfortable and happy posting workout selfies, an occasional sponsor shout-out, and doing a quick post-round report with some pictures. There are a slew of really successful professional riders who land sponsorship with that level of social and digital participation. Typically in that situation they’ve acquired a large following of fans and reaching that large following provides value for partner brands.
If you have a smaller (or newer) following, those lighter-touch approaches to social content may not provide enough value for partner brands to write you a check. This is where brands willing to provide you product are so important for athletes: you receive a benefit (that product reduces your costs to operate) and if you create content for that brand and the brand shares it, you’ve just gotten yourself in front of your partner brand’s audience. Some of their fans may follow you, and your audience and reach grows. Do this professionally and with excellence, and some of those product sponsors will, over time, begin to consider you for paid sponsorship.
Alright, team. I hope this has been helpful. If so, please pass it along to your rider friends (and let the Bison folks know you appreciate them pulling together this series! As a friend of Bison, I’m delighted to be able to participate). If you’re a team or a brand manager, and you’d like to share this with your athletes, visit our website for a slightly more comprehensive downloadable version you can tuck into your rider handbook or new rider welcome package. Finally, if you’re a potential sponsor who’d like to work with the team who wrote this opus on being a great sponsored athlete, we’d love to hear from you!
Header photo by Brian J Nelson
Sara Lobkovich is the founder and principal consultant at Red Currant Collective, a strategy and change consultancy that helps thinky-doers and status quo challengers create more impactful, joyful, and just workplaces. She’s also co-owner of CW Moto Racing and Counter Weight Motorsport, a pacific-northwest-based MotoAmerica team and motorcycle technology, performance and speed shop. She’s the creator and voice of The Moto Curious, a podcast that aims to increase access and inclusion in the motorsports community one Q&A at a time. Connect with her directly via LinkedIn or via email here.