Forget mailshots and sports agents, says Rich Allen – it’s all about who you know
I’ve been approached by several age-group athletes and young pro triathletes over the past few years asking me the same question: how does one get sponsors? The bottom line is that it’s not easy. It’s never been easy, but with more and more pros flooding the sport, there’s far more competition than there used to be. To top it off, there are many more races, so more athletes can say they’ve won an Ironman or ITU race when approaching a sponsor. Having been a pro for nearly 20 years, I’ve tried everything, and I’ve learned that there are bad ways to do things and ways that do yield some success. I’ve had my fair share of knockbacks, that’s for sure.
Most people start out the same way, as it seems the most logical. You write a CV with details of your results and aspirations, a summary of how you can help that sponsor and why they must sign you up right away. That’s certainly how I started out as a teenage pro triathlete. I spent every penny I had on glossy brochures and spent hours assembling hundreds of addresses and sending off CVs in hope. I wrote to everyone I could think of: Ford, British Airways, Coca-Cola and Cadbury, to name but a few. Perhaps I was aiming too high with these major brands, but I did also write to triathlon-related companies like PowerBar, HED, Trek and nearly 100 more.
On a positive note, not one of those companies turned me down. On the negative side, I didn’t hear back from a single one of the companies I wrote to. Not one! Talk about being despondent. I later discovered that these companies have thousands of these requests mailed to them every day and they just get thrown on to the pile never to be read. It’s not that they’re being rude, they just don’t have time to look at them all. So my advice would be: don’t waste your time doing this, and work on other angles of approach.
Another way to try to get sponsors is to hand all of the hassle over to someone else. A Jerry Maguire of the triathlon world, perhaps? However, there’s a problem with this approach: unless you’re Alistair Brownlee or Chrissie Wellington, an agent isn’t going to be able to get you the big bucks. If they can only get you a few thousand pounds, then their industry-standard 20 per cent isn’t going to make them rich. And they’re not going to put the effort in for peanuts, even though you might gladly take those peanuts.
They might come up with the odd deal as a spin-off from one of their star athletes, but then again, they might come up with nothing, and that will have wasted a whole lot of time on your end and mean that you’ve probably missed out on a contract for that year. The only time I’ve found a sports agent to work is when it’s someone who does it for fun, because they’re passionate about the sport and are after a few bits of free kit and a VIP pass rather than a pile of cash. They probably have a day job to make a living and you just might find their enthusiasm will help you out.
In my 20 years of doing triathlon professionally, the most valuable thing I’ve learned about sponsorship is that you simply have to have a direct line of contact with the person who makes the decisions about sponsorship within a company. Maybe your uncle plays golf with the marketing director or your daughter swims on the same team as the daughter of the CEO. You have to be able to put that CV directly into their hands and ask if they have five minutes to hear your story. They have to like the person who put you in contact with them, and they have to like you. It’s really the only way, so have a good think about who you know who might know that special person.
At the end of the day, never sell yourself short and take a poor deal just because it’s all you have on the table. I don’t particularly agree with the ‘getting your foot in the door’ theory, and if you take a poor deal, a sponsor is unlikely to up it considerably if you start doing well. They know they can keep you for next to nothing and will usually do so – they’re running a business, after all. Word gets around in the triathlon world and if it becomes known that you can be signed for practically nothing, then that’s exactly what you’ll get. It also messes it up for everyone else and devalues the market. If sponsors know they can sign athletes for very little, then why would they sign equivalent athletes for more? It’s up to us all to set the bar and stand together if we want to make money in future.
Richard Allen – Triathlete and Coach
For more information on professional triathlete Rich Allen, visit his website, rnrtricamps.com, where you’ll find details of his tri camps and coaching services.
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