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Sponsorship Perceptions Don’t Hold Water

by Kathleen M. Mangan

Team Atkins providing prominent sponsor space on spinnaker (photo courtesy of Onne Van Der Wal)

(December 1, 2003) The common perception is that only the top teams with inside connections get racing sponsorships. But the sponsored teams at the Rolex International Women’s Keelboat Championship held recently off Annapolis, Md., blow this perception out of the water. They prove that the formula for sponsorship success is a combination of hard work, innovative thinking and good luck.

Liz Filter, racing with Carol Cronin, didn’t have a single contact when she started her sponsorship effort. Undaunted, she wrote blind letters to 150 companies, followed up with all of them, sent five-page proposals to nearly half of them, got serious interest from 10 companies, and a year later signed an exclusive deal with Atkins Nutritionals to race in the Rolex regatta, and pursue the Yngling Championship and Olympic gold.

Although Team Atkins took third in the regatta, they grabbed top honors in the race for sponsorship dollars. The deal pays for two boats, covers team expenses, and provides all the protein bars and company products they want during the two-year campaign.

“You have to be persistent,” says Filter. She advises researching your sponsor prospects and sending your letter to more than one contact at each company.

Pursuing non-traditional companies or products that seem unlikely can work to your advantage. When Levitra, a medication for men similar to Viagra, sponsored Marie Klok Crump’s team in the all-women’s event, it created enough controversy to generate media exposure, regardless of the team’s racing results.

Admittedly, the foursome had an entrée to Levitra co-marketer, GlaxoSmithKline Pharmaceuticals, through crewmember Townley Everette who works for the company. In their proposal, they explained that they had never sailed together before and they expected to finish in the middle of the fleet (they were 33rd out of 66 boats), but they expected excellent visibility. “Sponsorship success is not measured by performance,” says Crump, “it’s all about exposure.”

Levitra's name became well known during the all women's event (photo courtesy of Yacht Shots)

In addition to displaying the Levitra logo on the mainsail, spinnaker and team clothing, the team sent out advance publicity, distributed regatta updates, handled media interviews, and coordinated a VIP boat for spectators from the company. “Both sides need to benefit from a sponsorship deal,” says Crump.

The Minnesota Women’s Sailing Team came to the Rolex regatta with four sponsors, three of them repeat sponsors from the last event. The team’s strategy was to approach large companies with corporate headquarters in their area (such as sponsor, Yoplait Nouriche); regional distributors for major companies (sponsor, Absolut Vodka); and companies that market to women (sponsor, Great Clips). They offered different sponsorship levels so local companies (sponsor, Hooper’s Yachts) could participate as well.

Team member, Tanja Manrique, advises: “Tailor your proposal to the company, seek a specific amount of money and ask for the sale. Be sure to do event public relations, send out press releases and set up a web site. After the event, go back to your sponsors with video footage and article clips to prove how much media exposure they got. Take a long-term approach to your sponsor relationships.” They finished in 42nd place.

Betsy Alison, helmsman for Team ChallengeUS and the most accomplished sailor at the event, participated without major sponsors, taking eighth overall. She has raced in nine of the 10 Rolex events, won five of them, and had a cash sponsor for only one. But she always has product sponsors and marine industry support – Hall Spars & Rigging and North Sails helped her effort in the 2003 regatta. Alison suggests networking with your personal contacts in the corporate and sailing worlds first.

The Gorilla Girls worked with a fellow sailor who headed the Mountain Gorilla Conservation Fund, earning their sailing sponsorship by selling over 30 adoptions for the Adopt A Gorilla Program. “Exposure is a necessity for charities and non-profits too,” says helmsman Terry Schertz. She suggests featuring the sponsor web site on the sail, as well as an attention-getting logo like their huge gorilla. They finished 25th.

Fifth place finisher Nancy Haberland giving sponsor VC Performance Rigging hull logo placement
(photo courtesy of Dan Nerney)

Phebe King, who took 10th place, convinced the head of LegalSource, also a sailing competitor, to sponsor her team by giving a PowerPoint presentation, inviting him to dinner at the Annapolis Yacht Club on race night, and providing a spectator boat for the company during the Rolex regatta. King says sailing sponsorship is advantageous for local companies because the boat is a moving billboard on the water and on the trailer traveling through town showcasing the company 800 number and web site.

Carol Pine, skipper of Hot Flash made up of women over 50 years old, says that Chapin Company, makers of women’s sailing apparel, approached them about sponsorship. “We’re to the Rolex regatta what the Jamaican bobsled team was to the Olympics,” says Pine. Despite finishing at the end of the fleet, she maintains that when you have a good story that generates media coverage, sponsors take notice.

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