Behind The Scenes — Sponsorship

Posted 06/20/2013

Professional athletes in non-team sports make their living a number of ways. There are myriads of sponsorship opportunities out there, so I figured I’d shed some light on a few.

When an athlete and a company are establishing a relationship, they will seek a mutually beneficial deal. There are different levels, which depend on several factors. The age of the athlete (young always trumps old, as there is more time in the career to invest in), the athlete’s specialty (road racing vs. a fringe track or field event), and past and recent credentials (NCAA All-American vs. Also Ran, Olympian vs. 10-time local 4th of July 5K champ). Another factor that is evaluated — but many people (athletes included) fail to realize — is the athlete’s marketability. Do they have an interesting story? (Lolo Jones is a great example.) Do they photograph well (can they be used in regional/national/international ad campaigns)? Are they well spoken, is this someone a company would like to have out there promoting its product outside of just logging fast race results?

Once all these factors are weighed in, the athlete and prospective sponsor will reach a deal. There are several levels of sponsorships:


1. Kit Deal: This generally means a sponsor will provide the athlete “x” amount of product (shoes, socks, shirts, equipment, etc.) for free or at a discounted rate. In turn, the athlete wears and represents that sponsor during competitions and/or promotional appearances. Many companies will do this with many up and coming athletes or older athletes that race a ton at the local level. There’s minimal risk to the sponsor and the athlete provides cheap and visible marketing at their local and regional competitions.

2. Bonus Structure: Here, a kit or product deal is usually already in place. The addition of a bonus plan or structure is then put forth. This means that the athlete and sponsor have agreed on “xyz” payment for “xyz” achievement. This could range from local/regional/national racing success all the way to World Championships or Olympics. If the athlete achieves an agreed upon standard (can be athletically and/or marketing such as a magazine cover and interviews), then the sponsor will pay the athlete the agreed upon bonus.


3. Full-time Sponsored Athlete: This third type of sponsorship is the most desirable, and encompasses the previous two. At this level, you have a legally binding contract which includes a salary. The salary can range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars per month. The athlete is contracted by the sponsor for a fixed duration (anywhere from one to five-plus years). During this time, the athlete has contractually agreed to represent him or herself and their sponsor to the best of their abilities both on and off the competitive field. The athlete is being compensated with the kit or materials they need to train and compete, as well as been given bonuses for achieving pre-agreed upon standards. Often these are amended at the conclusion of each year during the life of the contract. Some companies even exercise a “reduction” clause. This means that if the athlete hasn’t performed well or has been injured, then they may get some of their salary docked until they reach their previous levels of success/performance. At the same time bonuses or a raise in salary can be achieved during the lifetime of the contract IF the athlete performs above and beyond the previously agreed upon bench marks (i.e. from also-ran to winning a national title) and continues to show great potential. These are typically agreed upon during the lifetime of the contract during renegotiations.

[Below: Rob Mandje SOARS through the finish line at XTerra Las Vegas]


So there you have it. I can’t speak for others, but I’ve been in the sport professionally for the better part of a decade. I’ve had the pleasure of working with many different sponsors covering all three of the levels outlined above.
Lastly, I’ll leave you with a relatively new way for sponsors to reach out and market themselves. In the fast-changing world of marketing and social media, it’s important to stay fresh, relevant and find innovative ways to raise your product’s profile. This is why I was more than happy to help one of my local sponsors, RecoFiT Compression Gear, push the envelope a bit with their recently released cheeky ad campaign via Indiegogo.


The more exposure they get, the more brand awareness is created. Expanded brand awareness may bring more customers and more marketing dollars. New money trickles throughout the company so they can then invest more into the products they create — and the athletes they support!


About the Blogger

AdShot1_editedRoberto Mandje is an Olympic Distance runner, currently living in Boulder, Colorado. Roberto was born in Spain and is fluent in multiple languages. To find out more about his amazing career, follow him on Twitter or check out his new website.