Step into any sports venue and you’re immediately met by an array of corporate logos. Even before you’ve emptied your pockets at security, you’ve likely witnessed the logo of a naming rights partners on the venue, another over the gate and more on the outdoor marquee. There even might have been a sign for a corporate sponsor on the parking ramp adjacent to the venue.
Sign after sign sharing brand after brand. Sponsorship of sports competitions and venues, in its various forms, has existed since the 5th century BC in Ancient Greece. Now, 2,500 years later, teams and sponsors need each other more than ever.
Settle into your seat and you’ll notice giant brands like Target, US Bank, Pepsi and Best Buy. As a small business owner who must manage marketing resources judiciously, the idea of joining forces with a sports team seems fanciful. But sponsorship is not just the domain of big business. Small and local companies can also use it as a marketing tool to grow business and improve their standing in the community.
Companies invest in sport for a variety of motives, from the chance to leverage the passion and loyalty shown by fans to the opportunity to engage in hospitality and offer a great experience to business-to-business contacts, potential clients and customers. Key reasons typically fall into the following categories:
- Brand building — will a sponsorship create more brand awareness for your business?
- Driving business — can you generate business with the team’s fans, other sponsors or even from the team itself?
- Entertainment/hospitality — are you looking to entertain top clients, prospects and employees?
- Community — would you like to showcase your support of the hometown team?
With so many teams and events at every level in Minnesota, choosing the right sports marketing opportunity can be overwhelming. Start with your target audience. It’s the most critical component in selecting any sponsorship and it’s especially important for a small business. If the fans of the sport, team or event don’t fit with your current and prospective customers, your investment, no matter how big or small, won’t be successful.
For instance, if you have a product or service that appeals to an older demographic, baseball and golf might be a good match. If you’re attempting to reach millennials, consider soccer or college sports. A local youth sports team or venue can be an effective platform if you have a business that appeals only to a small geographic area.
Also consider the seasonality of sports. A landscape company sponsoring a hockey team may not be an ideal fit. Make sure your partner can help you during your key business season.
Other key considerations when selecting a partner include the team or event’s reputation, performance, popularity, attendance, media coverage, willingness of the partner to support your efforts and, of course, cost.
Once you’ve identified the right partner, determine what you can afford. Focus on securing the assets that are most beneficial. One of the biggest mistakes new sponsors make is purchasing lots of unnecessary options that are good for the ego yet not so great for the bottom line. Only buy what you need to make the sponsorship work for you. Sponsorship sellers will often attempt to upsell you by adding “soft” assets that won’t grow your business but will expand your budget. Don’t do it.
Your budget should also include resources to “leverage” the sponsorship. The sponsorship fee is only the starting point. Usually a sponsor will spend an amount over and above the sponsorship fee to maximize the return on their investment. A successful example of leveraging a sponsorship was when Hiway Federal Credit Union amplified its sponsorship with the Minnesota Wild by creating Hiway Hockey Kids4Kids, a program that encourages youth hockey teams throughout Minnesota to raise money for Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare in Saint Paul.
The credit union used some of the benefits it received as a sponsor of the Wild to inspire youth to community service. By doing so, they were able to engage prospective new members who hadn’t yet selected a banking partner and generate positive media exposure that increased brand awareness.
Now that you’ve established objectives, identified the right partner and developed a budget, how do you go about putting together a program that works for your company? Here are some tips:
- Formulate a strategy. Ask yourself how the sponsorship and every benefit in it will help you accomplish your objectives.
- Be clear about what you need. Teams and events rely on sponsors. Most will present an opportunity even for those companies with modest budgets. Skip the extras that will bloat your budget.
- Add value to the fan/brand experience. For instance, Hiway created a “Prize ATM” that gives fans at Minnesota Wild games the chance to insert a promotional card into a special ATM that spits out a receipt for a corresponding prize. Fans enjoy a fun experience and go home with a free gift and a positive impression of Hiway.
- Have a plan for every benefit. Let’s say you decide a partial season ticket plan could be beneficial. How are you going to use the tickets? Sweepstakes, vendor incentive programs, contests and employee awards/recognition are all appropriate. Letting them sit unused is not. In fact, 43% of all tickets owned by businesses go unused. That’s a lot of wasted dollars.
- Use the logo. Most sponsorship sellers provide sponsors with the right to use their logo in advertising and promotional efforts. You’re paying for the right to be affiliated with a team/event and its fans. Including the logo will highlight your support, increase brand preference and set your company apart from the competition.
- Attend sponsor events. Most teams conduct sponsorship summits and other events exclusively for corporate sponsors including golf tournaments, holiday parties and luncheons. Participation provides a great opportunity to learn best practices from other sponsors and make valuable business connections.
- Ask the sponsorship seller for their business. Teams and events need products and services, too. Your company may be able to offset some of the cost of the sponsorship by offering in-kind services or products or selling them.
- Be realistic. Like most marketing efforts, you may not see direct or immediate conversions. Good sponsorships are an investment that pay dividends with time.
As a small business owner, you can benefit from sports marketing. Just make sure you’ve prepared before you get in the game.?