Burning Question: What Constitutes Value From a Sponsored Athlete?

Feb 15, 2021 at 2:57
by Matt Wragg  

While the pandemic has brought a bike boom with it, few in the industry are cracking out the champagne just yet. Sure, things are going well now, but the shipping backlog is keeping more than a few people awake at night, much of public-facing industry, including racing, is stuck in limbo and nobody knows how things are going to evolve next. Do you order more stock, hoping that sales will carry on at their current level? What if the boom is followed by a crash? Do you reinvest your rewards in new ideas or start building a warchest in case things get bad?

With this as a background, things have never been harder for sponsored athletes, and that is before you start to account for lockdowns and social distancing. These days only a fortunate few have contracts that list their goal as just "winning races." Put yourself in the shoes of a marketing manager as we head into a second uncertain year. Ok, it was expensive paying your racer all last year, but if that contract is up for renewal now, could you risk that expenditure for a second year? A third? Without the races, there is a lot more time to think about what value that racer is bringing to your brand away from the racing. This isn't a new trend, the idea that a racer cannot be just a racer is one that has been gaining traction for many years now, but the pandemic has pushed it into overdrive. Of course that word 'value' can be an ugly one, without a definition it is just nonsense business-talk, so we grabbed a range of people whose job involves sponsoring athletes to see if we could find consensus on what this elusive value really is.

What Constitutes Value From a Sponsored Athlete?

Matt Jones performs a gainer flip during Design and Conquer.

John Oldale, Marin Bikes

bigquotesAt Marin what we look for in a sponsored ambassador hasn’t changed since the pandemic, we have always only taken on board ambassadors that reflect our brand’s mantra “made for fun”. Whilst we still sponsor a smattering of “racers”, the reason we support them is for their results but more for the atmosphere they create both in and outside of the tape. We look for ambassadors that have no ego and are not only keen to engage with everyone from toddlers to our dealers. We look for people that ride their bike with a smile on their face whilst riding. A prime example was Crankworx 3 years ago; During the slopestyle event several riders had a bad run and immediately retreated to the athlete tent at the bottom of the hill. After a tough time the year prior Matt Jones was eager to have a faultless run, instead he landed the first drop and got a puncture – it would have been easy for him to hide in the athlete tent, but instead he took nearly an hour walking down through the crowd talking to the people who had paid money to be there and see him ride. That to me is an ambassador worth sponsoring!

Andy Waterman, Tracksmith

bigquotesI think a lot of what we're doing at Tracksmith is about ambassadorship, and that extends beyond athletic results or social media reach. We're a running brand and we're relatively young, so obviously we want to grow our slice of the pie within the running industry, but it's also important to grow the pie as a whole. If more people feel confident to say, "I am a runner", that's good for them, for us, and for the sport in general. When I see mountain bike riders doing stuff like appearing at schools and doing backflips in the playground, the result of that may not be entirely measurable, but at the same time, I know that the athlete doing the backflip is valuable to me as a sponsor as those kids will remember that and go home stoked on the sport. In the last year we've taken on two elite middle distance runners as employees. They work for us in community roles and they still get to train properly, while they also get health insurance and all the benefits of a salary. I think that works really well and is an innovative model: with there being so few events in the last year, they've not been racing, but they've still brought a ton of value to the business, hosting podcasts, writing Journal posts and speaking directly to our community. I can imagine a lot of athletes on more traditional performance deals will be pretty concerned about their future, but the way we're doing things means everyone feels valued. It's also true that we have an Amateur Support Program where we support a select group of Olympic Trials Qualifying athletes with kit, and we also supply kit to a small group of elite amateur teams, but that's almost an altruistic thing. Brands have a responsibility to support their sport, and as runners ourselves, we know precisely what kind of effort is required to quality for the Olympic Trials while working a full-time job - we think that deserves recognition, and those athletes often have amazing stories even if they rarely have the capacity to manage huge social media followings.

We don't do a great deal with influencers as such, inasmuchas we don't tend to flow gear and cash to people with large social media followings, but we do other stuff, like for instance, we recently launched the Tracksmith Fellowship, where we asked creatives to apply for a share of $50,000 of funding to help make a project of theirs come to life. They also get mentorship as part of the deal. As part of that program we're helping to fund podcasts, sculpture, documentary films and even a hip-hop album. Running like cycling is an inherently creative pursuit, but unlike cycling, running has never really spoken about that relationship, so it's something we're excited to explore. For us at this stage, I think there's more opportunity for us to be found in projects like this, supporting creators working in the culture of running, than there is supporting individual athletes. 

Vali Holl on home turf for the biggest event of the year.

Sarah Leishman, SRAM

Riders who want to make a meaningful living riding their bikes have to hustle these days. Those who are the best at it manage to find a magic sweet spot between performing at the highest level in their sport, being a good human being and finding ways to positively impact their community, all while telling relatable stories along the way. Of course, not everyone does this equally well, but I think the riders who are excelling at this formula are rewarded with sponsorships, exposure, and bigger opportunities.

I spent 2020 (my first year on the job at SRAM) gaining a firsthand appreciation for the work our brand and sports marketing team is faced with as we adapt to constant changes and challenges around the world. We wouldn’t be doing our jobs if we weren’t re-imagining the ideal balance between performance, invention, advocacy and inclusion when we build our partnerships with the riders who represent us. SRAM, RockShox and ZIPP are just as excited about setting our riders up for success as we are about benefitting from their wins, no matter what those wins look like.

2021 Rocky Mountain Race Face Enduro Team

Steven Matthews, Rocky Mountain

bigquotesAthletes and the programs they are a part of create excitement within our sport. The overarching goals of an athlete program should be centered around the riding community itself. These athletes should inspire riders to head out on the trails, or educate them about a product, or even help them find their place as a part of our community.

Reaching more people is always desirable, but supporting athletes that engage with the riding community is a much bigger deal. Whether we're talking about creating how-to videos for new riders, inspirational content for long-term fans, or proving perfection with the top step of a podium, being a true ambassador for the people of our sport is what proves value. The medium might change from year to year, but how the inspiration and information is delivered doesn't really matter so long as it's making an impact. Trends of how to reach people come and go but the notion of making a positive impact shouldn't changes. We run these programs and work with athletes because their efforts bring positivity into our community.

Claus Wachsman, Sports Partner, Cube

bigquotesRacing and events are the DNA of the big European and American brands, like Cube. For us racing is a very important tool for designing and developing new bikes. I think corona showed us that there is a second life without racing, it is possible for the bike business. I think we saw salaries go down a little for the high-paid racers, but that is the same in every sport, like football. I think most sponsored athletes now realise that they have to do more than just racing. So doing stories, adventure trips, online camps, whatever. Although his focus is racing, I think Danny will do some consumer-focused events, if he has time and there is no racing, he can ride with kids, ride with our customers, ride in the bikeparks. With the changes to our Action Team one point will still be racing, doing stories, media camps, but the other point will be going to events to get close to our consumer and fans. 

DFL for Gwin but you gotta give the man credit for riding a tire wheel combo from halfway to the first woods at the top of the track all the way home. Sure 39 seconds off pace but he never let off the gas. Photo Colin Meagher.

Friso Lorscheider, DT Swiss

bigquotesEvery talk I had with young athletes about sponsoring in the last couple of years, I told them, be prepared to promote yourself and your partners. There are only three athletes getting medals. This was and is true even without corona. Think about people like “Eddie the Eagle”, it was never about his skills in ski jumping, but the results were the only number to count on back in the days. Today there is much more, especially with social media, but this means as well more responsibility. Today everyone’s lives are pretty transparent.

Benno Willeit, Team Manager, Specialized Global Racing

bigquotesSooner or later you have to justify what you do. We're in the pandemic... How much and how much longer will you rely on something that is purely tied to events if no events are happening, right? Okay, in the bike industry, we're doing well, at least we can pay some of the salaries but you don't want to waste money. So if there are ambassadors or different people out there that give you more coverage, at some stage as a brand and as a company and as a business, you need to ask yourself, is it worthwhile? Is it worthwhile having a cross-country team, a downhill team, a race team out there doing nothing because they can't? It's not that they don't want to, but we cannot do the traditional way of marketing. You can come up with your own events, you do your own things. They can be locally, outside, or they can be virtually on Zwift, on different platforms or even just Instagram, whatever it is. But you do need to think differently at this stage and make sure that you can justify the spend. I still want to pay our riders all year long, racing or not. If I can show the company that, "Okay, we haven't done the traditional racing, but we have been out there in the public eye in different ways", whatever that may be. Like I said, it is a business. Someone is paying our bills. I wouldn't like to waste money for no reason. Therefore we are trying to make sure that we get the most out of the team. We already have the second team camp coming up now. Just because some of the events are canceled, I still go out there with the team and make sure that yes, we may be not racing, but maybe we do another team camp and we can help the developers in Morgan Hill to work on new product and help them a little bit more because all of a sudden we have a little bit of extra time that we can dedicate to specific product testing that we wouldn't have done if all the races kept going. So now I'm just changing certain stuff around but we're definitely not sitting at home doing our own things or doing nothing and just waiting for stuff to happen. 


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