Pro tip: In the world of sponsorship, you need to keep in mind one very valuable piece of information: At the end of the day, you’re asking for a job. Many athletes miss this simple concept: you’re trying to become an employee.
It’s important to keep this in mind, regardless of your race results or how far you’ve come in the sport. You’re still going to be asking for a job, and you’re going to go through an interview process. The fastest way to turn off a sponsor is to approach the job hunt like you’re doing them a favor by offering to be sponsored by them.
How can you be a good sponsored athlete? “Show up on time, come to work, be sociable… Like any good employee would,” says one sponsorship coordinator who’s seen hundreds of athletes come and go from sponsorships ranging from high-end luxury athlete apparel, a major footwear company, a massive bike brand, and a company that prides itself in its utilitarian-chic products.
Endurance sport—from road racing to triathlon to track running—is littered with carcasses of young racers who had all the raw talent in the world but were held back by their own arrogance. I won’t name names, but virtually every sponsor interviewed in this book recalled at least one racer who got cut or didn’t get hired because of their superiority complex.
And these names were ones I recognized: they were fast racers who would have won a ton… Between you and me, in the dozens of interviews I did for this book, there were three names that came up A LOT. There were also plenty of people I had never heard of. Guess why I hadn’t heard of them? That’s right, because they’re no longer sponsored or supported because of their attitudes. Oh—and that’s right, people I interviewed were more than happy to name names. People don’t forget being treated badly, and most aren’t afraid to tell the world about it.
“If you’re looking for sponsorships, don’t display arrogance, or disinterest,” added one team manager. I promise you, this will not get you onto a team, score you a sponsor, or create any lasting alliances. It will quickly get you blacklisted or at least $hit-talked the next time a bunch of industry people get together over drinks.
So what does that mean for you? It means you shouldn’t expect people to flock to you just because you did well at one race. It means not taking a sponsor for granted once you do have one (after all, you’re going to have to go through a yearly performance review at the end of the season, whether you know about it or not).
No matter how good you are, you’ll do better in the industry if you stay humble, and keep acting like an ideal employee. It’ll pay off in dividends (like a better job when you’ve retired from racing, or a move to a bigger and better team) later.
I find that the easiest way to think about this is ‘if you wouldn’t do/say/act a certain way while working at a Starbucks, you probably shouldn’t do it as an athlete.’ What exactly does being a good ‘employee’ mean? I’m assuming that most of you reading this have worked in retail or the service industry before. Honestly, it’s not that different.
A few tips:
Be on time (or early): Whether it’s a flight you’re taking to a race, or a race day autograph signing session, be ready to go when you said you would be ready to go. No excuses. When travel is involved, this becomes even more important—missed flights can mean lost contracts and jobs.”
Communicate effectively: Return emails promptly, respond to voicemails from team managers or sponsors.
Understand your job description: Racing the race is often just the beginning. Your job might also be to post a race report after each race, per your sponsor’s request. Basically, if it’s in your contract or your boss has asked for it and you agreed, get it done.
Don’t be a diva: Back to that ‘don’t be a dick’ rule. It’s OK to ask for what you’re worth and have certain things that you need, like quiet time before a race to properly warm up, or a certain post-race routine. But if that routine gets screwed up, don’t fly off the handle. Politely restate what it is you need, and assume that it will be fixed for next time.
Keep your office clean: Don’t let your race-day bag spill all over the team tent.
Service with a smile: When you’re showing up for work—the in-person stuff, whether it’s racing, teaching, speaking, autograph signing, et cetera—try to shift into a good mood, even if you’re not 100% feeling it. Your fans will appreciate the effort.
Now pause for a moment before you head to the next section, and give yourself some pats on the back and some kicks in the ass. Write down a list with a couple of examples of nice things that you did—and note if any of them led to better relationships or new connections. Then, write another column of potential screw-ups. Was there something you did that killed a potential relationship—or even just hurt one, like by being somewhat rude of a coach at a camp? If so, analyze how the new you would handle it better. If possible, send an apology. (The apology, even if it’s been a while, can even help create a new, better relationship. It’s amazing!)
Found this helpful? For more info and stories like this, get “The Athlete’s Guide to Sponsorship: An Athlete Entrepreneur’s Guide to Dreaming Big, Racing Smart & Creating a Reliable Brand for a Long, Successful Career” here!