Lessons from Jesse Thomas’ stumbling journey through the world of sponsorship.
30 G’s! That’s my number. No, it’s not what you need to “show me” for my endorsement. I wish. That’s my estimate of about what it costs to race a full triathlon season in the U.S. Let’s say six to 10 races including travel, entry fees, lodging, rental cars, motherflipping airline bike fees, etc. Then there’s equipment, coaching, massage and other medical services, club/pool fees, maybe a training camp and bam! $30 large.
This, my friends, is an expensive sport. No wonder the average age-grouper makes more than six figures. Unless you are a Fortune 500 executive (nope), the Prince of Monaco (nope), or have a sugar momma (booyah!), it’s nearly impossible to get into, much less stay in the sport, without some type of support.
And what if you want to be a pro? Now you have to find a way to make money while also training enough to be competitive. Unlike many major sports, there are few to no development systems, teams, athlete unions or other organizations that provide support to limit initial costs and provide guidance to aspiring pros. You have to figure it out on your own.
As the story goes, I used a borrowed bike, helmet, kit and, of course, my $8 drugstore aviators when I won my first Wildflower in 2011. As cool as it felt to be the un-branded, totally random, surprise winner dude, it was a completely unsustainable business model. I made $5,500 that day: $5K in prize money, and a $500 bonus from Rolf Prima—my one and only sponsor at the time. That year I made about $14K in prize money, and $1,000 in bonuses from Rolf Prima—and I had four additional top-five finishes, and never finished outside of the prize money! Even with a solid season, I covered half of my triathlon costs. Triathlon’s contribution to our living expenses was a big donut. By which I mean zero. I couldn’t even afford to buy us a big donut.
You can see how without sponsorship, professional triathlon doesn’t exist. And if you don’t figure it out quickly, you’re out of the sport in a hurry—a $15–$20K yearly loss is only sustainable for so long, no matter how sweet your sugar momma. Forget about getting rich; you hope to earn enough to cover your costs and, if you’re lucky, provide a modest living for yourself and your family. Only the top five to 10 men and women in the sport make as much or more than the average age-grouper.
But it can happen. I’m finally able to provide a modest living for me, Lauren and our Lima Bean due in June. Thank goodness, because Sugar Momma can’t make Lima Bean and sugar at the same time.
So people ask me all the time: How do you get sponsored? And I can tell you after roughly three years of figuring it out that there is no one answer, and the full answer is much more than I could contain in a single article. But I’ll provide some of the key lessons I’ve learned so far:
It’s not about you
The most important, and hardest thing for an aspiring pro or high-level age-grouper to understand (myself included) is that just because you ride a bike fast doesn’t mean a company wants to give you one. And if you start a relationship with “I’m fast, can you give me a bike?” you’ll go nowhere fast—literally, because you won’t even have a bike. Whether someone is giving you wads of cash or wads of stretchy shoelaces, there has to be some identifiable, quantifiable and appealing value in it for them in return. Your first job is to look through their lens and understand their needs to best identify how you can help them reach their goals. Most companies want much more than just racing fast with a logo on your kit. They want exposure, influence on a specific market, product development feedback and alignment with a specific personality and/or brand. When you start thinking about what a sponsor wants, you’ve taken your first step to developing a constructive relationship.
It takes time
In my dehydrated delusion after I won my first Wildflower, I thought people would be tripping over themselves to show me the money. “Let it RAIN, bitches!” Yeah right. Even though I was introduced to Mallory at Specialized and Geoff at Pearl Izumi shortly after that event, it took nearly nine months before I had a sponsorship with either of them. I spoke with both of them consistently during the course of the season. Without consciously understanding what I was doing, I “invested” in the relationship with regular communication, which became as important as my results. By the time they were ready to make an “investment,” I understood the value I could provide them, and we had strong relationships already established. Nearly all of my most valuable sponsorships have developed organically over many months, even years.
Wearing both hats
One of the toughest things I’ve had to learn is when and how to put on the “Athlete” hat versus the “Agent” hat. You see, the vast majority of us don’t have an agent; we have to be both the “unassuming, easygoing, hardworking and friendly” Athlete and the “bust your balls, I’m going to get the best deal possible, show me the money or else” Agent. Of course, for me, it’s hardly that extreme, but I have to be slightly different versions of myself. If the Agent doesn’t show up, the Athlete doesn’t get a sponsorship, which means no diapers for Lima Bean.
Balancing competing priorities
When I examine a potential sponsorship, there are a few key characteristics I weigh.
Value: How much value do I get out of the relationship? This could be saved/reduced expenses, free services or, in the best cases, actual money to pay the bills.
Authenticity: Is it a product, company and people that I believe in? Does it match me as an athlete and as a person?
Relationship: Is it a relationship that I am excited to pursue and maintain, hopefully for the long term?
Cost: “Cost?” you say, “WTF? I thought they are giving you stuff?” Sorry son, every sponsorship has its cost. The simplest costs are logo real estate on your jersey or website, but more importantly it’s communication time, energy, appearances or help at events, etc.
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In my experience, it’s important to have a solid balance in each of these categories. I’ve passed on sponsorship opportunities because they were weak in a single category—good value, but products I couldn’t authentically endorse or use, or products I liked, but provided little financial benefit and would ultimately take time away from my ability to service my other sponsors, or train, recover and be with my family. It’s a balancing act—not all sponsorships are good sponsorships, and having more sponsorships isn’t necessarily better.
Find your “board of advisers”
I can hardly say I’ve figured all this stuff out and made all my decisions on my own. I have a core group of people I run every potential sponsorship decision by: Lauren; my coach, Matt; and my mom. I’m also lucky enough to have access to people with experience in the sport whose opinion I value greatly, like Tim DeBoom and Matt Lieto—but please don’t tell Matt I said I value his opinion greatly. These people understand me, my career goals and my priorities. As in any business, it’s incredibly important to build a team of advisers you trust.
It takes a buttload of work
Like I said, I spend months cultivating a sponsorship before I ever get anything in return, and I’ve cultivated a lot of sponsorships that ultimately didn’t work out. It’s a dynamic and sometimes frustrating environment. Then, the work is hardly over after you sign the deal; it’s really just begun. Maintaining and servicing sponsorships requires tweeting and Facebooking, phone calls, emails, pictures, blog updates, articles in Triathlete magazine about sponsorship, etc. Each sponsor is essentially an employer that wants to know what you’re up to, and how the money and/or product/services they’ve invested in you are being utilized to produce value in return. So be prepared to consistently communicate the value next time you get someone to show you the money.
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