So I just got back from two days of meeting with haggard marketing executives at Interbike, trying to distinguish our program from the other 40 teams asking them for free stuff this week. Most of these discussions followed a fairly similar script. I would start by describing the team to her/him: how many races we have won, our staff and rider’s pedigree, and all the usual stuff most teams like to tell sponsors. The more experienced amongst them would sometimes stop me early in this spiel and ask a simple question that always amounted to: “How is your team winning races going to help me sell more of my product?” I’d like to think I was prepared enough to address this to their satisfaction, but it is a good question and I started thinking about it some more on the flight home last night.
Winning bikes races only matters to bike racers and fans of bike racers. From a purely corporate standpoint, sponsoring a high level cycling team is simply investing in another marketing tool for your company. I have worked with lots of sponsors through various teams I have been a part of (both in and out of industry) and feel there are only two reasons they sponsor a cycling team:
- Brand exposure
- They are a fan of sport
You may come up with plenty of more specific examples but they all really fall into those two buckets – from the local Master’s club all the way to the ProTour. Since #2 exclusively is really just charity, let’s talk a bit more about #1.
Most bike racers and team directors will tell you that their job is to win bike races. Podium appearances are their product. In my opinion, that rarely fulfills the sponsor’s goal of brand exposure and ultimately selling more of their product. Yes, winners get more press and media coverage, but is that enough? For a title sponsor with a prominent brand perhaps, but what about secondary sponsors whose name/logo isn’t as prevalent? Can you name the sponsors of team Garmin-Sharp off the top of your head other than Garmin and Sharp? (There are 29 listed on their website currently.)
Teams need to not just think of themselves as machines for winning races, but also brand advocates. The rider that wins the race and immediately goes home to recover will never offer the same value as one who sticks around to cheer on other racers and talk about how awesome the new powermeter he is testing is.
One of the more popular local bike shops, Boulder Cyclesport (BCS) , calls their sponsored riders their ‘Ambassador Team’. Are they all fast? Yes, but not necessarily the fastest. What they are the best at is being advocates for the shop and the products that is sells. They lead clinics, are well followed in social media, and are always seen helping newer racers out at local events. I would venture that BCS can happily point to the number of additional bikes they have sold because of their team.
One of my own personal examples would be staying up one night talking to our host family at the NVGP about bike racing, training, and nutrition. (They asked to go through our grocery bags to see what we ate!) I followed that up by handing them a bunch of coupons for Horizon Organic products when we left. I may have gotten an unremarkable 100th place overall in the race that week, but they are still buying Horizon to this day!
Will we keep developing younger riders and trying to win every race we enter? You bet, it is in our nature. But at the same time, I will continue working hard to find other ways our team can offer value to our sponsor partners and generally give back to the sport we love. That is our product.