Caveat #1: My day job is as a marketing executive in Silicon Valley, so my very biased perspective is (1) based on an understanding of what makes a corporate brand thrive, and (2) uses a lot of digital marketing. I'm sure there are many other ways to slice this apple, but this is the recipe I know.
Caveat #2: I am not a professional athlete. I cannot set 50k course records at national championships when it is 17 degrees outside (that's Tyler Jermann's 2:48 at the 2017 Caumsett 50k), nor can I hang with the group that hits the opening mile of Way Too Cook 50k in 4:48 (Cody Reed, Chris Mocko, Patrick Smyth, etc.). Those guys are the real deal, and should have their own Jerry Maguire agents prancing on the sidelines ("help me help you!"). But there is room for a lot of evangelists beyond professionals.
Ambassador, Elite, or Pro - Which One Are You?
Marketing is all about "authentically amplifying the brand", and there are many ways a brand can do that with athletes. In many cases, athletes can tell the brand story in ways that are far more authentic (or outrageous) than the brand itself. Injinji nut-tsak? I rest my case. But a couple of important things to note about that blog story - it got over a million views, and to get the joke, you needed to understand Injinji's unique value proposition.
Ambassadors - The Army of Passion
When you are a new brand, you need to get the word out because many haven't heard of you yet. You need lots and lots of energetic people who love your brand, out in the field, participating with others, and saying "OMG, you've never head of Picky Bars? I love these guys." The best grassroots solution for this are Ambassadors (also called Advocates). Ambassadors don't need to be the fastest in the pack, but they are in the sport all the time. Running, volunteering, directing, at the early morning workouts, in the stores, at the film festivals, in the running clubs, at the parties, encouraging friends, and likely posting online about all of it. As much as I read online, I still hear about great products more through ambassadors than anywhere. It really works.
I've found that most people become Ambassadors just by doing what comes naturally - they talk about a product they love, and why they love it. They link to the brand when they post, answer questions on behalf of the brand, and find fun new ways to express their passion for the sport. Brands in their early stages look for these interactions to understand what is working, and often reach out to these people (or are very receptive when athletes reach out to them).
Typically an Ambassador will sign up for 6-12 months of an "official relationship" in exchange for some free product, unique swag, and a chance to join a team event once or twice a year. As long as the brand doesn't force the interaction ("you must make four posts per month to get your product"), it generally finds a rhythm that doesn't offend the group an ambassador can influence. And you get free product for something you are already using! My favorite brands will also give some product to Ambassadors to give out regularly, such as race prizes, freebies, etc. Free stuff is nearly always welcomed.
For example, I am an Ambassador for Succeed S! Caps. I'm a big fan of their electrolyte solution, and have talked about it online a bunch of times. One day they sent me a case, and it was so much, it will be 2020 before I get through them all. In that timeframe, they will likely get in excess of 30 million impressions of their brand on my blog, with an ad value of $300k. That's a pretty good deal for both of us.
I am also no longer an Ambassador for Vitargo, although I do continue to use their product. About a year ago, their ambassador program became one of those "you must post weekly to get your next tub of product, please provide all links for proof". Yeah, nobody likes a "shill" post, so this kind of program doesn't work for me. But if you are already posting 10 times/day, then maybe its easier.
Elite Athletes - Amplifying the Brand Through a Following
When a brand has a solid foundation (in stores, mentioned in magazines, at trade shows, etc.), it can then begin to amplify that brand by investing a bit more into a few select people who represent it. One way to do that is to sponsor Elite Athletes. Elite athletes have a very strong commitment to the sport, and their social/digital influence looks more like a "following" than a group of friends. They generally are at a fitness level that they can make a podium finish (overall or age group), and do race often. Many get their following from how they express their passion for the sport when not on race day - a great coach, a book author, a personal trainer, an artist, race director, or someone with a great web site or hilarious podcast (Eric Schranz at Ultrarunnerpodcast.com, Jamil Coury, Bryon and Meghan Powell at iRunFar, etc.). But in the end, all Elite Athletes do compete and know what it takes to do well in the sport.
There are really three ways you can become an Elite Athlete, and all of them require one thing - you need to authentically use a product along the way and talk about it. With that in the background, you can take one of three tracks:
- First, you can perform well. You get out there and win or complete something big. Set your goals, get 'er done, then thank the brands that helped you get there BEFORE they become your sponsors.
- Second, seek out and meet the people in charge of the team, and build a relationship. In some cases, this is all that is needed. Most teams refresh their rosters in November/December for the following year.
- Third, work on your "following" so it's easy for them to find you. This was my gravy train when I started trail running a decade ago - I would blog about all these products that worked really well, linking to their sites, and as the blog readership got bigger, the links began sending noticeable traffic/purchases to their site. At that point, it was a pretty easy conversation ("hey Scott, what can we do to have you mention more about our xxx?"). Sometimes it even works the other way - I once had a camera company send me six cameras and say "please don't ever talk about how our camera broke again, just let us know if you need more". You don't need a huge audience if you have the right audience and the right voice, and these days a good Instagram or Twitter account can get a following pretty quickly if you are out racing regularly. But you do have to stay at it, and authentically endorse the brands that fuel your passion.
What do Elite Athletes get in return? Generally you're going to get free product, free swag, some reimbursement for race expenses (typically $500-3,000), and a chance to get early access to products and be involved in the design process. Elite Athletes also often get perks like a multi-day retreat with other athletes, photo shoots, and being involved in advertising, speaking, and other events. I've had the good fortune of some of those events being in Chamonix, Switzerland, and Big Sur....didn't have to twist my arm to go! Elite Athletes can also often make a case for additional resources for a special project, such as receiving some funds or extra products. Elite Athletes typically aren't compensated at a level to focus 100% on racing (unless you're willing to live out of your truck), but it can be a great complement to the right profession.
I'm an Elite Athlete for Team inov-8 (shoes), Team Injinji (socks), and Inside Trail Racing (trail races in California). All of these came from loving their products and races, talking about them on the blog and in social media, and having a ton of respect for how they were building their brands. My favorite part of being on these teams have been helping develop new products and events, and racing with teammates all over the world. Some race expenses are covered, most are not, but I am always flush with products I love in super fun venues. I have to reapply every year like everyone, but that helps me keep my sights high for the following year.
I have been offered far more lucrative deals with other sponsors (particularly those willing to pay the going rate for online ads) but if I don't use their products, I say no thank you. There are a few brands I would love to be a part of, but not sure if they identify with trail running (Lagunitas? Aleve? Ducati?) or if I'm the right brand fit (*LOVE* the Oiselle brand....pretty sure I'm not on their radar until a men's sports bra is in production). That's okay, still happy to show them some love with a few links and mentions.
Professional Athletes - Winning To Get Eyeballs
When a brand has established global presence (Nike, adidas, Salomon, North Face, etc.), they need epic people doing epic things on a regular basis, preferably in a professionally shot video. They need athletes to win races, attempt FKT's, have shoes named after them, scale mountains, and take on the toughest courses the global stage has to offer. They need professionals. If you are in a sport that reaches billions of people, you can get paid millions to do this. We are lucky that trail running in the last few years has now been able to reach millions, so a lucky few can actually make a living.
We all know who these folks are (or have been), because we refer to them by first names or nicknames (Kilian, Max, Sage, Frosty, Magda, Wardian, DBo, etc.) or see them as legends on the walls of retailers (Koerner, Krar, Kimball, Rory, etc). They all have close relationships with the big brands that back them, and work together annually to craft marketing investments that work for all involved. Pro athletes get compensated in a number of ways - annual stipends, matching of purses won, bonuses for national titles or wins at big races, compensation for use of their persona in advertising, etc. I know of many getting $5-10k in comp from a sponsor, am aware of a dozen that have been able to make in excess of $40k/year, and I've met two that have crossed $150k/year when everything goes right. Certainly not "retire early" money, but a way to do everything in the sport you want to do with a full film crew involved. Trail running continues to grow, so I suspect even more opportunity here abounds as broader brands (autos, banks, insurance, etc.) see a selective audience of outdoor lovers.
So What Can You Do To Get Sponsored?
Really, the best thing you can do is express your passion authentically and don't be afraid to talk about the brands you love. Link to their sites, tag them, and see what happens. If your style of evangelism is a good match for what that brand needs at its point of evolution, go ahead and reach out to meet the people behind the brand marketing. The worst that could happen is that you make some new friends.
I'd also suggest exploring your digital marketing skills. Figure out how to take good pictures, understand how to write posts that are fun and uplifting, and tag the brands and people that inspire you. Even if you don't develop a long-term relationship with a brand, you can use these skills to help out with race expenses. I've been comped free hotel rooms, airline flights, meals at favorite restaurants, and more just for giving shout outs on the blog and social media, or helping link and write reviews that attract people in our sport. In nearly every case, it's because I took the time to email or call the owner/manager and just ask.
A big THANK YOU to my sponsors for sticking with me over the last decade. I honestly never get tired of talking about your products, so I know it's a good fit.
Happy to answer any other questions - just leave a comment!