Sponsorship Sales Enemy #1: Succeeding in Spite of Yourself

Enemy cat_smI recently spoke with a sponsorship seeker who was looking for some “fine tuning” of their already very successful sponsorship program. They were brimming with confidence, and based on the amount of sponsorship raised for their previous event, it’s easy to see why. But when I had a look at what they were offering, two things became abundantly clear:

  1. It was a terrible proposal. It wasn’t even a proposal – it was a prospectus, listing all of the gold-silver-bronze levels, but that was just the start. They were selling their conference in tiny, little, ridiculously unleverageable morsels. Lanyard sponsorship was priced at well over $10,000. LANYARD sponsorship! How the hell is a sponsor supposed to leverage that?? And how on Earth did they raise so much sponsorship with such terrible offers? Which brings me to the second revelation…
  2. They were in the enviable position of first-movers. They had the first and biggest event in a field that is exploding around the world, so sponsors were lining up to be involved. Lucky them. Very lucky. They had succeeded in spite of themselves.

Here’s the thing… it is possible to be successful at selling sponsorship, even if you are really crap at it, but only if you “own” the category or niche. Whether that’s sustainable for any length of time depends on which of two categories you fit in…

First mover

You have a fantastic idea for a truly innovative event. Or maybe you identified a big trend early, and were able to create sponsorable assets around it. Either way, congratulations… you’ve found yourself an edge. Too bad it’s not going to last.

If your innovation proves successful or the trend sticks, you’ll very quickly have enormous competition for both market share and sponsors. You have absolutely no time to congratulate yourself on your sponsorship success, as it’s going to be all about sponsor retention and positioning yourself as the best sponsorship opportunity in the genre, because you’re certainly not going to be the only one. Simply continuing to be the biggest player is no guarantee of strong sponsorship income, either. Sponsors around the world have shown time and again that they are very happy to sponsor a smaller event or a newer association or whatever – IF the sponsorship is more innovative, meaningful, and leverageable for their brand.

You need to fix your approach and do it right now. Use all of the resources on this site, read some sponsorship books, or get some advice, but do something or your sponsorship program will flounder in a sea of unrealised budget projections.


This is much rarer, but we can all think of at least a couple of examples where one organisation controls (usually) a sport, all or most of the players, teams, or events, as well as the media rights. If a sponsor wants to get involved in that sport, they have to deal with that organisation and buy what they’re offering at whatever price they put on it. Or at least that’s the way it was.

There are a handful of sports where this is still the case, in a traditional sense, but social media, a growing assortment of unofficial (yet intrinsically related) events, and an explosion of non-traditional media and niche news outlets means that it’s never been easier to get meaningful marketing value without a genuine sponsorship of the sport.

Yeah, that’s right; I’m talking ambush marketing. And to all of the rights-holders that have sold crap, old-school sponsorship for decades, because you’ve had that stranglehold: You brought it on yourself.

Ambush marketing isn’t about a brand pretending it’s a sponsor or breaking any laws; it’s about that brand creating genuine added value for fans. This only works when the actual sponsors either don’t – or in the case of awful sponsorships offered by monopoly rights-holders, can’t – offer that meaningful value themselves.

If you are employed by one of the storied few organisations to have a historic monopoly, do what you can to elevate the approach. Emphasise inspiration and meaning for all of your sponsorships. De-emphasise creativity-stifling rules and rights “enforcement”. Tell your lawyers to let your sponsors do their jobs. Do it for your sponsors, for the future health of your organisation, and for your own career. Getting your dream sponsorship job will require cutting edge sponsorship skills, and you won’t get those by relying on a cornered market to sell sponsorship for you.

The upshot

The upshot of all of this is that competition is good for sponsorship. It raises the bar on sophistication, because you have to be sophisticated to raise significant sponsorship revenues these days. And the more sophisticated, creative, strategic, and innovative you are, the more desirable your properties will become, and their value will increase exponentially.

And that value will rise because you’re good – you, your team, your properties, and your offers – not because of a rapidly diminishing cornered market.

Want to up your game?

For all you need to know about sponsorship sales and servicing, you may want to get a copy of The Sponsorship Seeker’s Toolkit 4th Edition.

If you could use some additional support, I provide sponsorship coaching, sponsorship consulting, sponsorship training, and if you need a fast, cost-effective start, the Jump Start program. If you’re interested in any of these services, please review the materials and drop me a line to discuss:

Kim Skildum-Reid
AU: +61 2 9559 6444
US: +1 612 326 5265

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