LAST UPDATED: 10 August 2023
Race Sponsorship: The Complete Guide
How to find, approach and negotiate with sponsors. If you struggle with sponsorship, this is the guide for you.
If you're directing races, chances are you have a long and bitter history struggling with race sponsorship. And you're not alone.
Every survey ever conducted of race directors points to finding and securing race sponsors as their #1 headache. Which is why in this definitive guide we aim to give you crucial tips and step-by-step advice to help you find your way to a successful sponsorship, whatever your event's stature.
In this guide we'll show you:
- What types of sponsorship are available for your event
- What sponsors look for and how to give it to them
- How to identify and approach sponsor candidates
- How to successfully negotiate and deliver a sponsorship
- How to retain sponsors in the long run
And, as always here at Race Directors HQ, we start from ground zero...
What is sponsorship?
Let's start with what sponsorship isn't. Sponsorship is not charity. It is not a donation nor is it a "favor". Sponsorship is a commercial arrangement, meaning both parties are in it for some form of commercial gain - direct on indirect.
Your job in sponsorship, as the so-called rights holder, is to leverage all sponsorship assets (=things the sponsor may be interested in) in your property (=your race) in the service of the sponsor's commercial objectives.
Different types of sponsorship
Sponsorship can come in a number of flavors, depending on the form of contributions the sponsor makes to the race. Some of the more common types of sponsorship are:
- Cash sponsorship: Fairly straightforward - you make your assets available to the sponsor in exchange for cash. This is the kind of arrangement most people have in mind when they speak of sponsorship.
- In-kind sponsorship: Instead of the sponsor contributing cash to the event, they contribute products or services instead (=value in-kind; hint: this is still not a donation). For a more detailed discussion on the different types of in-kind sponsorship and how to make the most of in-kind sponsorship opportunities, take a look at our guide to in-kind sponsorship.
- Title sponsorship: This is any kind of sponsorship where the sponsor gets the privilege to include their brand name as part of the event name (also known as granting the sponsor "naming rights"), such as in the TCS-sponsored NYC Marathon. Some organizers are reluctant to accept title sponsors, others see them as an opportunity to get the most value out of their major sponsorship relationships.
- Media sponsorship: Media sponsors are typically publishers who provide media exposure for the event in exchange for exposure of the sponsor through the event. Generally, media sponsorship is a narrow type of sponsorship where rights and benefits are confined to a mutual exposure arrangement. However, in the case of specialist publishers (think Triathlon Magazine sponsoring a triathlon), the rights a sponsor receives may extend to event entry, covering of expenses for reviewing the race etc.
What are sponsors looking for?
We're glad you asked.
What sponsors look for in any sponsorship is a good return on their investment of time, funds and other resources - what is commonly known as the sponsorship ROI.
That said, it is not always clear how sponsors will evaluate a sponsorship's ROI and it is not uncommon for the same sponsorship assets (=bits you can offer to sponsors, like branding rights, direct selling opportunities etc) to be valued differently by different sponsors. The appeal of any asset you offer will depend on a number of things, including the sponsor's objectives, line of business, business cycle and their ability to activate those assets. (Sponsorship activation involves all the initiatives the sponsor would undertake to best leverage the sponsorship assets you offer, e.g. by issuing press releases around their involvement with your event, making the most of sales opportunities you may offer through a race expo etc)
The bottom line is that sponsors will have specific business objectives they hope to achieve through a sponsorship agreement. It is your job as rights holder to understand what these objectives are and how you can best serve them.
What have you got to offer?
This needs to be the starting point in your sponsorship strategy. "What does my event have to offer to potential sponsors?"
Answering that question well will allow you to:
- Identify sponsors that stand a good chance of responding to your approach
- Make the most of your sponsorship assets, by offering the right stuff to the right sponsors
Usually, in order to answer this question, it helps to conduct some kind of audit of your sponsorship assets. This basically means compiling as comprehensive a list as possible of all the things you can offer that a sponsor may take an interest in. These can include:
- Branding opportunities: This is usually the first thing people think of when they go through their sponsorship assets and it's something sponsors have come to expect. Although it's dubious how effective branding alone can be these days, you should offer sponsors prominent placement on event materials, participant swag, bib numbers, leaflets and other places where it's possible to have your sponsor's brand identity exposed.
- Media exposure: As part of your event, you will likely be generating media publicity, e.g. by appearing on radio shows, the local paper or TV. Exposing your sponsor's brand through those channels, by praising their involvement or mentioning one of their company initiatives, are valuable assets to bring to the sponsorship table.
- Exposure on event communications: Separate to event-wide branding rights, you can negotiate inclusion of your sponsor's brand into your event email communications and press releases. This can be in any form, from a simple logo/name mention to a short sponsor profile included at the end of your emails.
- Race expo opportunities: If you organize a pre-race expo, you can offer sponsors exhibition stands or marketing access to expo attendees in other forms.
- Product placement & onsite sampling: Nutrition supplements and sports equipment brands are particularly well-suited for onsite sampling where a participant can get to sample a product or service your sponsor has to offer, e.g. at a sponsor booth at your race start or finish areas.
- Sponsor presentation opportunities: Putting sponsors in front of your audience through a sponsor presentation is a very good way of helping your sponsor communicate their brand identity and values. But only do this if the sponsor has something to say that would be valuable to your participants - don't just do an infomercial!
- Survey data: Helping sponsors conduct consumer surveys of your race audience (participants mostly, but also spectators) can be a very valuable offering.
- Marketing opportunities: You have a mailing list, a bunch of Facebook or Twitter followers, perhaps a Facebook group or other channels available to you for marketing. Sharing your sponsor's products or services with your audience is a fairly basic part of a sponsorship arrangement your sponsor will likely expect and appreciate.
- Direct sales opportunities: A bit obvious, but no sponsor will ever pass on an opportunity to sell their product or service directly to your audience. Whether this is sports equipment, nutrition products or insurance, you can always think of ways you can expose their products for sale to your audience of participants and spectators during your event.
- Endorsement: For a sponsor, simply being associated with your event may be valuable to their image or overall brand positioning. So your endorsement is something to leverage, under the right circumstances.
- Content: For sports equipment and other brands, content you may be able to provide through your race could be hugely attractive for the right sponsor. For instance, if your race in an aspirational challenge and you can create video footage of athletes using your sponsor's equipment, that content could be invaluable to your sponsor.
- Race entry/experience/VIP opportunities: The value of free entry to your race, special VIP packages for sponsor ambassadors, employees and other stakeholders, should not be underestimated. These all help provide tangible value your sponsors can use directly or indirectly (e.g. by offering these up to their customers) to help them achieve business objectives.
Ok - so you have a good understanding of what you have to offer. It's now time to decide whom to approach and how to get them interested in sponsoring your race.
Deciding whom to approach
There are generally two schools of thought in approaching sponsors:
- the targeted approach, where you spend time to identify the sponsors that are most likely to respond to your proposal and tune the message to their specific needs
- the numbers approach, (or, if you don't feel gracious, the spray-and-pray!), where you reach out to as many sponsors as you can with a less personalized proposal
In our opinion, you should be doing the former. If you want to succeed you need to carefully pick your opportunities, because the investment that will be required in putting together a winning sponsorship proposal and converting sponsors will be considerable.
In terms of identifying potential sponsors to approach, you should prioritize the following groups of candidates:
- Sponsors who have done it before. If a company or organization has experience with the kind of sponsorship you are looking to offer, they will be more likely to appreciate what you have to offer. So take a look at who's sponsoring events similar to yours and make a list of sponsors who are already in relationships similar to the one you want to aim for (more on this in the following section on direct-application sponsorship requests).
- Competitors of sponsors who have done it before. If a certain type of company is sponsoring an event similar to yours, they likely do it because the sponsorship serves their business objectives. Which means your sponsorship would probably serve their competitors' business objectives. So approach them as well, using the power of FOMO to get them interested in sponsoring your race.
- Good in-kind matches. We single out in-kind sponsors because, in most cases, identifying suitable sponsor targets is fairly obvious. For example, if you have finisher T-shirts to buy you may want to reach out to a T-shirt brand with a sponsorship proposal. Or if you have accommodation packages you want to offer participants and guests, your obvious choice of target is hotels in your area. For more ideas on where to turn and what to look for, check out our piece on in-kind sponsorship.
In many cases, where a sponsor runs an active program for seeking out or inviting sponsorship requests, the sponsor will want to make it easier for you to reach them. After all, they're after your event as much as you're after their sponsorship!
In those cases, sponsors will publish instructions for rights holders, telling you everything you need to know to submit your sponsorship proposal to them, including:
- the kinds of events they sponsor
- the sponsorship benefits they are looking to provide and what they may want in return
- the timeframes for receiving and replying to sponsorship proposals
These direct-application sponsorship requests, where you can submit your sponsorship proposal online directly through the sponsor's own sponsorship request form, are you best bet for securing sponsorship. Because if a sponsor actively invites sponsorship requests you can be sure that:
- They have a well-defined process for accepting and assessing sponsorship proposals
- They have resources earmarked for sponsorships
- There is a dedicated person on the other end tasked with identifying and developing sponsorship opportunities
Luckily for you, we've put together the largest database of current direct-application sponsorship opportunities, featuring dozens of potential sponsors from all different kinds of industries. And you can use it to find sponsors for your event through our Sponsor Finder tool.
Getting through to the right person
Once you have identified suitable organizations to target, you need to find the best person to contact within the organization to discuss your sponsorship proposal. And the best person is always the decision maker: the person who has an interest in what you have to say and the authority to make things happen.
In the case of direct-application sponsorship programs, you can expect your application to reach the right person within the sponsor organization. In cases where you've researched the sponsor yourself, identifying who that decision maker may be will not always be easy, but there's a few clues on where to look:
- It's not the most senior person. Unless the organization you're targeting is small enough, senior people in them (marketing managers, CMOs etc) will not even bother answering (or internally redirecting) inbound sponsorship requests.
- It's not the sponsorship manager! In larger organizations, you may find the role of Sponsorship Manager or similar being used. You'd be forgiven in thinking that these are the people to go to with sponsorship proposals, but you'd be wrong! Most times, these guys are not decision makers - their primary task is monitoring and activating sponsorships. So do a bit more digging before reaching out to them.
- It's likely to be the brand manager (or similar). Often the right person to talk to about sponsorship is the brand manager who is vested with the marketing strategy (and marketing budget) for a specific brand or product. Marketing managers in smaller organizations will be the right people to reach out to.
In any case, do your research well (on the company website, LinkedIn or by searching Google for names on past company press releases etc), because once you reach out to someone, you are pretty much committed to talking to them unless they themselves point you to someone else.
The objectives for your first contact with potential sponsors are to (1) come across as a credible partner and (2) secure a follow-up meeting or call. It is in that follow-up meeting, also known as a discovery session, that you and the sponsor will be discussing your sponsor's needs and how a sponsorship of your event could help meet them.
To make that happen, you need your initial reach-out to be as concise and to the point as possible. This is where you get to make a first impression and also stand out from a sea of sponsorship demands that end up in the trash bin. So make it count.
Here's a few tips on drafting that all-important first email or conducting your introductory call:
- Briefly (=2-3 sentences max) introduce yourself and your event
- Briefly (=2-3 sentences max) point to what sponsor objectives you think a sponsorship of your event could benefit
- End with a request for a follow-up meeting or call to share more details
Including an attachment showcasing some key aspects of your event is ok. But avoid:
- Going into lengthy discussions of your race or sponsorship proposal before hearing what your sponsor needs (ideally you want to get into this discussion in the follow-up meeting)
- Pleading/sounding desperate
First meeting (aka the discovery session)
Well done on getting to your first sponsor meeting! You're already in a slim minority of organizers: you have someone interested enough in your race to want to spend time hearing what you have to say.
Although it is tempting to spend your first meeting with the sponsor pitching your event to them, try to resist the temptation and instead use the meeting to understand what the sponsor's objectives are. This means trying to figure out:
- What is the sponsor trying to get out of a potential sponsorship of your event? Expand awareness of their product? Increase sales? Enhance their brand's image?
- What assets of your property could potentially provide a good match for your sponsor's objectives?
- How much work will be involved on your end in delivering on the sponsorship?
- How will your sponsor assess the sponsorship and whether it has been a success for them?
- How will the person opposite you stand to gain from the sponsorship? Will they be seen as an innovator in their company if the sponsorship succeeds? How invested will they be in the sponsorship's success?
Listen. Take notes. You will use that information to get back to your sponsor with a winning proposal.
Preparing a winning sponsorship proposal
The sponsor's eager and you know exactly what they're after. It's time to submit your sponsorship proposal.
Although you've come a long way its still easy to get undone at this stage by the two cardinal sins of sponsor-seeking:
- Talking about what you want , rather than what you can deliver for the sponsor
- Failing to sufficiently align your proposal with your sponsor's specific needs
Yes, copying your last sponsorship proposal and editing your sponsor's name and company details is tempting - it will definitely save you a lot of time. But blowing it at this stage for lack of attention to your sponsor's needs would be the real waste of time. So go the extra mile. It will be worth it.
When it comes to drafting your proposal, you can use either a presentation or document format. We actually prefer the former as it is more visual and helps you think harder about keeping the content concise, but in the end it doesn't really matter which one you go with.
Making sure the right type of information is included though does matter. Here's what your proposal should include:
- An introduction of your event. Include an event name, date, location, short history and other notable information. Include some information on your organization and/or cause, if you're a charity. Keep this short.
- A section about your sponsor's objectives . It's important to include a short section on your sponsor's needs early in your proposal. This can be a real winner. You're not only setting the scene for the rest of the proposal, where you're detailing how you plan to meet those needs, you're also showing your sponsor you've got your priorities straight: this is going to be about you serving them.
- An overview of your assets , reach and overall event footprint. Here you should include information and statistics about your website, social media and other assets you may leverage to deliver on your sponsorship commitments (e.g. mailing lists, club newsletters etc). Include demographics for your audience, so your sponsor gets a feel for whom they will be targeting through your event. If you have more data than you can fit on a single slide, pick your best to share and avoid diluting down the message with secondary information.
- A list of undertakings you would make to the sponsor. This section should provide a detailed account of your commitments to the sponsor. What assets are you making available? If you are providing exposure on specific assets only or at specific times, make note of these limitations to prevent future misunderstandings. Be specific , as your sponsor will hold you accountable against these commitments.
- A section on other sponsors who may have committed to your event. If you have other sponsors already signed up, the social proof will help make the sponsor comfortable there's others who find value in your offering. If not, leave this section out and definitely do not include sponsors you're in discussions with but have not yet signed up. It's disingenuous and can easily backfire.
- A sponsorship price . Should you or shouldn't you include a price on your proposal? That is the question. And opinion is divided on this. We would suggest that you do include a sponsorship price, because eventually you'll have to and you may as well get the sponsor on the same page as early as possible. Either way, have some numbers prepared and be ready to defend your price in terms of the assets you bring to the table (audience size, value of exposure etc).
A really easy way to extract demographics information for your audience it to use your website's Google Analytics data or Facebook's Page Insights for your Facebook page. If you can't use either of these for whatever reason, the next best thing would be to use Facebook's Audience Insights tool. Choose a page or event your audience would likely follow, e.g. the Comrades Marathon or NYC Marathon pages, or an interest, such as "5k running", and note the demographics of people in that audience. Include a quick reference of what that audience corresponds to in your proposal to be transparent with sponsors on how you got the information.
Negotiation & execution
Getting a response from your sponsor on your proposal is amazing news. Your almost there!
If your sponsor just agrees to all the terms in your proposal, including price, there's nothing more to do than send them a sponsorship letter or agreement for them to sign (always document the terms of your final agreement to avoid misunderstandings and awkward conversations down the line).
More likely than not, however, the sponsor will come back with questions and perhaps a counter-offer on the scope or price of the sponsorship.
It is really pointless trying to go over all the possible variations of a sponsorship negotiation. However, here's our high-level advice on how you should approach this stage of your dialogue with the sponsor, depending on the level and depth of your working relationship:
If you have worked with the sponsor on previous events and you are confident in their appreciation of your past efforts, you can be more firm with them and negotiate harder. If they have paid for these or similar sponsorship benefits in the past, the ball is on their court to argue why the same terms won't work this year round.
If, on the other hand, this is your first year working with the sponsor, focus on execution and delivery, not on trying to squeeze the most out of your sponsorship. This is why:
- You need the sponsor more than they need you. This is just a statement of fact. You should obviously not be compelled to roll over and sign an agreement at any price (because this sets a precedent with this and other sponsors for future negotiations). But the truth is you approached the sponsor and they likely have other equally good event sponsorship options to look at, if they wanted to.
- You need to prove yourself first. You make the promises, you need to show you can deliver, before asking for more. If you do deliver, discussions the following year can take place on a different basis. But, first time round and with no proven record, the onus is on you to do your bit first, ask for better terms later.
- Retaining this sponsor is easier (though not easy) than getting a fresh sponsor to this stage. You've done all the hard work - really you have. So get this sponsor over the line under the best terms possible and focus on making the sponsorship a success in the long run.
Keeping that in mind, if it comes down to a price negotiation, your first instinct should be to try to increase sponsorship than dropping your sponsorship price.
Don't ask yourself "How low should I go?" Ask instead "What can I throw into the sponsorship proposal that would make the price worth paying?" One easy - and cheap - way to do that is by giving your sponsor first dibs on next year's sponsorship and other similar benefits that don't impact price directly.
Only if you can't bridge the value gap by increasing the scope of the proposal should you move to considering a price adjustment.
Delivering on your commitments
Once you get the sponsorship agreement wrapped up, the real work has only begun. You now have to deliver on your sponsor's expectations and, if possible, exceed them.
Assuming the commitments you've undertaken are realistic (ambitious deliverables are good, provided you can get there in the end), delivering on your sponsorship should come down to a project management exercise: tracking goals, updating sponsors and making sure what needs to be done gets done.
- Set up each sponsor in a separate section
- Under each sponsor, set up each sponsorship deliverable category, e.g. "Brand exposure", "Email marketing" etc
- For each category, lay out all of the initiatives or tasks that will have to be delivered
- For each task, assign a due date and task owner in your team
If you don't use a specialist project management tool, you can set everything up on a spreadsheet with different tabs for different sponsors.
Once you lay out the structure of your sponsorship delivery project, set up email update alerts to remind you to regularly communicate progress to sponsors. These should not be too frequent, but frequent enough to make sure sponsors are kept up to speed with the successful delivery (or upcoming delivery) of key sponsorship initiatives.
Keeping sponsors happy in the long run
It must be fairly obvious from everything we've discussed so far that retaining a sponsor is a lot easier than gaining one. So when you do get a sponsor on board it pays hugely to invest in keeping them happy.
Unfortunately, retaining sponsorship in the long term may not always be under your control. Sponsor marketing objectives change and the tools sponsors use to deliver them, including your sponsorship, may rise and fall in relevance.
However, there's a few things you could do to maximize the chances that your sponsorship remains relevant and you stay at the front of your sponsor's sponsorship queue:
- Don't be complacent. This is more of an umbrella statement. Below we break down what that entails in a bit more detail.
- Meet/chat with sponsors regularly. Way before the time comes to discuss or renegotiate your sponsorship agreement, you should be engaged with sponsors, catching up on what they're doing and how their objectives may be shifting or developing.
- Follow sponsor initiatives throughout the year. Don't only leave it to sponsor meetings to follow developments on your sponsor's end. Closely follow what they're posting on social media and press releases to get a head start on how you could better serve their needs through your event.
- Experiment with new ways of delivering value. Always be on the lookout for new ways to make your offering to sponsors richer and more effective (and potentially up-sell them to more lucrative sponsorship deals). Continue to monitor what your peers and more prestigious events are bringing to the table and borrow from initiatives you think could work for your sponsors.
- Keep sponsors aware of major event milestones. Every so often, it doesn't hurt blowing your own trumpet. So if you have an achievement or milestone to share with sponsors, be sure to do so - particularly if it helps underline your event's reach growth or other key metrics that may become relevant in future sponsorship discussions.
- Be loyal. If your event has grown from modest beginnings to a big deal, it's good to keep in mind who helped along the way and believed in you early on. And that includes your sponsors. You should obviously focus on the bottom line of each proposal and sponsor relationship, but make sure to remain loyal to sponsors who have stuck with you when you needed it most.
- Don't be greedy. Even if you've managed to make your event one that sponsors are fighting over, don't exploit your position to overcharge for benefits you deliver. Be long-term greedy instead and continue to build on the desirability of your sponsorship assets.
Getting sponsorship for your event is a daunting task. We've done it ourselves and know many stories of race directors struggling with it, so we get your pain.
This is where you set yourself apart from the rest. Skillfully navigating all the necessary steps to signing up a sponsor and keeping them happy will give your event a strong advantage towards long-term prosperity. Keep that in mind when frustration sets in along the way.
Hopefully, in this guide you should have everything you need to map out your journey from sponsor identification to sponsorship execution. If you have any comments or suggestions for improving our race sponsorship guide, we'd love to hear them. So fo ahead, drop them in the comments section below.