Gone are the days when CEOs would write six and seven figure checks just to see their company name in the bright lights in their favorite sports team’s arena. Companies are getting smarter, budgets are being scrutinized, and with the explosion of digital advertising, sponsorship sellers have to be even more creative and different in order to win business.
Along with other sports teams and events in the area, sponsorship sellers are competing with out-of-home, radio, television, mobile apps, and social media for the same pool of investment. It has become increasingly difficult to separate ourselves from other platforms that may seem, on the surface, more familiar, safer, and widely accepted.
In order for sellers to be successful in the industry, we must differentiate. I’m still in my first decade in sports business, so by no means do I have all the answers. But I have spent a lot of that time asking those more experienced than me what works, what doesn’t, and how to create separation from the rest. Here are the few lessons I’ve taken away:
Do your homework
This day and age, we have the world at our fingertips. The sheer amount of information that can be found about a person or company within seconds is empowering. Rarely, if ever, should you walk into a true “cold call” with potential sponsors. When I’m prospecting companies, I spend 10 minutes on their website, social media channels, and recent news articles seeing what’s important to them, thinking how we can align with their objectives, and who is making the decisions.
I dig through LinkedIn to target the appropriate people and devise a reach-out strategy. I want to build a relationship and demonstrate an understanding of who they are and what they are doing: Where did they go to school? Where have they worked previously? What articles have they shared or written? What non-profits are important to them? If I can find some sort of point of connection, it shows that I have invested time and research, while also showing them I can relate on an interpersonal level. Establishing a bond before they even accept my meeting request is a huge head start to a potential relationship.
For a business decision maker, buying a sponsorship is not a transactional decision, and we cannot approach it that way. They are often buying an idea, and many times that idea is unique and unproven. Investing time, resources, and money into a sponsorship that doesn’t work could cost someone their job, or in some cases, stunt the growth of their company.
At the basis of every true sponsorship is a foundation of trust that has been established between the seller and the buyer, and that connection takes time. The buyer ultimately has to have faith that the seller has understood their needs, aligned their interests, and the relationship will pay dividends for both parties. As a seller, the key to building trust is being genuine, demonstrating empathy, and being thoughtful about their needs.
One of the greatest feelings as a seller is walking out of a meeting with a prospect that went well. Getting a prospect to share in detail their goals and objectives and seeing in the moment how a sponsorship can come together really gets the endorphins firing. The next challenge is leaving that meeting and keeping the excitement rolling, maintaining engagement, and keeping your name top-of-mind. Following up with a prospect to thank them for their time and insights shows attention to detail and that you genuinely enjoyed the conversation. It seems easy, but so few people actually do it. Always follow up.
If you’re in a time crunch, a thank you email will suffice. However, I’ve never met someone who was wow’d by a thank you email. Flip it to a handwritten note, and now you’ve created a moment for the prospect. Being able to recall critical details you learned from conversation and eluding to them in your note shows you were listening and cared enough to remember. It can be tedious, but it’s well worth the time and attention to move the sales process forward.
If you only retain one concept from this piece, it should be this: no business owner cares what your annual revenue goal is, or what internal asset or platform you are pushing. They care about what aligns with their goals, not yours. There is a direct correlation between a seller’s understanding of their client’s goals & objectives and overall success of a sponsorship sales professional. Every custom program, in-game promotion, sign, video, social post, etc, included in a sponsorship should have a purpose. The question every seller should ask themselves when creating a sponsorship outline is “how does this piece fit into the overall puzzle of success for my client?” If you can solve a problem, there will always be a job for you.
The landscape of sports sponsorship is evolving at a rapid pace. I’m sure our world will look woefully different in 10 years. However, strong interpersonal sales skills will always be necessary to help establish and build trust. Doing whatever you can to stand out from the competition will never go unnoticed.
Travis Misner is the Manager of Partnership Development at the Charlotte Hornets. Prior to that he was the Manager of Corporate Partnerships at the Kalamazoo Growlers baseball club. He's also an adjunct professor, teaching sport sales to students. He has his MBA and Masters of Sport Administration degree(s) from Ohio University and has volunteered with both Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and the Special Olympics. He has a strong desire to give back and help others. You can learn more about Travis and follow along with him on LinkedIN here.