Written by: Shelby Avann

Most young athletes cannot afford to supplement their sport of choice on their own, even if they have family assisting them. Attracting sponsors to help defray showing and training costs can be the answer – but it takes work.

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For all of her young life, Suzy’s parents have provided riding lessons; however, now in her 18th year, she finds herself struggling to fund her equestrian career on her own. A young adult in her first year of university, she has very little money to spare on riding. Suzy has four options: she stops showing until she is finished school; she sells her horse and quits riding altogether; she drops out of university to pursue her equestrian career (her parents would not be impressed); or she finds a new way to fund her riding career so that she can continue showing while she stays at university. The young lady chooses option four and delves into researching sponsorship opportunities. All sports athletes can benefit from sponsorship, but need to consider why they need it, who would be best-suited to help make their dreams come true, where to find good sponsors, and how to approach a potential company to get sponsorship. Before you enter into any sponsorship agreement, however, make sure that it does not conflict with Equine Canada rules and negatively affect your amateur status.

Here are some basic guidelines for finding and keeping precious sponsors – including advice from companies both inside and outside the horse industry.

Clean up your act

The first thing you should do is complete a Google search on yourself to see if anything negative is found. Clean up your social media accounts by removing any incriminating information that may include alcohol, drugs, or other indecent or suggestive pictures or posts. Set your privacy settings on your social media pages to “private” so that sponsors (or future employers, for that matter) cannot snoop around and find something they may not like which could destroy your chances of receiving sponsorship.

Andre Laurin from Ocean Transportation Services Freight Forwarding in Vaughan, ON, who sponsor Snowcross racers, stated that they have staff on their team who keep track of the social media of all of the athletes that they sponsor. “We constantly check social media to make sure they are continually being professional, otherwise we may have to let them go,” says Laurin. It is becoming the norm these days for sponsors to monitor social media to ensure that their competitors are always being professional and not making comments that could cause the sponsor to lose business.

Know what you need

Make a detailed list of all the expenses you are paying so that you will know exactly what you need to request, because the company will want to know exactly what they will be funding. Olympic eventer Diana Burnett keeps an expense sheet for supplementing an Olympic-level horse for one year. The expenses include board, vet costs, tack and equipment, shoeing, entry fees, show stabling, show clothes, transport costs, vehicle insurance, riding lessons, horse insurance, fees and memberships, feed supplements, and miscellaneous items. The overall bill came to slightly more than $60,000 a year.

Professionals who were interviewed for this article agreed that when a rider is looking for a sponsor, they have to be able to offer the company something in return. It is not just a free ride. As Gerard S. McKeon, the president of the New York Racing Association, told the New York Times, “…you can’t ask someone to sponsor an event and then give them nothing for their money.”

What are sponsors looking for?

Ken Avann, the race director of Canadian Snowcross Racing Association, says that you need to put yourself in the sponsor’s shoes and visualize what they would want from a rider. In his experience, sponsors like to see:

– a simple three-page document outlining what the participant is asking for and what they can do in return for the company;

– a resume or press kit in a professional folder, which includes biographical information, pictures, equestrian achievements, testimonials, past results, press clippings, and future goals. Also mentioning your well-maintained website and associations to which you belong can be helpful.

Equestrian Factory Outlet sponsors a number of athletes in dressage, para-dressage, jumping, and eventing, as well as supporting shows and associations. Their Community Achievement Award provides a one-year contract of corporate sponsorship, celebrating “individuals who go above and beyond in their dedication to the equestrian community, as well as the service to others…” The type of riders EFO is looking for – like many potential sponsors – are well-rounded individuals who are involved in the equine community and are respectable role models for others.

Brian and Betty Watts from Dayco Canada Corp., who support snowmobile racing, enjoy sponsoring younger generations in order to see them grow up and progress. These types of sponsors take pleasure simply by being involved in the community and like to see that their athlete is involved as well. Brian added that they like to give different products to their athletes to experiment with and provide input on how the merchandise is working, or what can be improved. Utilizing yourself to help with research and development, and providing feedback in a timely manner, can be another valuable deliverable you can offer.

Don’t be afraid to think outside the box as well: offer a prospective sponsor that may not be traditionally related to the horse industry the possibility to infiltrate a new demographic in which they are not currently involved, or are not yet a strong competitor. Make sure you can describe in detail the type of people who attend the events at which you compete.

Talk the talk, then walk the walk

Heather Patterson of Avid Equestrian, makers of custom-embroidered riding apparel in Bolton, ON, states that she would not sponsor anyone who did not personally approach and talk to her regarding their riding career. An athlete should also be:

– neatly dressed, clean-cut, and smiling

– friendly and comfortable around people (such as customers);

– genuine: sponsors can instantly spot phonies only looking for dollars;

– have goals and show potential in their particular discipline.

To give something back in return for another person helping you to support your goals is a simple courtesy. If you are going after a product sponsor in which you may receive items like show clothes, polos, tack, saddle pads, blankets, etc., then you must religiously wear that brand. The sponsored merchandise must be worn to help create exposure at shows, and you can also set up a product display, a banner on the trailer, a sponsor tent with logo chairs, and so on. Have pamphlets of the products available at your trailer and back at the barn to provide quick information to potential customers who may be interested in the company’s products. (Note: make sure that logos on jackets and saddle pads conform to the size and location restrictions in the Equine Canada and/or FEI rule books.)

The end goal is that when people see you always riding well in the same type of saddle pad or the same boots, they assume that they are good quality and may ask you about the product. In that case it becomes your job to promote the sponsored merchandise. For this reason it makes sense to find companies making products that you genuinely like, because it makes them that much easier to promote.

Care and maintenance of sponsors

To keep a sponsor, you have to make yourself an asset to the company. If you are not a positive feature, then there is no point in them putting time and money into you. You have to think of yourself as an employee who has to work to earn your keep, as well as represent the company well. You may be expected to attend public functions that the company may be hosting to assist in supporting the team. Invite your sponsor to one of your shows and make them feel at home. At banquets and public events, take the time to mention or thank the companies and individuals who are helping you move forward with your flourishing career in the saddle.

Some sponsors may also be keen for their athlete to start a blog to share how well their horses are doing on the sponsor’s supplements, how their products performed on show days, etc., along with images and videos. Make sure there is a link to their page on your blog. This shows regular activity and provides updates for the benefactors, as well creating a community of people who want to follow the competitor and gain interest in their supporters. Sponsors also want to receive press releases, results, and photos of every show in which you competed. This helps to keep them informed and feeling comfortable that backing you wasn’t a mistake.

When a rider is involved in the community, is a conscientious competitor and a genuinely good person who is quick to help out his or her sponsors, they become an asset to the company’s team. This can lead to a full ride in the future, as well as many more supporters who would be happy to come on board.

Sponsorship Snafus & Successes

Don’t:

– seek out any conflicting sponsors (i.e. if your sponsor provides show jackets, do not approach another show jacket company)

– go in with your list of demands without thinking about how you can reciprocate to benefit the company.

– leave your sponsors alone at an event to fend for themselves. Assign a friend or family member to attend to their needs when you are too busy.

– get involved in a scandal, or display any outrageous behaviour that could be captured digitally and posted or tweeted (or spread via the old-fashioned grapevine).

Do:

– promote your sponsor at every opportunity

– maintain high visibility in your field

– make sure your sponsor is mentioned in every media release

– keep your sponsors apprised of all your activities, especially successes

– try to make money on your own to show your sponsor you have a good work ethic and are not relying solely on them

– establish a relationship with others in the organization besides your key contact, in case they move on

– make sure they hear it from you first if there is ever any unpleasant news or publicity surrounding you

– stay professional; it can only increase your status.