Acquiring Sponsorships: Playing the Percentages

Posted on October 11th, 2011 by Mark "Spike" Liu
This is a TD Tuesdays guest post by Adam Levy of Ultimate Performance Chicago.
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My name is Adam Levy and I have been the Event Director of Ultimate Chicago Sandblast since 2003. Sandblast is a co-ed beach ultimate Frisbee tournament held on the sandy beaches of Chicago, Illinois that has increased to 60 teams and more than 1,000 player participants, volunteers and spectators in 2011.

Based on the number of high quality ultimate Frisbee tournaments on the calendar for our community, I have always been driven by the opportunity to differentiate Sandblast and maintain the highest reputation and rate of return of player participants. To that goal and in addition to the increase in quality and quantity of our teams and players from across the United States, a large focus has been on driving the value towards those player participants through the generous support of many national corporate sponsors.

The goal of this article is to share some of my experience and perceived success in this area of event sponsorship such that other national tournament directors can become EVENT directors and take their EVENTS to another level of success for all involved.

History of Sandblast

More than eleven years ago, the trend of beach ultimate picked up across the country and the world as new and friendlier surface for our ultimate Frisbee community to come together. In the summer of 2001, a pair of Chicago ultimate players, Nate Volkman and Jet Quennemon, came up with the idea of hosting a 16-team two-day co-ed tournament on Montrose Beach. The first year was very successful and the second even more so as they offered core tournament amenities of water, fruit, bagels and a Saturday night tournament party.

At the time the tournament had started, I was living in Southern California and after returning back to Chicago in 2002, I reached out to the guys in early 2003 offering to help. They had enjoyed their experience and were ready for something new so they handed the reins over to me and the rest is history.

What was a 16-team, all Chicago-based tournaments quickly expanded to outside of Chicago through my recruiting into Wisconsin, Michigan and other bordering states. Over the years, I am proud to have recruited teams consistent from across the Midwest as far south as Texas, Coast to Coast, from Canada and even overseas players and teams.

In 2011, we welcome 60 teams from across the country with more than 1,000 player participants, volunteers and spectators. Here are some of our recent highlights and achievements from our sponsorship programs:

  • In 2010, Chipotle Mexican Grill donated 1,200 burritos, 800 free chips & quac cards and gave away 200 more free burrito cards on-site.

  • In 2010, Goose Island donated 40 cases of 312 beer, Svedka donated 5 cases of vodka and Kilo Kai donated 5 cases of rum In 2011, FUZE donated 3,000 bottles of yummy fruity goodness.

  • In 2011, Qdoba Mexican Grill donated 1,000 naked burrito bowls in one day.

  • In 2011, Goose Island, Shiner Bach and Landshark Lager donated 12 kegs of beer collectively

Cutting Costs

As I reviewed the tournament history, my first attempts at sponsorship were to review the balance sheet and see where costs could quickly be eliminated with the goal of maintaining team registration fees while increasing player value and battling economic pressures. The first stages of sponsorship were reviewing common tournament goods like water, bananas, bagels, lunch supplies and the tournament party. To find potential partners, it required a significant amount of research to find local providers of these goods that were interested in supporting the community and making a positive impression. Fortunately, you can get a lot of research done by doing what you already do, but just being more observant! Going to the grocery, attending street festivals with different vendor/merchant booths or surfing the web. When I would be grocery shopping and I would see new products on the shelves, people may have thought I was a bit strange as I would be writing down names and websites for each so I can email them and introduce myself.

Positioning Statements

At the start, it helps tremendously to have a good elevator pitch about your event and most importantly about your product…the attending player participants. We have it very, very easy as our demographic is one of the most attractive in all of our communities due to TWO key factors.

One, our sport/community is made up of 40% female. I cannot cite the specific study, but there are two factors here on why females are important. Number one, they make your event balanced where your potential sponsor can hit multiple audiences versus a football or basketball game where it tends to be much more dominated by men. Number two, there may be a factor when marketers understand the reality of influence that females have over men in decisions and potentially doing the future shopping. (My apologies if this comes off as sexist, but I do have a daughter and know she is the boss and gets what she wants for the most part.)

Two, unlike basketball, soccer and football where you started learning in your driveway or backyard with family and friends, our community learns ultimate in college. College equals college degrees. College degrees equal better jobs. Better jobs equals more disposable income which is music to potential sponsors ears!

As an additional element to the “story,” I usually like to drop references to X Games and other sports that have recently taken off with a focus on how supporting and loyal the community is to those partners supporting ultimate at the ground floor. Once you start reaching out to prospective sponsors, it is important to be patient and, more importantly, persistent.

Devil in the Details and the Data

Once you secure a sponsor for your event, it is always important to be organized, responsive and thorough in summarizing their involvement. Get pictures, get quotes, get stories. Once the story was secured and as any Ultimate Chicago Sandblast attendee can testify, year after year, I have been more and more successful in increasing the level of sponsorship in the event to control registration costs while increasing player value. How did I do that? Data.

There is no greater weapon to be successful than capturing and sharing the DATA about your attending demographic audience. You will find that based on the tight economy and the death of non-DVR television (no commercials), potential sponsors are looking for unique channels to hit their target demographic and not just “spray and pray.” We have a valuable audience and it is just about proving it to them.

Doing player surveys after an event can be very tricky because you need to balance having enough questions about them and their product experience without being too many. At the same time, it also helps drive response if you have a carrot like offering tickets to a local activity, leftover event merchandise or some prizes as supplied by one of your sponsor partner. Your prospective partners understand the value of data and will support you if they know what the output will be.

Another key element is to understand what “experiential marketing” means. The easiest way to explain it is that it’s about putting products in potential consumers hands. I would include a reference to it in your positioning as it helps qualify you as knowing the lingo versus other people asking for hand-outs as there will definitely be others.

If your tournament has the fortune of raising or donating money for a charitable partner, that is important to include in your positioning as many companies can account for those donations as charitable. I would also recommend speaking with your charitable partner as they may also have relationships they can leverage to secure food, drinks and other items for your event.

Quality versus Quantity

As much as Frisbee players like free stuff, I came to learn in time that it was not necessarily about the quantity of free stuff as it is the quality. A few years ago, I started doing player packs that included samples of Advil, Chapstick, sunscreen, gum and more. Unfortunately, as the economy has gotten tougher, so has the ability to get certain product donations. It is tempting to think that more is the best, but you will find it is more work for you managing delivery, distribution and post-event follow-up in addition to sharing marketing exposure with so many logos.

As an additional note regarding the quality versus quantity, think about yourself at an ultimate tournament and the things that you bring, use and want to have with you. Food is clearly number one and then you go down the line with things like advil or medical tape. You will find that there are potential partners that will offer anything with a strong interest in promotional flyers and those are the things that proved more trouble than they were worth over time. Once again, leverage the community for ideas on what they would like to see and receive.

Target Practice

As reference above, the key is to start small and to start local. The larger national companies have gotten much more process oriented as well as focused their donations into the largest not-for-profit organizations. One of your lowest hanging fruit will be to leverage your local ultimate community to see which companies they know or may have connections. As also referenced above, in my first years, I reached out to a local fruit warehouse for bananas, apples and oranges and grabbed end-of-day bagels from the local Einstein’s. I would also recommend checking your local grocery stores as they look to compete against Target, Walmart and other super-stores, they have access to a wide range of products with a smaller, if any, marketing budget, so a trade is a great option for them.

Take advantage of how competitive and challenging the commercial landscape is and how competitive it is for all product categories, so food and drinks are a prime target and hitting the local street fests are a great opportunity to get ideas AND contacts. Keep in mind that to represent themselves at a street fest to give away product can cost several hundred dollars or more and you are offering it for FREE (to start) and again focus on the quality of the demographic.

Closing the Deal

Thank you very much for taking the time to read about my experiences as the Event Director of Ultimate Chicago Sandblast. Over the years, I have enjoyed expanding the value of my event for the player participants that return year after year and using some of the same success in support of other national events like Lei Out (Los Angeles Beach Tournament, January) and the Chicago Heavyweight Championships (Chicago Grass Tournament, September). Please feel free to reach out to me with any questions, comments or stories about your sponsorship successes and failures. It would be a pleasure to hear and potentially work with you to enhance the value and financial return of your own ultimate Frisbee experience.

Best ultimate wishes, Adam/Twirly

Adam J. Levy
Ultimate Performance Chicago Founder

  • Wow, great a college player who has a little experience hosting smaller tournaments I learned a ton. Great to see somebody with business savvy write about hosting tournaments! Thanks Adam.
    4:41 p.m. on October 11th, 2011
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