I've been in this sport for sixteen years now, and I have gained experience at just about every level: from a novice struggling to finish my first sprint, to a veteran Ironman competitor pushing myself to finish at the top of an international pro field. I love the sport, and I love examining its ins and outs, from training to racing to living the triathlon lifestyle. From that examination come these thoughts on sponsorship.
While poking around on the internet Friday afternoon, I stumbled upon a few blogs (and a few blogger comments) which started me thinking about sponsorship in the world of triathlon. It's not only the blog posts that got me thinking. Hearing some of my fellow pro triathletes' opinions has made me wonder about the trends of our sport; and talking to various age group athletes, has presented me with similar questions.
What I continue to ask myself is this: why do so many athletes consider it their right to be sponsored? Why do they not realize that the support of a sponsor is a hard earned privilege?
First I thought it would be helpful to define sponsorship. Primarily, a sponsor is someone who assumes responsibility for another person, or who vouches for that person. Or to expand on that, it is someone who takes care of another. Be it in a financial, emotional, or physical manner, a sponsor takes responsibility for someone else.
In triathlon, as in other sports, sponsors take care of athletes by providing them money, equipment, and general support in his or her endeavors. Sponsors do this so that the athlete can perform better, so he or she can achieve certain goals, so he or she can make a living, and so the sponsor can share in the responsibility of the athlete's struggles and accomplishments. In short, they do so because they care about the athletes.
They do not do this because they have to do so.
My recent observations have told me that far too many triathletes assume that they deserve sponsorship for one or more of the following reasons:
a) They are (or think they are) really fast at swimming, biking, and running;
b) They are the most "loyal" customer of a particular company;
c) They just want to get free stuff;
d) They see that others have sponsors, so they assume that they, too, should have sponsors, and
e) They need sponsorship to feed their egos, because then they will be "sponsored athletes," like Tiger Woods.
At this point, I am afraid I'm going to have to call bullshit.
I find it absolutely appalling when I read about a disgruntled athlete who choses to boycott or discontinue use of a product merely because the company who produces it decides not to sponsor that particular athlete. If the basis of the sponsorship request was that the athlete believes in and uses the product, why does that change if the company chooses not to invest in the athlete? In other words, if you were going to wear that race outfit when you thought it was going to be free, why wouldn't you use it once you know you have to pay for it?!!
Additionally, I periodically hear an athlete talking badly about a company or a product: "So-and-so did not get back to me promptly when I asked them to sponsor me," or "this-and-that is an inferior company because they chose not to spend money on me." (Yes, it does cost a sponsor money even if it's purely a product-only deal.) If the athlete is talking smack about a company just because it has chosen not to sponsor him or her, it is pretty clear the sponsor made the right decision: nobody wants to be associated with a smack-talking whiner!
In contrast to the above reasons for seeking sponsorship, here are some pretty simple questions to ask prior to making that sponsorship inquiry:
a) Do I believe in the product?
b) Can I make the company more successful, or can I help it improve?
c) Will I make a good representative of the company?
d) Am I capable of clearly communicating the company's message to its customers or clients?
e) Do I want sponsorship, or do I need sponsorship?
In the end, we could not have professional triathletes without the generous support of our sponsors. Rather than be bitter, disgruntled or ungrateful, we should be appreciative that there are kind-hearted, giving businessmen and (and women) who chose to associate their companies with us as athletes. As an extension or a representation of the sponsors' companies, we athletes should stand up, be thankful, and take nothing for granted.
Sponsorship is NOT a right; it is most certainly a privilege... and one to which not everyone is entitled. And that's OK, too.