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I’ve been practicing graphic design since 2008 and since then have started a digital design studio, a mini grassroots sports design operation, and worked for a couple of studios. The things that get me buzzing are top sport branding and design, great typefaces, digital marketing and content production and fresh approaches to UI design.

I’m currently employed at the Melbourne Racing Club as Digital Producer (my views are solely my own), as a Creative Direction Consultant for Centre Square Development and for the Dandenong Baseball Association as the Website Content Manager. On top of that I dabble in some freelance work, having closed down my business Flag Digital in April 2015.

Apart from work I play baseball and sit on the committee for the Chelsea Baseball Club. You can also hear me as a previous co-host on episodes 1-63 on the Web Agency Podcast.

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Dear Grassroots Clubs: Why Businesses Don’t Sponsor You

December 4, 2013

Today I want to discuss about how grassroots clubs approach sponsorship, not from the perspective of someone who has experience as a sponsorship manager but from the perspective of a small business owner.

While I was at the Sports Club Management Expo here in Melbourne, I was chatting with Avner from Centre Square Development and he said something that was right on the mark: most businesses see a sponsorship not as a partnership but as a donation.

Donations generally happen as a result of a positive relationship with a non-profit or club. In a sporting club sense, the business owner/donor may have been a previous player, committee member, fan or related to a player. Their donation is rooted in altruism. It’s no wonder then that local clubs struggle to gain new sponsors – the circle is so small and it changes so infrequently that the same businesses are always hit up for more cash.

I was also chatting to a real estate agent about this issue and he said he’d spoken to a lot of small business people who “hate sponsoring clubs and schools because they take the money and don’t genuinely support the businesses”. It’s no wonder these people never invest in sponsorship again.

At the SCME, Steve Pallas from Sports Community outlined 4 different reasons why a business would sponsor a local club (by the way, if you’re a volunteer or manager of a local club I’d highly recommend going to Sports Community). Only 1 of those was for business benefit. So how do we make a solid business case for those local small to medium businesses to invest in a sponsorship?

The main change in mindset needs to occur at the club level – it’s not a sponsorship, but a partnership. What does that mean? It means both parties are working hard for each others’ benefit.

How do clubs approach this at the moment? They offer sponsorship packages where small to medium local businesses can put their name on things like signs, uniforms, events, newsletters, Facebook, the club website etc etc. This type of marketing is called brand awareness marketing, and the problem with it is that it only really works for big companies with big marketing budgets. Brand awareness marketing for most small to medium local businesses is a bad move and in most cases does not result in sales for the sponsoring business. This means that most sponsorship investment by businesses are an unwise move.

There are 2 ways to approach this problem:

  1. Improve: Increase brand awareness marketing effectiveness.
  2. Change: Allow for greater depth and creativity of marketing campaigns through a varied partnership program.

IMPROVE

Both Internal & External sponsors (external sponsors in this case are ones that have had no previous affiliation/connection to the club) can find some improved success with club sponsorship by engaging with the club and its members and by encouraging members to participate actively in club activities. What does this mean? For the local fish and chip shop it might mean putting up club fixtures in the shop window and decking the shop out in the club colours during finals weeks.

The problem is that most sponsors don’t know how to improve the rate of purchase intention as a result of sponsorship, and it’s up to clubs to educate them – they’re the ones asking for the cash after all! It’s not enough to mention the sponsors on facebook once a year, thank them at the end of year speech and whack their logo on a ground sign or scoreboard.

Clubs should be producing a booklet with ideas on how sponsors can improve their chances of increasing sales as a direct result of their connection to the club. Otherwise, you may even run a sponsors information session at the start of the season to discuss these ideas.

The other main area to improve is communication with the club members – rather than just putting the business names on newsletters and websites, clubs can really help by strongly and repeatedly encouraging members to use sponsors in all communications. A creative way of achieving effective communication in this area apart from saying “These are sponsors so go buy from them” could be having other members reviewing sponsors products, or allowing sponsors to write helpful articles in your newsletter. The possibilities are endless – get inspiration from the nature of your club and the nature of the sponsor’s business and the right idea will show up.

CHANGE

Moving the focus away from brand awareness marketing may mean less signs on the fence, but a lot more money in the club account! This approach allows sponsors to start their sponsorship investment at a lower level, then growing that investment when they see the results.

The approach is this: investing in a sponsorship allows the door to the member database to be opened to the business, and the level of sponsorship allows for different levels of marketing campaigns by the business. Allowing the business to take control of their in-club marketing allows them the chance to develop creative campaigns that increase sponsor retention rates (where members can remember the names of sponsors).

A couple of ideas:

Basic Level (perfect for dipping the toes in the pond):

Membership Discount Card – used for discounts at all local sponsors – accompanied with a professional booklet listing all the discounts. When I surveyed one group of fans, most couldn’t name any minor sponsor, apart from one that had a fantastic discount. In fact, most could only name the 3 or 4 major sponsors for the year, and had trouble remembering the major sponsors of previous years. It works with an economy of scale – a lot of smaller sponsors can add to the bottom line.

Medium Level:

Sponsors Rounds – Sponsors set up a stall selling their products and services at the game, also handing out flyers. It gives the sponsors a chance to get to know the fans and get associated with the club. Costs practically nothing for the club.

Sponsor Networking Meetings – Host regular meetings (or host them at a sponsor’s venue) expressly for the purpose of sponsors finding a useful referral base for word-of-mouth marketing. This can be used to set up a local business trading group. Willing sponsors pay for the meal/drinks and can potentially make connections worth thousands of dollars for their business.

Higher Level

Round Sponsor – Allow a major sponsor to run a Family Round at your ground, supplemented by direct marketing to the member database in the fortnight leading up to the event. This allows them to hand out marketing materials.

Creative Activations – At this level you can get really creative by matching with businesses that relate to parts of club life. For example, micro-breweries seem to be popping up everywhere in Victoria and they often make seasonal, short-run beers for the micro-brewery beer enthusiast community.

Clubs could partner with the brewery to create an exclusive beer for the club which earns the local brewery loyalty to their brand. Each beer sold makes money for both parties and generates a pride for the locality. The beer could then also be sold to local bars, restaurants and supermarkets with profits split between brewer and club.

Another example is a local kids playcentre hosting sports related games and activities at your venue for kids who aren’t participating in the on-ground sport.

The Key

The key for all of this is to make sure that club sponsors are remembered and doing it in a way that encourages members to use their services or buy their goods. If a club is really intent on creating relationships with the local community and helping the local businesses that help them, they need to either pull themselves away from the addiction to pointless naming rights and signage and move toward a real partnership structure or improve the current brand-awareness-heavy packages by educating sponsors. By doing both your club will make your sponsors happy and they’ll keep investing in your club. It’s a win-win!

The Question

How are you going to ensure all your sponsors end the year saying “There’s no way I wouldn’t sponsor the club again next year!”?

If your club has done something great for local sponsors – let us know about it in the comments below!