For an entrepreneur, it's not hard to understand the national love affair with sports. They can be exhilarating, unpredictable, even a little dangerous--not unlike the entrepreneurs themselves.
Businesses that sponsor sporting events can bust their budgets just as quickly as players can break their legs. Want to sponsor March Madness? Plan on spending about $690,000 for 30 seconds of glory during the Final Four. The same spot in college football's BCS championship game runs about $900,000, and a Super Bowl ad will set you back almost $2.4 million.
And then there's the National Dodgeball League, where, for about $10,000, you could sponsor a bunch of fit, photogenic 20-somethings hurling balls at each other for an entire season. If that's too violent for your taste, you might want to consider a $500 team sponsorship in kickball, the old playground pastime now enjoying a national resurgence among thousands of young professionals in the World Adult Kickball Association. How about beach tennis, lawn bowling, sand soccer, roller derby, or lawnmower racing? The fact is, if there's an offbeat sport you can dream of, it probably already has a league in place--and that league is looking for sponsors.
"There is definitely a growing trend in 'fringe' or 'secondary' sports," says Ray Artigue, executive director of the sports business MBA program at Arizona State University's W.P. Carey School of Business. "The level of competition or participation is really relative. It's still a sport, and it often captures our imagination."
Of all the new sports out there, probably nothing has captured more people's imaginations than lawnmower racing. Born 16 years ago as a promotional stunt for STA-BIL fuel additive, the wacky competition quickly took on a life of its own through countless media stories, TV shows like Home Improvement, and even its own video game, Lawnmower Racing Mania. This year, many of the sport's 17 national events will be featured on The Outdoor Channel, while more than 130 officially sanctioned smaller races will get prominent coverage on the local news.
For Steve Gruber, president of Wolf Creek Productions, that kind of media attention was too good to pass up. Gruber needed to make more viewers aware of his nationally syndicated hunting and fishing shows, and traditional advertising wasn't doing the trick.
"I never got much return from my full-page ads in hunting magazines, because those are the same people I'm already talking to on my shows," he says. Gruber thought NASCAR fans would be a good way to grow his audience, but he had to be realistic: "Let's face it, I'm not in the position to sponsor Ryan Newman," he says.
Lawnmower racing gave Gruber a NASCAR-like demographic at a fraction of the cost. For $5,000 he sponsored a full season for Craig Pond, a Michigan racer on the national circuit. Pond's tractor was painted with the Wolf Creek name and logo, creating the "Wolf Creek Racing Team." Compared to a $250,000 entry-level NASCAR sponsorship, the lawnmower deal allowed Gruber to reach race fans without dropping a bundle.
Of course, not every business is looking for NASCAR's red-state demographic. Professional dodgeball is a growing phenomenon with younger, more urban fans in cities like Baltimore, Denver and Pittsburgh. Kickball is a big participation sport (and even bigger social event) among young office workers in at least 20 states and the District of Columbia. And at the other end of the spectrum are lawn bowls, with refined clubs coast to coast that draw primarily the wine-and-cheese set as opposed to kickball's beer-and-potato-chips crowd.
No matter what the sport or the demographic, because these leagues are struggling to get established, they are eager to work with entrepreneurs in structuring a sponsorship that makes the most sense for their business.
"We understand that you're getting involved in a fledgling sport, and we're willing to pretty much work with you to do what you want to do," says John Rarrick, with Beach Tennis USA. The company aims to introduce Americans to the tennis-volleyball hybrid through beach tennis clinics and tournaments.
The National Dodgeball League is also looking to get creative with sponsorships.
"We'd like to work with sponsors to come up with marketing that's more interesting than just throwing a banner up on a wall," says Ed Prentiss, the league's president. "For instance, if Speed Stick deodorant were a sponsor, we'd have a Speed Stick Speed Throw contest to see who could throw the fastest ball. It just takes a little creative thinking on both our parts."
For his part, Arizona State's Artigue believes such creative thinking represents a potentially smart investment for entrepreneurs.
"Sports sponsorship is all about borrowing off of the interest in a team or a league and creating affinity with their avid fan base," he says. Given the proper alignment between business and fan base, "it could be that one of these fringe sports presents the most targeted and efficient way to spend your money."