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Three Keys to Attracting Sponsorships

Three keys to making the leap from the sponsorship minors to the majors.

It's one thing to have the Main St. Soda Shoppe on board as a key sponsor of your youth sports team. It's quite another to have the names of multimillion-dollar beverage corporations like Starbucks emblazoned on your team gear.

The chances that a Little League team from the Midwest can attract the attention of Madison Avenue's biggest brands are surprisingly good, says Chris Moler, owner of STARR Solutions, an Oklahoma City-based sports marketing consultancy.

Still, youth sports organizations shouldn't wait for companies to make the first move. "Look for partners who have a need for community goodwill," says Moler. "They present the perfect opportunity for smaller groups like Little Leagues and recreation organizations."

Here are three keys to making the leap from the sponsorship minors to the majors:

1. Get creative. Banners no longer net the results they did even a decade ago - for sponsors or teams. You have to devise other ways to deliver maximum exposure to the sponsor, while generating revenue for your program.

Strategies could include asking a sponsor to buy naming rights to a season championship - complete with a trophy, corporate-logoed T-shirts and publicity photos - or getting its employees to volunteer time to the league's activities. "Companies will sponsor anything if their employees can participate in a volunteer role," says Moler. "Let's say that 100 employees donate 100 hours of time and that's worth $5,000 to the company. The company then will donate that $5,000. And because the employees are engaging the community through the Little League - as referees, concessions staff and ticket handlers - the company gets positive exposure."

2. Start small and start early. Big corporations may voice a desire to lend your group its support, but that's not necessarily an invitation to inundate its headquarters with sponsorship requests.

Rather, start with the local representative of your potential sponsor. "If you're dealing with a Home Depot or Lowe's, oftentimes the store manager only has the authority to give you a 10 percent discount on products - and maybe a $500 cash donation," says Moler. "But don't be afraid to ask the local manager to get you to the district manager, who has five or six stores under his or her watch. Then, you might be able to get a $3,000 to $5,000 contribution."

But you'll have little chance of securing such a sponsorship if you wait until the last minute to ask. The average length of time it takes to close a local sponsorship deal, from the first contact to the time you get the check, is three to six months. Regional sponsorships can take six to nine months, national deals up to 18 months.

3. Have a backup plan. Finally, be prepared to act if a potential sponsor denies your proposal. "If they say no, one of the questions to ask is, 'What do I need to do to get on your calendar next year?' " says Moler. "Try to engage that sponsor this year - you might even go so far as letting them be a part of your program for very little or even nothing. Give them a free spot to put a team in your adult league, if you have one. You'd be amazed at how fast you can build that relationship."

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