Backed By Business

January 29, 2015
Once reserved for college athletic departments, corporate sponsorships are now making their way into high schools. Are they a good idea? And what are the nuances of making them work?
By Abigail Funk

Abigail Funk is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management. She can be reached at:

The North Andover (Mass.) High School athletic department had dealt with budget deficits before, but never to the extent of what it faced in the summer of 2008. The red number at the bottom of the page said almost $40,000, even after participation fees had been factored in.

In years past, the booster club plugged holes as big as $20,000, but twice that amount was asking too much. The district did not want to cut any sports, and it was very hesitant to increase participation fees with families already struggling due to the down economy.

That's when North Andover took the plunge into corporate sponsorship. School Committee member Chris Nobile created a sponsorship partner program, which he shopped to area businesses over the summer. By the time school started, he had secured more than the $40,000 needed to balance the budget.

"We found that businesses are very open to marketing that connects them to the school," Nobile says. "A lot of owners or CEOs have kids in the school system or had kids here in the past, so they want to support the athletic program.

"In fact, two thirds of our sponsors told me they didn't want any of their sponsorship money to be used for banners advertising their company name," he continues. "They wanted all their money to go straight into the athletic program. I was floored--I definitely didn't expect that."

In a time of decreased funding for schools, more and more high school athletic departments are turning to their business neighbors for help. Some, like North Andover, are new to the corporate sponsorship solution, while others have been relying on the revenue for years. In this article, we explore how the advertising landscape in high school athletics has changed, the different ways athletic departments are capitalizing on corporate sponsorships, and how the approach can work for any school.

As recently as five years ago, corporate sponsorship was a hotly debated topic. The questions were deep and there were no clear answers. Does corporate advertising have a place in high school athletics? Would commercialization of high school sports destroy its purity and make it beholden to business interests?

North Andover Athletic Director Jon Longley admits that he was--and still is--skeptical of relying on sponsorship monies to rectify a department's budget deficit. "The climate wasn't right to raise fees and we didn't want to cut programs, but we needed to do something," he says. "Corporate sponsorships worked for us in a pinch. I've always felt the approach is better for a one-time expenditure like renovating your stadium, but maybe things are changing."

Jon Ward, Athletic Director at Clarke Central High School in Athens, Ga., believes the debate is over. "With the economy the way it is, we can't get too philosophical about corporate sponsorships," he says. "It's a sign of the times that we just have to get down to the nuts and bolts of how we can provide for the needs of our athletic programs."

Andre Murphy, CEO of Brand Innovations, a marketing services company located in Acworth, Ga., that helps high school and college athletic departments find ways to generate revenue, suggests high school athletic directors look at the big picture. "Interscholastic athletics is still doing business the same way it did 20 years ago while every other level of play--professional, college, even youth--has evolved its model significantly," he says. "More than 50 percent of the high school population now participates in athletics, yet only one to two percent of district budgets go to athletics. Participation is growing, but that share of the budget has not changed. We have a funding model that puts a lot of pressure on the school systems and the parents, and it no longer works."

If corporate sponsorships are the answer, how does a high school athletic director begin soliciting businesses? To start, you need to figure out what sort of sponsorship deals work best for both your school and the companies you contact.

"Like any relationship, it has to be a win-win scenario," Murphy says. "You can't just say to a corporate sponsor, 'I want you to donate X amount of dollars.' It has to be a value proposition."

Brady Flachs, Director of Athletics at Big Rapids (Mich.) High School, who has been securing corporate sponsorships for the past two years, uses this type of approach. "The key to longevity of a program is not to walk around with your hand out, but to invest time in a relationship," he says. "We don't just ask businesses for donations and say, 'Thanks a lot.' We give them a forum to reach a lot of people through the popularity of athletics. We try to give our corporate sponsors as much bang for their buck as they might get through other advertising means."

The traditional way to provide sponsors with advertising is through banners with their names and logos on them, which Big Rapids did prior to Flachs's arrival. But last year, the school purchased a large-screen projector system that displays rotating ads on the gymnasium wall. The projected image is placed next to the scoreboard during games, where spectators' eyes are naturally drawn, and sponsors can change their ads weekly, highlighting new sales or merchandise. Flachs says the response from sponsors has been great.

Getting a rotating ad at Big Rapids requires purchasing one of the higher level sponsorship packages (up to $1,500), which also includes advertisements in the seasonal athletic programs, recognition in the local newspaper, season passes for all home contests, and entry into the school's annual golf outing. Some of the less expensive packages (as low as $50) include smaller ads in the athletic programs and a school T-shirt. All of the package levels include a plaque thanking the business for their sponsorship.

The Plano (Texas) Independent School District, which includes five schools for students in ninth and 10th grade and three more for students in 11th and 12th grade, uses numbers to sell its sponsorships. "We can show businesses we have a big fan base who will see their advertisements," says Associate Athletic Director Chris Feris. "At the end of the day, they all want to see the number of people they're going to reach. It certainly helps that we average 8,000 to 9,000 fans for a football game."

Plano has put together signage packages that include space in the gymnasiums during basketball games and on outfield fences at baseball and softball games. But the biggest draw is its football stadium scoreboard, which has replay capabilities--and a space for businesses to sponsor those replays.

At North Andover, Nobile also concentrates on the fact that he can give businesses a ton of exposure. His packages offer signage of different sizes at all the school's athletic facilities, and depending on which level the sponsor chooses (ranging from $500 to $5,000), it may also get announcements at home contests and in the local paper. "I put together a brochure with our attendance data, showing that 13,000 combined people attend our athletic events each year," Nobile says. "The school is also on a busy road, so their outdoor banners are seen by thousands of people each week.

"Sponsorships with schools are also an opportunity for businesses to do cause marketing, which I try to push," Nobile continues. "They can have their name associated with supporting the school, and that's pretty special."

Besides assuring your sponsors that their name will be seen by many fans, don't count out the smaller perks. Big Rapids has gotten great response when it hands out recognition plaques, T-shirts, and season passes. "The little trinkets may not seem like a lot, but these items help sponsors feel connected," Flachs says. "Another way we do that is by giving them our business. When the department needs to make a purchase, we always go to our corporate sponsors first to let them make an offer or put in a bid, and I think that makes them feel appreciated."

In his community, Ward found that it is also important to assure businesses their sponsorship monies aren't for just the football team. "The money from the sponsorships is available to all of our sports, not just one or two," Ward says. "For example, I tell businesses that we use some of the money for whichever team is up in the annual rotation for new uniforms. The fact that it is an equal funding opportunity has been a big selling point."

While the main component of obtaining a corporate sponsorship deal is laying out exactly what each party will receive, how you deliver your pitch can make a huge difference. Stepping into the shoes of a salesperson is key.

"My approach is to contact the owners or senior managers of companies and ask for a face-to-face meeting where I can present my proposal," Nobile says. "Nobody has turned me down immediately. There were certainly companies that weren't in a position to sponsor, but they were at least interested to hear what I had to say."

Flachs used to make phone calls to area businesses, but last year decided to hit the streets. "We've realized that the majority of business owners want to see you in person," says Flachs, who pounds the pavement with the school district's Finance Director, Nick Scheible. "Then, you have to invest time in these visits.

"The people who take the sponsorships are usually those who care about the community and the athletic program, and they want to discuss things," he continues. "They want to feel like they have a stake in what's going on, so they might want to talk about when their own son wrestled or played football for the school. The whole process has helped me connect more with the community and get a better pulse of what's going on in the streets."

Feris agrees that an e-mail or phone call won't cut it. "It's crucial to be able to get face to face with somebody," he says. "If they get a pamphlet in the mail, they will glance at it and throw it away. Also make sure you give them all the information at the time you meet with them. Think of the questions they might have before they ask."

Another effective part of the pitch is guaranteeing businesses they will receive only one solicitation per year from your athletic program. "Businesses in our community were previously being asked again and again--in fall, winter, and spring--to support our programs," Ward says. "So I met with each sport and got a list of the banks, grocery stores, and auto dealerships that had been donating. I then gave those businesses an opportunity to make an annual contribution via a corporate sponsorship. Being asked to donate only once a year was a huge perk for many businesses."

Sometimes, however, the best approach involves broader themes. Murphy likes to sell the idea that corporate interests and athletics can be a great match.

"We know there are a lot of benefits that come from playing sports, like learning communication, leadership, and teamwork," he says. "Corporate America is looking for leaders with those traits, and the kids who participate in athletics are their future employees, CEOs, and management team members.

"If the athletics platform erodes, where will we be years down the road?" Murphy continues. "Where will those leadership opportunities come from without sports? Viewed from that perspective, why wouldn't corporations and businesses want to support these athletic endeavors?"

Another important part of a corporate sponsorship strategy is deciding which businesses to approach. Nobile began with companies that were already visibly involved in helping the community.

"We looked to see who had done other outreach work," he says. "Then we looked at some of the larger franchises like McDonald's, and our largest employers like the hospital. The bigger companies often have the extra money to spend."

Feris approaches businesses that have some connection to the high school or athletics. "For example, we talked to our local car dealerships who are selling first cars to the parents of 16- and 17-year-olds," he says. "Cell phone companies are another example of a business targeting families and sports fans. One of our team doctor's clinics has been a very big sponsor, as well as a hospital and a local gym. These are all folks who are trying to get a product or a message in front of a crowd that congregates at sporting events."

Ward, who started with only three sponsorship agreements in 2002, has worked up to almost 20 this year. "I began with the banks, grocery store chains, and car dealerships because they were already donating to individual teams," he says. "Over time, we've expanded to include restaurants, our local transit system company, and smaller businesses, too."

One thing all the athletic directors agree on is that it never hurts to ask. "Even if a business has said no to us in the past, I still want to give them an opportunity," Flachs says. "I go in with a no-pressure sales approach and just say, 'I know this wasn't something you were able to do last year, but we're still here and we appreciate you and your business.'"

Timing is also key. "We go out right after the 4th of July," Flachs says. "The fiscal calendar is just beginning for some businesses in the summer, so they may have more money at their disposal. We've found that a lot of owners will budget how much they're going to give each year to a certain number of people, so we try to hit them early in their fiscal year when those monies are still available."

Flachs and Scheible go door to door through the month of July, then follow up with phone calls and send out invoices at the beginning of August. The plaques and T-shirts are distributed mid-fall, and the school tries to keep media recognition going throughout the school year, including listing the sponsors' names in a full-page ad in the local paper.

"If you set deadlines, you'll be better off," Flachs says. "The businesses then learn to anticipate when you're coming, and I think they appreciate that. It's a good way to spend your time during the summer when we're all not quite as busy. I enjoy doing it, and I like how it keeps me in touch with our constituents."

The last logistical item to think about is whether or not you'll have legal documents drawn up for your sponsorship agreements--and what they might contain. At North Andover and Big Rapids, a check mark on the sponsorship form is enough assurance for the athletic department.

"We vet each sponsorship in public at our meetings, so I didn't really feel we needed to have a written agreement," Nobile says. "The community would know if they didn't send us a check and it wouldn't have been a good business move."

In Plano, on the other hand, a signed contract is a must. "We have an agreement template that was developed by our school district attorneys," Feris says. "We just fill in the blanks with the business name and what exactly is being exchanged. It's been my experience that most of our sponsors then take the contract and run it through their own legal team, too. We'd rather be safe than sorry."

One last piece of advice from athletic directors who have secured sponsorships is to always keep the conversations with businesses open and flowing. Sometimes, you may find the perk the company wants is not something you had thought of. And other times, the business may have something to offer besides money.

For example, when Nobile reached out to Pentucket Medical, an area clinic, the talk turned to preseason physicals. By the end of the meeting, Pentucket had agreed to purchase a $5,000 banner and offered North Andover's athletes free preseason physicals.

While the economy remains down, an open conversation also means working with sponsors who may have less money than last year. "When I contacted businesses this year, I basically said we would gladly accept the same annual sponsorship fee they contributed previously but if they wanted to work out a smaller amount we could do that as well," Ward says. "Our primary goal was to allow them to continue their relationship with us. I felt it was the right thing to do."

Plano and Big Rapids allow businesses to pay in installments as a courtesy. "We're able to offer a payment plan, whether it's once a month, once a quarter, or spread out over three or four months," Feris says. "It's been beneficial for us to have that opportunity to say, 'What works best for you?'"

One possible friction point when instituting a corporate sponsorship program is stepping on the toes of booster clubs. Members may worry that a sponsorship program will replace their hard work.

At Big Rapids (Mich.) High School, the solution has been to involve boosters in running the corporate sponsorship program. While Athletic Director Brady Flachs and District Finance Director Nick Scheible solicit the businesses, the booster club takes care of bookkeeping, designing the sponsors' ads, and ordering and distributing sponsor plaques and T-shirts.

"We have a really good relationship going between the boosters and the athletic department," Flachs says. "Because we're in this together, it streamlines our operation. I think it has to happen this way in order to be successful. The two entities cannot compete."

At North Andover (Mass.) High School, administrators have found that their corporate sponsors are a very different group than the people the boosters solicit. "Somebody who was going to pay a couple hundred dollars for an ad in the boosters' game program wasn't the same person who was going to buy a $5,000 banner," says Athletic Director Jon Longley.

Still, School Committee member Chris Nobile, who heads the school's sponsorship program, was up front with the booster club from the beginning. "I sat down with them right away and said, 'Listen guys, I'm not poaching your world. I'm aiming at a different level of sponsorship,'" Nobile says. "That helped them be very comfortable and supportive of the program."

So far, most corporate sponsorship deals in high school athletics have followed a similar pattern: The school receives money in exchange for naming opportunities, signage, or other benefits. In Boston, however, a new program is taking a very different approach to bringing private money into public school sports.

Called the Boston Scholar Athlete Program, it aims to pump $7.5 million into the Boston Public Schools athletics program over the next three years through donations from the city's academic, athletic, and business institutions. That would amount to a more than 50 percent increase in the city athletic department budget, which has struggled to provide resources for its high school teams.

The program began with a $1 million donation from the Red & Blue Foundation, the charitable arm of local firm Suffolk Construction, whose CEO John Fish has committed to raising the additional $6.5 million from other donors. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, who oversees the city's schools, has said he expects "100 percent" cooperation from Boston's professional sports teams, who have indicated they will support such an effort. Many local businesses have pledged their assistance while colleges and universities are being asked for in-kind contributions.

"The Boston business community is a very close-knit group of people that has generously supported a lot of causes over the years," Fish says. "And I have no doubt they will support this one."

The money will be controlled by a board of directors reporting directly to the mayor and chaired by Fish. It will be used for everything from uniforms to starting new teams--with an emphasis on mentoring student-athletes for a lifetime of success.

"This isn't really an athletic program--it's an academic program that's being realized through the establishment of solid athletics," Fish says. "It's all about getting kids on the fields and having the right resources available so we can allow them to realize they all have potential."

Having a private entity assume such a large role in a public school operation has raised some eyebrows. But Fish makes it clear the program is intended to supplement current operations, not replace them. "When we first started talking about this program there were certainly some skeptics," he says. "But we haven't made any recommendations to change any coaches or systems. We're really looking to increase student-athlete participation--to get kids out of their living rooms and off the streets."

-- Dennis Read
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