Marketing & Sponsorships

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Building a Relationship with Your Athletes:

30 May, 2017

By: Lee Corrigan
It All Starts with Listening

A lot of terms are tossed around when it comes to talking about what makes a sports event successful. These days, two of the most popular are ‘relationship,’ and ‘brand.’ And at first, those two things might not seem to be related. At our organization, though, we believe they are. Your event is your brand, as it were, and you really work hard to make sure it has a good reputation in the marketplace. You want a good relationship with your athletes, because that’s what will build the reputation of your brand and keep people coming back.

Think about it: your athletes don’t need to participate in your tournament, marathon, triathlon or anything else. It’s a choice for them, and these days, there are a lot of choices out there and a lot of opportunities. In fact, each weekend, something is happening, and you want your event to stand out. So where do you start?

We can’t speak for every organization; we can only tell you what works for us. The first thing is providing a really good value for the people who come to your event, and making sure they have a great experience. The best way to accomplish both those things is to be a good listener.

After each of our events – we’ll use the Baltimore Running Festival as an example – we send out a survey to all the participants, no matter whether they ran in the Marathon, Half Marathon, Relay, 5K or Kids’ Fun Run. We ask them what they liked, what they didn’t and how they think things could have been improved. That means going through thousands of surveys when they come back, but it’s worth it. As we read through the comments, we look for the ones that keep popping up. Chances are, if you see a recurring theme, it’s something you need to address.

One year, we kept hearing people complaining about congestion at the finish line. We reconfigured the area to improve the flow of people coming through, and to make it much more runner-friendly. It’s something we might not have known about it if it hadn’t been for the surveys, which allowed people to tell us what they thought was wrong.

But it’s not enough just to say to your staff, ‘Okay, we’ll work on that for next year.’  You have to let the participants know you appreciated their feedback. That’s why we make sure we reply to people and say, ‘We heard you loud and clear. This is what you wanted, and at our next event, here is what we’re going to do differently.’  In the case of the changes to the finish line, we made sure everyone knew we’d made improvements and that they’d see them the following year. As a result, a lot of people were ready to commit to running again.

Why does it work as well as it does? Because it lets people know you want them to have a good experience. Because you listened to them, they know they’re more than just a race number or a participation fee to you. And let’s face it: in this era of social media, both good news and bad news travel quickly, and it’s up to you which is going to make the rounds first. A little goodwill goes a long way.

It’s not just about making big changes to the event; in fact, we’re not given to doing anything drastic. It’s the little changes that can help your event grow. Another example: a few years ago, we noticed from the comments on social media that our 5K runners really wanted medals. We’d never done that before, but that didn’t stop us from creating another medal. Now we have a huge enrollment for that event. It would have been easier to have a knee-jerk reaction and say, ‘Sorry, no medals for that distance,’ but when you have people interested in running, why wouldn’t you give them incentive to sign up?

It was an important change to make because we’ve seen the 5K is a gateway into running. A lot of people have a spouse or a friend who is going to be doing the marathon and this is a way for them to participate as well, even if they’ve never run before. And something we’ve seen is that after doing the 5K, people often get hooked and they might try a longer distance next year, like the relay or the half marathon. That’s one way you can grow your event: by listening in and delivering what the athletes want.

Another part of keeping a good relationship with your athletes is maintaining a constant flow of communication. That’s why we not only keep our website updated, but we make sure to add in plenty of e-mail and social media interaction throughout the year. Right now, we’re in the middle of the reveal for the various shirts we’ll be giving out. It’s a fun way to maintain interest; additionally, we make sure to keep an eye on the comments people are posting. You never know what valuable suggestions or concerns might show up.

Reaching out to non-athletes is one more effort that builds relationships and pays off. A local radio station approached us about offering a .05K race. Basically, a group of people would pay a registration fee, then run (or walk) from a given point over to a tent sponsored by a beer vendor where they were given a beverage. Silly, right? But it was incredibly popular and we’ll continue to offer it. It gave us buy-in with non-runners – something that was important because you’re talking about an event that closes streets for at least a few hours at a time. Why not make it fun, rather than an inconvenience, for people who aren’t athletes? They like to say they were a part of things too.
Earlier, we talked about providing a good value. The Baltimore Running Festival has a runners’ expo at the Baltimore Convention Center on Thursday and Friday before the Saturday when the official running events take place. This serves several purposes: it allows people to pick up their bibs and shirts in advance (thereby avoiding crowds around the packet pickup area on race day) and it provides a great venue for our sponsors to reach the participants.

We have created what we like to call a mousetrap – runners have to pass through the convention center where they interact with all the sponsors – in order to get to the registration area to pick up their materials. A lot of events will just let you get your bib and leave, but we like the idea of having a place for everyone to see the displays and vendors and learn what they have to offer. Who knows? They might wind up purchasing a new pair of shoes or shorts – something that is a benefit for both the runner and the sponsor.

It’s important to make sure your relationship extends to every athlete. Some event owners make the mistake of paying attention only to elite individuals; however, there are more average athletes overall, and they’re the ones who make most events possible. Another sport we have been focusing on recently is lacrosse, and on creating showcase events for high school kids who want to be noticed by college scouts. What we consider a great success is not when the best kid in the state gets recruited, but when the kid who didn’t make an all-star team does. As a result, the kids – and their parents – become huge advocates for your event. They’ll tell friends and spread the word. Why? Because you’ve created an event that is a benefit for the masses, not just the top five percent.

If you want your event to grow and thrive, create a good relationship with your athletes. Ask for their input and listen to it and you’ll see good returns, year after year.   SDM

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