With front-of-shirt branding climbing into the multi-millions for professional teams, you might assume lucrative sponsorship deals are everywhere.
But as many grassroots clubs will know, sponsorship isn’t so straightforward. Creating a strategy, sourcing sponsors, and keeping them on board for the long run are full-time jobs. Small teams with small budgets have their work cut out.
We spoke to Lewes FC’s Commercial Manager, Stef McLoughlin, about what grassroots football clubs need to know when it comes to securing sponsors and getting the best out of their deals. We look at how you can attract sponsors, find brands that align with your values, and maintain sponsor relationships for years to come.
When should grassroots clubs start thinking about sponsorship?
The short answer? As soon as possible. But not before you’ve identified what makes your club stand out from the crowd.
“You need to think about your USP,” Stef says. “What makes your team different to other teams? What themes run through your club that businesses can link up with and relate to?”
If you have a clear club purpose and set of values this is a great place to start. If you’re committed to providing an inclusive space for all to enjoy football, seek out businesses built by people who reflect the same values.
If sustainability matters at your club, look for sponsors that produce zero-waste, reusable, or recyclable products. If you can find a link between your club and their brand, you’ll find it easier to pitch the value of sponsoring your club.
Next, you’ll need to get to know your fanbase and demographic. Businesses sponsoring football clubs must know they’ll reach their desired audience. So prep some figures on your fanbase – who attends match days, who are your players, who are your season ticket holders? Then decide what kinds of sponsorship opportunities you can offer.
“You need a very clear idea of what you can provide,” Stef says. “It’s not just about wearing a shirt with their branding. What can you provide that others can’t?”
Once you know what your offer is, you need to charge for it accordingly. But you should also consider what specific sponsorship deals will deliver for businesses. For example, use your match day attendance data to show how many eyes could be on your sponsor’s branding throughout the season.
Where should grassroots clubs look for sponsors?
You can set about building your network in person and online. Attend local business events and test out social media for networking. Stef recommends LinkedIn as her platform of choice, pointing out that Lewes FC has gained multiple sponsors by reaching out to local businesses.
“Make sure your profile is set up properly. When you connect with people, make it clear what you’re looking for and the opportunities you can provide.”
And when it comes to physical networking, small community teams don’t need to stop their sponsor search at the nearest town or village.
“In this day and age, you can be a grassroots team and still have a major social media following,” Stef confirms. “Smaller clubs have some of the best stories and can be the most agile in marketing. Aim high and think big.”
Major clubs often face marketing constraints – with bigger management teams and more rules around messaging. Small clubs get to be braver, as Lewes FC demonstrates: “We were one of the first clubs to say no to gambling, as per our anti-gambling stance. When you and your sponsors are aligned on values, everybody wins,” Stef says.
Knowing who you do and don’t want to work with is essential when you start ramping up sponsorship efforts. The brands your club associates with reflect the values of your people – choose the wrong sponsors and you could alienate your biggest fans.
What are businesses looking for from sponsorship?
Stef notes four things most businesses are looking for: visibility, storytelling, fanbase, and community.
1) Visibility is the first and most important thing brands think about. “Businesses want to know how many eyeballs will be on their brand or product,” Stef says. Matchday attendance, social media followers, and upcoming live coverage can provide you with the numbers to convince a potential sponsor they’ll be seen.
2) Businesses could also be looking for storytelling opportunities. Sponsorship lets businesses show a different side to their brand, especially if your club has social or community values that businesses want to align themselves with. Clubs can facilitate this by featuring sponsors on their social media platforms and creating content together.
3) Getting in touch with your fanbase could appeal to sponsors, too, as it provides them with an opportunity to test new products or services on an engaged audience, learn from their responses, and even land new customers. Be sure to provide potential sponsors with current data on your fanbase, so they can get a glimpse of the audience demographic and decide if it’s a fit.
4) And last but not least, many sponsors will be looking to give back to the community. Football sponsorship is a great way for businesses to drive corporate social responsibility efforts and demonstrate their values in a public forum.
It’s easy to assume that sponsorship deals are only driven by financial benefits. But that was never the case for Oli Perkins, Market Lead at Veo – a Lewes FC sponsor. Veo is a camera designed for team sports that doesn’t require an operator, making Lewes FC the ideal audience fit.
“The sponsorship offer never hinged upon immediate financial opportunity – even though Lewes FC has gone on to deliver significant ROI and referral business,” Oli explains.
“The club’s position around inclusion and gender equality is perfectly in line with our values at Veo, and the ROI we’ve received has been so important for the business. Their message has generated continuous momentum, and we are very proud to be attached to a club that’s changing the game for good.”
As you prepare your pitch to potential sponsors, make sure you show them the full spectrum of opportunities your club can provide – not just the financial ones.
How to approach businesses about sponsorship
You wouldn’t play a match without a strategy, and the same is true for sponsorship. Before you approach businesses, make sure you have a clear idea of what you’re trying to achieve.
“Ahead of the meeting, I’ll do a significant amount of research about the brand and its people,” Stef says. “You need to go in there with a clear idea of who you’re meeting, but also what you want out of the sponsorship.”
Studying businesses’ brand messaging and previous marketing activities can help you identify ways to collaborate. Stef also recommends bringing evidence of your previous campaigns (if you have them), and information about what you stand for as a club.
“You need to get them to visualise how the club will fit into their existing marketing plans,” Stef recommends. “Look at their website to see which keywords they’re using, and identify ways those keywords can be elevated through sports sponsorship.”
It’s a whole lot of work for your sponsorship team but there are ways to simplify and standardise the process. “The more tailored your strategy is to each brand, the better,” Stef says. “But you can always create a standard deck with the key stats, numbers, and facts about the club.”
Not all sponsorships are about money, either. As Stef shares, businesses might have something to offer your team that’s equally valuable as funding: “Our players get free access to the local pool. It’s worth so much to our team, and it doesn’t cost the brand money.”
If you’re thinking about engaging with local or smaller businesses that have a limited budget, reflect on what your club needs for the season aside from funding.
Keeping sponsors on board
After putting in the work to secure sponsors, the last thing you want is to let those relationships slip.
“You need to have very clear KPIs and a clear idea of what the brand wants out of the partnership,” Stef advises. “Stay in touch with them to make sure you’re hitting your targets.”
Regular check-ins with your sponsors are essential. Stef recommends keeping a beady eye on visibility, as well as how much the brands are featured in your social content. Look out for chances to create additional content with sponsors or take advantage of PR opportunities.
“Sometimes clubs can offer more creative perspectives than brands who are new to sponsorship,” Stef explains. “Don’t be afraid to get creative and suggest ideas.”
For grassroots teams, a sponsorship deal can be the difference between funding the season or coming up short. And while securing sponsors is no easy task, it’s essential for grassroots clubs’ survival.
“You can work for hours and not even get a bite. But be persistent, and keep building your network,” Stef says. “Because when it happens, it’s amazing.”
If you want to learn more about how to grow your club and become more financially sustainable, take a look at our resources and guides for small football clubs.