Does Sponsorship work in Cycling?

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I have always wondered if sponsorship really worked in the sport of cycling. Sponsorship of athletes is really just a way of advertising. Does the money that companies put into the sport actually increase sales? It hard to say.

I’ve had the opportunity to represent a lot of different companies throughout the years. A pretty diverse group of things. Wheaties breakfast cereal, Mountain Dew soda, Isuzu automobiles, etc, plus all the cycling related stuff.

It is really hard, as an individual, to quantify the impact that one person makes on the sales of the products of the sponsors that are on a jersey. I can honestly say that I very much doubt I contributed to the sale of one can of Mountain Dew soda. But, it was, and is, important for Mountain Dew to be involved in the sports it feels represents their message, so at the time, it was nearly mandatory for them to be involved in the sport of MTB racing.

I remember when Motorola took over sponsorship of the 7-11 team. There was nearly a zero percent recognition of the name Motorola in Europe, but after the Tour de France the first year, something like 75% of Europeans knew that Motorola made cell phones. That is a pretty phenomenal penetration rate after only one year. It shows you how popular the Tour is over there.

I’ve driven a bunch of cars around the country that were part of a sponsorship package. I believe that this actually works. If only 1 out of 1000 people that came up to me and asked me about the Isuzu Trooper, or Subaru Outback I was driving bought one, then I sold lots and lots of these cars. Nearly everytime I got out of either of these vehicles at a grocery store, gas station, or where ever, a person would come over and ask me what I thought about the car. The key was that the cars I was driving were all decal-ed with race team logos, so people thought it was fine to come over and talk. It was one on one advertising and I think it works.

But, bike sponsorship is a different deal. Riding for Schwinn for example. I’m pretty positive that all the money I received from Schwinn personally, was way more money that the company could have made as a profit from sending me around the world racing my bicycle. But, now riding for Kent Eriksen bicycles, it is a much different situation. I talk to a lot of people, one on one about what I think the advantages are of riding a Eriksen titanium frame. It seems because the company is much smaller and unique, the sponsorship seems to work better. It’s hard to say.

I know one sponsorship deal I had that did work. When I first started racing MTB, I rode Scott shock forks for the first couple years. Rock Shox was a way more advanced product and much more popular nationally, than a Scott fork. I came back to Kansas and raced a big race down in Sedalia Kansas. Every other fork was a Scott fork. 10 X as many people were riding them than what I’d experienced racing throughout the country. This had to been because of me riding them. It seemed strange at the time, but in reality, that is what sponsorship is all about.

I’ve always wondered about the return of capitol for these sponsorship deals. Is there a chance that Coke sells $3,000,000 more of Coke products after they run a commercial during the Superbowl? They could sponsor the best funded domestic Pro Cycling Team or run a 30 second ad on the Superbowl. It doesn’t seem right.

Whatever the answer is for all this, sponsorship is how our sport survives. There wouldn’t be many races, televised especially, and the professional circuit would be non-existent without sponsorship. Hopefully, we can get our house back in order enough so that our sport is attractive again for sponsors to want to support us, whether it works or not.

This is an advertisement that Ford Motor Company produced in India.   Can you believe it, after all the trouble they have had over there with the abuse of women?  I very much doubt this could sell cars, but you never know. Heres a link to the article about the ad.

This is an advertisement that Ford Motor Company produced in India. Can you believe it, after all the trouble they have had over there with the abuse of women? I very much doubt this could sell cars, but you never know. Heres a link to the article about the ad.

17 thoughts on “Does Sponsorship work in Cycling?

  1. Brad Thompson

    I grew my hair out and got a fuzzy perm because I saw you rock it year after year.

  2. Calvin Jones

    This is a great topic, and deserves a book. Okay, a bit limited in appeal, but fascinating to the right crowd. There are many different levels of this discussion. I am sure everyone one who reads this blog has a story on this topic, and most with a point.

    A marketing department can make nearly any claim they want, as there are few metrics to say if they are right or wrong. This is especially true for small industries (like cycling) that cannot afford to do what it takes to track the data. I would suggest this both helps and hurts the sport.

    But did anyone think, “I’m buying Levi’s pants because that Steve Tilford won that race”? Levi’s got “exposure” for their involvement, but how would anyone track that back to a bike race team?

    Steve’s comments on driving the logo cars is interesting. The driver being an elite athlete might have had nothing to do with their initial interest, but if the people learned this in talking to the driver, would it sway their view of the car?

    Cycling, I would suggest, gets much of its sponsorship (grass root and elite) because someone in the decision process of each company likes cycling on a personal level. A cold hard calculated business decision based off of trends and data does not so much enter into the discussion. Bissell, I would suggest, is a prime example here. Is the cycling demographic the one that is saying, “Boy, how I could use a Bissell®”? They certainly get exposure, but it is useful? A counter to this argument would be to point out the washing machine company that sponsored Eddy Merckx. They certainly found it useful.

  3. SalRuibal

    Shaun Palmer made a big deal about his love of Cadillacs, even tattooed the logo on his body. But I don’t think Cadillac ever gave him a car. He wasn’t looking for a sponsorship (He had the same sponsors you had w/Specialized) but he sure made a global image for himself, for bad and good.

  4. Rich


    The series I race in is sponsored by TREK and Subaru. I own several TREK bikes and give Subaru a look when there displayed at the races. I have also purchased a Bissell and use Cliff products probably because of the exposure they get during cycling events. Your blog has also goten me to try something new, remember when you posted about Liteway Kefir? Because of that post I tried it and continue to use it.


  5. sb

    The team I race for is sponsored by a local car dealer, who after last year, our first year with just 10 guys wearing kits, they told us they could definitely point to at least 12 cars being bought because of the exposure. They also lent us 2 ad-wrapped cars so that really helps a lot. So, yeah, according to this sponsor at least, it works.

    I always point to NASCAR for a very similar business model and structure of the sport. That was one of the reasons that Radioshack got into cycling, because they learned from NASCAR that the fans are very loyal of brands that support “their” sport. It’s true with “bikey” brands like Subaru… many cyclists would buy a Subaru anyway, but it sure doesn’t hurt that they also sponsor a lot of stuff. I personally have bought a Bissel vacuum, eaten at sponsoring restaurants, etc, because of the fact that they are helping the sport.

  6. Bernd Faust

    I think that subject is very interesting , but also a science in itself. Call the science “Marketing”.
    Parents f.e. bought their kids and still do Michael Jordan BB-shoes. i bought my boys the non Jordan Nike’s sometimes Adidas, same shoe, functionality..etc…$100.00 cheaper. It’s the marketing behind the product. Michelob Ultra is very big in cycling sponsorship..somebody has to pay me to drink that brew or if it is free I try a bootle to see if it got any better…LA and his Livestrong was a big deal because of LA and smart marketing…I left a cyclingteam a few years ago because of a teammate who was a big LA and Livestrong fan..he organized 2 events to support Livestrong..I said you can’t expect me to donate any 1$ to LA or whatever he does because , I always thought LA and all his endeavors are weird questionable..So the guys Marketing strategie did not work with me..the other people who participated slowly over time distant themself from the LA “Friend”….
    If the product is very good , you don’t even need Marketing…..but it seems to be easy and working to fool People…
    What a snowstorm we had…snowshoveling great corestrength workout…….and afterwards a nice german Starkbeer!
    prost and happy Easter, happy Passover….

  7. channel_zero

    It is time bring out the old saying, “50% of all advertising works. Which 50% no one knows.”

    IMHO, sometimes the athlete loses the opportunity because they aren’t approachable and rep the product honestly or at all or don’t have any intention of really repping product.

    I personally know of a one-shot national domestic pro team where the team took the money, got the team clothes made with the advertisers branding featured. The budget was much better than Bro-deal sponsoring too. You couldn’t miss them! But, then the advertiser never heard a word from the team until they came asking for another year of funding. Guess what? The advertiser was not interested.

    All you guys and girls trying to bootstrap your way into pro athletics, you need to rep your sponsors. Create opportunities to give the brand exposure outside the jersey. The way Steve talks-up his bike sponsor or Rebecca Rusch’s “Gold Rusch” tour are perfect examples.

  8. channel_zero

    BTW, the advertiser cared that the team raced and was present at events reaching consumers, not winning. Which was good because they didn’t win much.

    The buyer loved the cycling demographic. The way the team didn’t communicate and didn’t do anything but wear the team kit was a huge deal breaker. The buyer went to Triathlon after that and had a much better experience.

    BTW, part of the team’s problem was numbers game that the UCI/USAC won’t play. They aren’t interested in a vibrant road cycling event with strong local attendance. They are only interested in doing broadcast events like the Tour of California.

  9. chris

    It took my 12 year old brain a long time to finally figure out why Huffy and Murray never sold any good bikes to anyone other than 7-eleven and Greg LeMond.

  10. Daniel Russell

    Sometimes it works perfectly like Bernard Hinault and Look pedals. Without seeing him using the product I wasn’t interested in clipless pedals. Have I been to Chipotle, Radio Shack or bought a Garmin product since they have been sponsoring cycling? Not even once. The closer the product is to the sport, the better it probably works.

  11. biscuit

    Jogmate. YUM!
    Funny how a great product with good purpose but no taste didn’t take off.

  12. e-RICHIE

    I have sponsored a team every year since 1981.
    I have been managing it since the mid 1990s.
    The team is an integral part of my business.
    Sponsorship works atmo.

  13. Larry Yancey

    Its amazing how many people come over to talk about my bike at the races, especially since I’m riding a MEECH custom bicycle. Probably even more attention since its a custom. Man, a sub 17lb steel CX bike-
    yep!! I take care of my sponsor.

  14. Rod Lake

    Steve: we’re you ever sponsored by a product you thought was total crap, or maybe worse, a company or a product you had a moral or ethical issue with? If so, how did you handle that when people asked you about the product or company?

  15. JP Shores

    Ask SPIN! Pizza….it works…this is year 6, but u have to sell the products u represent. Support the sponsors and build the community! Sponsorship is not a hand out and you have to respect it!

  16. Calvin Jones

    These are good posts. But the question might really be, “How does sponsorship work”, not “Does it work”. It works, but getting under the skin is the fun/messy part.

    Several comments here mentioned buying this or that product because some company supports cycling in some way. I do the same with Nature Valley Granola bars, but this is only one aspect of marketing. I am part of the choir here as it were, and I suspect that 99% of us here are as well. How does a non-cyclist view sponsorship in this sport of ours? Marketing had better have traction outside our bubble. This aspect interests me as much as the machinations of our own little world.


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