Of Cyclists and Sponsors
I was living in Charlotte in 1996, when it was chosen to host one of four trials to determine the U.S. Cycling Team for the Atlanta Olympics. I was doing a lot of riding myself at the time and was familiar with a lot of the course, so I was able to take my bike and stake out some prime viewing spots. Others that I met had the same agenda, and we got to talking as we waited at various spots for the peloton to come through.
They told me about this young guy who lived not too far away in Greenville, SC who was trying to make a name for himself on the international cycling scene. And wouldn’t you know it – to everyone’s surprise young George Hincapie came from out of the pack that day to win the Trial and advance to the Olympics. It was a “local boy does good” story that stuck with me, and as Hincapie’s star rose to its present lofty status I always remembered him as that 23-year old surprise winner.
So it was with a certain amount of cosmic synergy that when I approached the starting line at the eighth and final stage of the Amgen Tour of California, the first thing I heard was the P.A. announcer introducing with great fanfare…George Hincapie. Perfect.
It’s hard to believe that the Tour of California is only in its fifth year, for among serious racing types it is now the top professional cycling event in the USA, and the logical preparatory race for the Tour de France. But then again, the event is owned and operated by sports management colossus Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG). These people know how to do events.
Consider this. Those attending this stage of the Tour, which consisted of four loops around a 20+ mile course through the coastal mountains, who were motivated to see as much of the action as possible, were able to witness perhaps ten cumulative minutes of action in the course of the four hour event. Who would do this? Well, me for one – and about 80,000 other people spread out over the course and packed into the Finish area. That is the power of truly great event marketing and production.
The starting line for the race was at the high-end Oaks Shopping Center in Thousand Oaks, and shortly after the festivities there concluded with the actual beginning of the race, I discovered that the finish line was five miles away in Westlake Village – despite the fact that it was a circuit race. My first thought was – what an annoyance for the fans. Who would make the effort to see both the start and finish? Well it turned out that a lot of people would, and not just Sports Fans like me. And as I started to think about it from a sponsorship sales perspective it occurred to me that this was sheer brilliance.
The two different venues gave the event organizers twice as much “inventory” of space and time to sell. It also brought into play two separate high-profile public gathering areas, each with dozens of potential partnership tie-ins. The product and service partnerships at just The Oaks itself filled an entire six-page brochure. The pre-race Schedule of Events featured five different activation events. My favorite: “Bring your commemorative bottle of King of the Mountain Cuvee wine for the riders to sign on-site at Autograph Alley”.
And here’s the biggie – because there were long periods of time between the riders’ arrival in Westlake Village to begin each of the four laps, the only interim activity available was that of browsing through the Lifestyle Festival (aka Sponsor’s Expo) or patronizing the shops and restaurants conveniently located just steps away. As people were only too happy to do so.
For those of you who have attended a professional golf or tennis tournament, I’m sure you are familiar with the Sponsor’s Expo, a gauntlet of tents and displays that you must proceed through to reach the course or court. If you’re like most, you adopt the athlete’s mantra for signing autographs in a crowd – never stop moving and try not to look up.
In the spirit of full disclosure I must admit that, having logged many hours in the pursuit of selling space in Sponsor’s Expos, for the vast majority of that time I have known that it is not typically a value-add to the prospective sponsor. There are two reasons for this:
One, fans are anxious to get to where the action is. This is just human nature.
Two, the products and services featured in the Expo are not typically well-matched to the demographics of that particular event attendee. This is the result of over-selling to inappropriate sponsors on the part of the event organizer, and quite often a lack of creativity or effort on the part of the sponsor to “activate” their sponsorship.
I tell you that to tell you this. The Sponsor’s Expo at the Tour of California has just one major problem – it is so crowded with people interacting with the sponsors it is hard to move around. Now that’s a problem worth striving for.
The vast majority of the tents in the Expo housed sponsors who were marketing a product that had a direct tie-in to cycling, fitness or travel enthusiasts. And in the tents in which the product link to the crowd was not as obvious, the sponsor had worked to create a scenario that did relate to the event attendees. For example, you probably don’t link “cycling” and “Nissan” in the same thought very often. But Nissan used their sponsorship to highlight their newest environmentally friendly car, and had a “green screen” activity set up whereby fans could have their picture taken on a bike which was then superimposed onto a photo of Lance Armstrong in mid-race. And while fans waited in line for that opportunity (in my case, 20 minutes), an emcee was describing the car and giving away related premiums – all in a very soft-sell manner. Of course no promotion is perfect, and the email with the digital photo of me schooling Lance on cycling never arrived, but a Nissan product made a positive lasting impression upon me, a member of their target demographic.
As a group, the Tour sponsors were relevant to the crowd, they engaged the fans, they gave away or sampled things that related, and many of them were even able to establish a retail presence for impulse buying on the spot. You just can’t ask any more from a sports sponsorship activation.
Oh and by the way, Australian Michael Rogers won the Tour of California by just eight seconds after a cumulative eight-day race that covered hundreds of miles. As for me, despite working my way toward the Finish area a full 30 minutes prior to the end of the race, I still could not secure a spot that allowed me to see him cross the finish line. But will I be back next year? Of course!