Rough terrain: Small sporting events struggle for sponsorships

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Heather Irmiger, racing in the May 15 Ascent Cycling Series race in Palmer Park.

Andy Bohlmann, who has organized hundreds of bicycle races and events in Colorado Springs, cancelled a Cycling Pro cross country mountain bike race this year because he couldn’t find enough business sponsors to back it.

His event was going to cost about $30,000 to host, which included a $10,000 cash prize. It would have been the fifth stop on the 2011 U.S. Pro Cross Country Tour.

He said he hit up all area banks and car dealerships.

“I couldn’t find sponsorship,” said Bohlmann, owner of Sand Creek Sports Inc., which organizes and promotes bicycle racing in the Pike’s Peak Region. “I was $3,200 short.”

Colorado Springs wants to become a sports destination town with sporting events ranging from small races and events like those organized by Sand Creek Sports to large national-stage events that take over the whole city and make national headlines.

But, the problem is that all the event organizers, big and small, are competing for the same sponsorship dollars, Bohlmann said. They are all knocking on the same doors.

“I sent out over 100 sponsorship proposals last year — I got no response,” he said.

The American sporting event model is based on funding from sponsors. This summer, Colorado Springs is home to dozens, if not hundreds, of events, from the 89th Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, the U.S. Women’s Open at The Broadmoor, the 2011 Rocky Mountain State Games and the upcoming Pro Cycling Challenge bike race. That list doesn’t include smaller events like the 24-Hours of Colorado Springs race, the Palmer Park 50-mile race and the three Wounded Warrior golf tournaments this month.

“There are scores of organizers reaching out for the dollars,” said Mike Moran, Colorado Springs Sports Corp. senior media consultant. “At Sports Corps, we are totally dependent on sponsors — we couldn’t do it otherwise.”

There have been no surveys or studies detailing the amount of sponsorship dollars put up for Colorado Springs events, Moran said. In fact, it may be impossible to calculate, he said.

“Many of the sponsor agreements are confidential to avoid market conflicts and they are not public record or required to be,” Moran said. “Suffice to say, in a year like this one, we are talking millions.”

Take for example, the upcoming Pro Cycling Challenge, an international race, which will be in Colorado Springs Aug. 22. To support the race locally, it needs 15 to 20 sponsors at varying levels. Nationally, the event required 30 to 35 sponsors, organizers said. Cycling races need to draw spectators to line the route. And, because tickets aren’t sold for cycling races, sponsors need as much publicity as possible to recoup their expenses.

Those are issues sponsors have to weigh, said Jim Harris, Wells Fargo senior vice president in southern Colorado. His bank fields sponsorship requests weekly, he said.

“There are runs and bike races, there are so many of them, I don’t know — there is a different run every weekend,” he said. “There are not enough major sponsors to go around.”

Harris said he prefers to spend Wells Fargo marketing money on events that have a charitable purpose. He also looks at the large events, like the Pro Cycling Challenge, which will have national exposure.

“My advice for the smaller events is, go after companies trying to promote their name in the community,” Harris said. “Wells Fargo is a well-recognized company. We don’t need to advertise. What we are looking at is how can this event help us facilitate relationships with people.”

In general, community banks have been supportive of community events, said Michael League, president of and CEO of 5Star Bank in Colorado Springs.

“When you have marketing money, you want to get reach as far as it goes — it’s a tough call,” he said. “There is a lot of demand and requests for sponsoring of events.”

5Star Bank sets aside money ­- between 5 and 10 percent of its bottom line – for marketing, but has to be choosy. They want to sponsor an event that aligns with the company philanthropic goals, League said. And, the bank wants to put its name on events where the most potential customers will see it.

Stephannie Finely, Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce government affairs and public policy president, said sports venues are a great way for businesses to market themselves. She said most local businesses see the upside of sponsoring sporting events and she has not heard grumblings that there are too many events and not enough sponsors.

“We have 20,000 businesses in our region,” she said. “That is a pretty big number to tap into.”

There are no easy answers for small events, Moran said.

“The people who survive in staging modest events are those who will be creative and find ways to partner with other events in the community,” Moran said.

Bohlmann has gone on to plan other cycling events, including a Pro Cycling Palmer Park 50-mile race in September. He is expecting 125 riders.

“I would like to see people who want events, who want to make this a sports destination, contact race organizers and find out what it takes,” Bohlmann said. “Make an inventory of what we have and what we could have. Get to it. It’s almost too late for next year.”