For some, being a sponsored athlete conjures up images of being clad head to toe in a team kit and having a company logo slapped on their torso or butt in exchange for a generous fee—perhaps a $10,000 bike or even a brand new car.
While that may be true for a small number of athletes in the world, being a sponsored athlete can also mean having a few people emphatically cheer you on as you finish in the top half of your age group at your hometown triathlon, marathon, or even paddleboard race.
Sponsorships, or brand ambassador programs as they're sometimes called, are becoming more commonplace as companies give gear discounts or race entry fees in exchange for grass-roots advertising—the kind that comes from a large number of athletes, or a very select few as it were, wearing or using their gear. Mile after mile, athletes can be seen sporting gear sponsored by businesses ranging from running-shoe brands to the beef industry. In fact, Team Beef is always well-represented at local races. Which, considering this is Texas, should come as no surprise.
Susan Fegelman is one such sponsored athlete. While she's not paid to don the pink of Team Betty on race day, she receives discounts on gear—equipment she says she’d buy anyway. Fegelman is part of a team 137 women strong. They’re teammates who support one another before, during, and after races.
“I love being part of a team,” Fegelman said. She’s been doing triathlons for more than two decades and recently placed third in her age group at the Ironman Buffalo Springs 70.3. “I love having all of these friends and being out on the race course with them. I'm not winning prize money or anything, but it’s cool to have my Team Betty kit on and represent them.”
Team Betty is the brainchild of Kristin Mayer, the founder and owner of Betty Designs, a California-based company that makes triathlon kits and other workout gear, mostly for women. The team's trademark logo and colors, generally pink with a skull over a butterfly that proclaims “Badass is Beautiful,” have gained in popularity in recent years.
Mayer said sponsoring amateur athletes serves two purposes. First, it gives athletes the feeling of camaraderie that's so often missing in individual sports such as triathlon and running. Second, it gives her bottom line a boost.
An avid triathlete, Mayer said she's had opportunities for sponsorship throughout her racing career and remembers how much fun it was to be a part of a team.
“I loved being out there and being an ambassador,” she said. “I mean, I was nothing special, but I remember how much it elevated my confidence. So I decided to sponsor some women [with my brand].”
“Triathlon is so individual that it's nice to see somebody wearing the same thing as you and cheer for and support each other.”
The number of women sponsored by Betty Designs has seen an uptick in recent years, and so has the company's popularity. While it makes Mayer happy to know she's making the dreams of some amateur athletes come true, it doesn't hurt that sales jump after every big race at which she has several athletes, she said.
“That’s the icing on the cake. [Sponsorship] helps the business,” Mayer said. “Women are very interesting. It doesn't matter whether it’s a cocktail party, a business meeting, or a triathlon, if we see something we like we compliment each other and say ‘where did you get that?’ The [women we sponsor] get approached at races all the time. I’m fortunate that I have [a product] people like, and this is a grass-roots way for people to learn about it.”
While several companies offer sponsorships to amateur athletes, some offer deals to professional athletes who are paid to wear their logo somewhere on their bodies. While the best of the best in large, well-recognized sports or events (think Ironman World Championships or the Tour de France) can be very well-compensated for splashing a company logo across their chest or backside, most athletes—even those that are at the top of their sports—barely make enough money to make a living.
Many professional triathletes, for example, use home-stays in towns where major events take place rather than having to pay for a hotel.
Annabel Anderson, the best female stand-up paddleboarder in the world, said being a sponsored paddler, “does not financially equate to being in the same league as mainstream professional sports.” Mostly, she said, the sport is funded from within.
Still, Anderson is sponsored by Subaru (a company with which she had a long-term relationship in her native New Zealand) and stand-up paddleboard company Lahui Kai. But it wasn't easy getting sponsored. She had to work hard to become the best at what she does. Her first sponsorship, she said, came organically because it was a brand of board she’d ridden all the time.
Subaru fit her adventurous lifestyle quite well, she said, so it's a natural fit for both her and the car company.
“While results are something that people associate me with, lifestyle and adventure are equally as important for me,” Anderson said.
While you probably won’t get a sponsorship from Subaru, you don’t have to be at the top of your game to find a company logo to wear. The selection process can be quite competitive, as many companies are looking for athletes that, for the most part, are going to be good brand ambassadors—even if that means only doing several races a year. Finishing in the top five of your age group doesn’t hurt, but it's not a necessity. Instead, having fun at races and taking the time to speak with people inquiring about your kit or the company that sponsors you will go a long way to prove you're worthy of being an ambassador for Team Beef or Team Betty.
Fegelman said she wanted to become “a Betty,” as the company's sponsored athletes are called, after first buying a swimsuit from the company.
“I wore [the suit], it fit me really well, and it was comfortable. That's really important to me,” Fegelman said. “I had always wanted to be on the team, and last year when I moved to Austin I submitted my application.” She was ecstatic to learn later that she got in.
Now, when Fegelman races, she says she feels like she has friends and sisters—a built-in support system—out on the course, even at smaller races.
“I just did Buffalo Springs and saw a girl in a Team Betty kit that I didn't know, but every time we passed each other we cheered for one another,” Fegelman said. “It was so fun to do that.”