I just wanted to add my two cents worth when it comes to acquiring and maintaining sponsorships and some of the most common failures sponsored anglers (pro staff) made.
Many of my fellow anglers know my story but it requires a little background. Like many I am an avid multi species angler. It was a sport that I got involved with as a young person and a sport I could take with me in my working years. I never expected to get involved with sponsors and never really heard about sponsors until I got involved in walleye tournaments. I was never planning to be a major tournament angler but enjoyed the competitiveness and camaraderie so I started.
Once established in the sport, I would watch other anglers and kept a closer eye on known sponsored anglers as well as those who seemed to understand the techniques that brought them a cheque. I always graded anglers on a number of criteria and mentally marked a scorecard for the wins, the draws and the fails.
In the early years of tournament fishing, the keeners were well on their way to securing sponsors and it was a right of passage to many tournament anglers and the envy of others. I really had no idea of what transpired to be offered a sponsorship but I kept watching.
In a very short time, I realized most of the keeners of the day had little time to share fishing techniques, equipment or strategy and coveted their sponsorship(s) with little regard for others. It became a status symbol and not a sharing or teaching tool. Like all good things, changes would come sooner or later.
As the decals went on the boat, some anglers went over the top while other scrambled to get on the sponsorship bandwagon. It is unfortunate that many anglers went out of their way to embellish their fishing prowess but I guess that was the name of the game. If an angler did well in a tournament or two, maybe won one or two, his bragging rights may have carried the day. That is so far from today’s reality.
I always looked at the sponsor in a different light and often asked myself how a person or company would offer another individual a sponsorship? This is probably one the most important points and the most misunderstood part of sponsorship by anglers. Trust is the key to a lot of opportunities with sponsors but I will get into details later.
My first opportunity
I got my opportunity back in 1997 but not on my own. I had been active in a group called Walleye Unlimited of Alberta and spent a lot of my free time working on establishing a walleye fishery in the reservoirs of southern Alberta. I spent a lot of time with members and canvassed a lot of businesses for support. In 1997 I purchased a boat and began the construction of what would become the first high horsepower tiller boat.
I went and dealt with a very small boat shop that was struggling to increase sales. I chose this dealer simply because I liked certain aspects of the boat brand the dealer was offering. This little shop was visited by people who represented marine products that they hoped the dealer would purchase and install on his boats. My boat was novel to say the least and the boat retailer was quite proud that he had put together something special. When the Johnson Outdoors reps of the day dropped by to see if there was an opportunity to sell some MinnKota trolling motors, the dealer knew I would be interested. As the reps were leaving they casually asked if the dealer knew anyone who might be interested in promoting their products for them. The boat dealer was kind enough to offer up my name and I received a call two days later. That was the first opportunity for me to carry a sponsor name into tournaments and I am forever thankfull to my boat dealer.
Johnson Outdoors brands of the day: My first sponsors
MinnKota, Coleman, Spider rods, reels and lines, Mitchell rods and reels, Abu Garcia reels, Fenwick rods and Fenwick lures, Yoziri, Eureka tent and camping gear.
Plus my Crestliner boat sponsorship and Evinrude engines through my marine dealer.
I don’t know what my peers had for sponsors but I can tell you I never flaunted my good fortune for myself as much as for my sponsors.
My sponsors did their due diligence and interviewed me. They had been approached by numerous anglers but were undecided. They asked a lot of questions and I answered all of them truthfully, even if I felt it would hurt my chances. What I ended up telling those folks; my word means everything to me. If we agree on the program I will always do my best to support them and I never waivered.
More on failures
The sponsored anglers I had seen on the lake never offered a ride in a new boat, shared fishing equipment, demonstrated product that was new and novel or offered any advice to up and coming anglers. They were too much into themselves and I know my first sponsors understood this and this why they were reluctant just to take on a new face. So I did a lot of things differently as I moved into walleye tournaments and recreational outings.
The most dramatic failure of the day was to recognize the position of a pro staff angler and the expectations of a product sponsor. If you are fortunate enough to carry a sponsor brand, it will be your responsibility to show the product(s) and put it into the hands of a potential consumer as many times as possible. A sponsored angler is not someone on a television show or the cover of an angling magazine, but a ground level sales representative for the manufacturer.
I joined the ranks of the sponsored angler and promptly put their equipment on and in my boat. Really this a no brainer. The equipment was top shelf and I wanted to show it off. I spent a lot of time as a volunteer where I used all the equipment I had to demonstrate to others, how the pieces worked or how efficient they were. The fishing gear was a simple as putting top of the line product into an unsuspecting pair of hands or taking a family out in the boat who would have been dry docked. Just the opportunity to see, touch and feel good product allowed me the opportunity to educate these people and hopefully someday would purchase my sponsor products themselves. I enjoyed those days, weekends, months and years showing and sharing my good fortune.
My sponsors of the day asked if I could assist in a vendor show and sale the following spring. I did just that; went to the show, demonstrated equipment, educated others on the finer points of fishing techniques, equipment used, quality and longevity as well as making hundreds of friends. I was always early, checking the booth and the displays and changing up the display on the fly to increase awareness and product visibility. This was noted many times later by other industry representatives who watched as I did my thing for my sponsor.
I never saw our competitors as a threat and built friendships with all, just to feel the pulse of the industry and watch how they represented their products. All the product reps were there to support the vendor at the show with a booth full of their products and I was there to gauge the quality of their product as well as gauge the sales tactics that were employed.
One of the things I noticed was how other pro staff anglers approached a potential customer and how they discussed product. We all worked the floor and the sales area for the vendor. Often as not we were rubbing shoulders with each other and of course the ears and eyes were wide open. Many sponsored anglers took an adversarial approach to a competitor product. I thought this was not right and for years later, coached my peers in what I considered the proper approach to potential customers.
And for the show vendor, I sold the customers whatever they wanted, educating them on the way on pros and cons of their purchase but never belittling a competitor product. As it turned out I became a regular at the show and sales and earned the respect of all the product reps.
I can honestly say that I miss them now. I sold fishing equipment to three generations of the same family in many cases. They always came by and introduced themselves as a “do you remember me”? The consumer remembered the first time we met, the store or show, the boat dock or the seminar. Whatever the situation it brought back a number of great memories and lasting friendships that I cherish. But this history was built on honesty, trust and truthfulness about product and uses. Many times I took a consumer away from specific products we represented because I didn’t like a certain quality or price range and would compliment those actions by offering something better or more reliable at a lesser price. When I spoke to the consumer I asked the probing questions, identifying the positive and examining the negative, all for educating the consumer.
The selling came after as they understood what they were purchasing. I never had someone come back to me and complain about a bad sale. I did have a few come back and mention on their second go around that they came to upgrade to my original suggestion a year prior.
A short story
Now this brings me to a story about a fishing guide I met years earlier in Rivers Inlet, BC. I was doing a show and sale in Calgary and got a strange phone call from Prince George BC. My friend was on the other end and he asked if I was at the Calgary show, which I confirmed. After a few questions, I heard him say that he was coming to buy some fishing gear but wanted me to help him. No problem, but maybe my friend would want me to take his list and have me ship? I surely could do that. No thanks, see you in twelve hours was his answer. Well that turned out to be quite a journey for my friend and a huge one person sale for the vendor. My friend would not deal with anyone but me so I started and finished a $3700.00 sale in less than two hours. I think that sale made me famous locally but it got better.
MinnKota sales in Alberta and BC were the lowest in all of North America and dead last in Canada. My reps picked up the Johnson Outdoors portfolio because it was struggling and Johnson Outdoors needed to compete against MotorGuide and PinPoint. But the MinnKota product was excellent and dependable.
When I did my first sale in Edmonton, I noticed the corporate display was static. In other words there was no way to demonstrate product effectively or show multiple models and offerings. My reps were very well versed in all the product we were showing but I believe they needed someone like myself to bridge the gap between product knowledge and actual field use.
I discussed this aspect with the reps and suggested I could build a display that would be better suited than the corporate one. I took it upon myself to design and build the display. We used that display for five show seasons. There was nothing like it then or now. I was able to physically demonstrate all the new features built into MinnKota products as well as hang multiple models on the display.
The first time we used this display, my sponsors stayed to the side and worked on lines, rods and reels. The crowd in front of the display was always six deep as I went through and interactive demonstration. As I worked the show I would see MinnKota boxes leaving the venue three at a time. The show went well for us and the vendor. In a four-day show, we were completely out of product in the show store and all the vendors’ Edmonton stores. Our last day and a half was strictly selling product that had to be ordered. The follow-up product re-order was larger than all the previous year sales as a whole.
In the second year, (and every year after) we had a similar successes and the boat demonstrations and field showings were really paying off. The sales were so good that the Johnson Outdoors Canadian sales manager came to Edmonton to see the display and gauge our sales effort. By the third year, my MinnKota reps were not only top sales in Canada but all of North America and remained there until they retired.
But there is a cost here as well. I was doing a lot of volunteer work, tournaments and taking potential customers fishing at my cost. The visibility and exposure is how I felt I was repaying those who were supporting me in my favourite pastime.
I guess I could sit here and just not stop writing about sponsorship benefits. Over time I accumulated 26 different cash and product sponsors and finally had to part ways with many. The reason for this was the conflict of time and fairness to my sponsors. I could not wear all the different sponsor shirts or spend time with all of them at the same show or sale. I just felt if I couldn’t give the sponsor the time they deserved that they should look elsewhere. In my case, I may have gone over the top but it has had nothing but rewards.
The sponsors I dropped over the years have never stopped talking to me or taken offense. Even as I back away to let the younger anglers take my spots, I know I will not be forgotten. My sponsors and our competitors know that I do not represent them officially but I will never fail to support them and their products.
I have won many awards from my sponsors, many of which were one of a kind. I am most proud to be the first non employee recipient to be recognized by my sponsor for long term service (25 plus years) as a pro staff participant and be the first name on the Pure Fishing Wall of Fame in Burlington Ontario.
Pure Fishing brands today:
Berkley, Fenwick, All Star, Abu Garcia, Spiderwire, Trilene, Fireline, Stren, Penn, Mitchell, Pflueger, Shakespeare and others.
The recognition from so many industry reps and my many sponsors is incredibly rewarding for me and a long way from my original thoughts of becoming a sponsored angler.
The keys are trust, openness, honesty and an attitude that puts all others first when supporting your sponsor. It is not as easy as one might think but necessary in todays restricted budgets and pro staff cut backs.
Sponsors are not there to look over your shoulder, want a flash in the pan or an ego. Sponsors must be assured that their name and their products are exposed to the public in a manner that supports sales and their core beliefs.
If you ever have the opportunity to represent a brand or brands as a sponsored angler, don’t screw up. There are very few openings available for these positions and you want to be the best to get the best. Always ask yourself what you can do for a sponsor, not what a sponsor can do for you!