Ken Read’s Sailing Sponsorship Advice

Ken Read’s Keynote at the World Yacht Racing Forum was a big hit. His wide ranging speech can be read here. Below are the comments he made about raising sponsorship and what sailors and events still have to learn.


Clearly this is a big part of what we are talking about at this event. Sponsorship is critical at the elite level of our sport. There is no doubt in my mind that sponsorship is far more prevalent here in Europe than it is in the United States. When I did the Volvo Ocean race we stopped in Lorient and the people of Lorient asked me to do a focused talk to a bunch of industry people. I talked about my sponsorship experience and people were blown away. In France, businesses are calling the talented sailors and asking the talented sailors if they can sponsor their boats. That’s unheard of in my part of the world.

Let me explain my sponsorship story. Here’s my theory. I have a really novel idea. I’m going to get sponsorship. You meet somebody. You get into the marketing department and you meet these guys (points to slide showing a bunch of young people in suits). They are all enthusiastic, great presentation and as soon as you walk out they are thinking about how to screw you. There is not a prayer in hell, that going through the normal channels, at least in North America, that you are EVER going to get sponsorship. So I tell young people all the time – don’t even bother.

You’re wasting your time.

What your sponsorship means for these people (the marketing team) is more work. And they don’t get paid extra. They might have to go around the world with a Volvo race – away from their families – they’re out of their comfort zone. The best way to get sponsorship is to find ‘This Guy'(or his female counterpart). You need to go straight to the boss. The boss can make the decision. The Boss can tell the marketing team ‘you’re going to do the work’. But if the marketing team is left to its own druthers, they aren’t going to do it.

So here is my arch-enemy number one. Before we found Berg Propulsion in the last Volvo Race, I was really close with Thomson Reuters for quite a big package. Puma had made it clear that they wanted a second sponsor – they didn’t want to foot the whole bill this time, so I had some good ins with Thomson Reuters and it came down to me versus Mike Weir. I hate Mike Weir. I don’t even know the guy. He’s a good golfer, won the masters, left handed. I hate Mike Weir. He cost me a lot of money.

It came down to a safety net for Thomson Reuters. The nice, easy decision. Let’s go with golf, we know it, the CEO is a golfer, so we can sponsor this golfer or this crazy, out of the box, Volvo idea – and go around the world and go to all these different continents and try to create a global reach in this ‘brand new sport’. Which would you rather do? Mike Wier. They take Mike Wier. Did I mention how much I dislike Mike Wier?

But we had Puma. And Puma is exactly the opposite. I met the right guy in the right place with the CEO of Puma and we hit it off right out of the box. And he decided, right then and there – I’m going to take this on – this is just crazy enough. Then the boss tells the marketing department – by the way – here’s your next job, this is what you are going to do.

It turned out to be an incredible adventure – an adventure that we thought would only last a couple of years and one lap of the planet. It turned out to be almost 7 years and 2 laps around the planet. All they wanted to do – and this is really important – you have to listen to what these guys want.

The first thing I ever asked the CEO of Puma was – what do you want to get out of this? I’m expecting – branding, blah, blah, blah… and he said:

“I just want to sell shit. I want to sell shoes. Everybody who works for me – sells shoes”

The first speech I ever made to anyone who came to work for us on the team – anybody. If you think you are here to win a sailboat race you are mistaken. You’re here to sell shoes. If you’ve always dreamt of being a shoe salesman – I’m your guy.

The other sponsor we had was Berg propulsion and Berg, a Swedish company, that had a completely different reason to sponsor a boat. Berg wanted the entertainment factor. Puma wanted nothing to do with the entertainment factor, they just wanted to sell shoes. And by the way – Puma sold a lot of shoes. For a short period of time, the highest grossing retail outlet in Puma was the one in the Volvo Village.

But what they saw, was that every time we went to a new country, all the stores would have a bump. So we were not just selling marine product, we were selling product – period.

Berg couldn’t have been more different. Berg wanted to entertain clients. Berg said – here’s our client base – these 70 people need a propeller – they just don’t know it yet. So I said “If I can sell shoes, I can sell propellers – how hard can it be?”

In both sponsorship cases, the thing we did best was – we asked our sponsors what they wanted. We didn’t come in and say – I’m going to give you 2 VIP tickets and you can use the boat – there was none of that. There was a list and the list was – what can I do for you? How can I help you want to be a sponsor of this project?

There are so many reasons to sponsor. In Spain, there are still great tax reasons to sponsor. All these sponsors for Telefonica were interested in tax breaks you can get with Athletic sponsorships.

Abu Dhabi has a tourism reason for sponsorship. I think there is a 38% occupancy rate for all these hotels and buildings. They need people to come there. Let’s go around the world and tell people where Abu Dhabi is and give them a reason to come.

So ask the sponsor what they want.

One thing that has been ignored a little bit at this conference is – remember the owners. The owners of these boats, the owners of these projects are our biggest customers. The sponsors are glamour. The crazy looking boat with the big cat across it or Oracle down the wing. We can talk about these glamour programmes, but we have to keep in mind – owners of sailboats are by far our biggest constituency. These are the people we have to make happy. Don’t forget about the owners. Without these people, then there are no sponsors.

North Sails is asked a lot to sponsor events. I ask people – what is my return on investment? They look at me like I have two heads. What do you mean? Well I am going to give you money – what are you going to give me in return?

I would rather that events, especially events, start mainstreaming a little bit. Perhaps getting a little bit smaller and not need big sponsors. I would rather that we educate more people into sailing. We need to go door-to-door at all these events to help sailors get better or train new sailors. We need to bring more people in.

We need more people to get involved. How can I give back. How can I get a couple more people into the sport this year? Keep having fun – that’s why we got into it in the first place.