21 Dec 2011

Paralympians struggling to attract sponsorship

Paralympians are struggling to attract lucrative corporate sponsorship ahead of next year’s Games in London, writes Katie Razzall.

For companies, London 2012 has the potential to bring in the big bucks. When it comes to sponsoring individual athletes, it’s all about choosing as a so-called “ambassador” for your brand, the men and women who are already big names – or those who will be famous come next summer. Picking out a future gold-medal winner can be a lucrative business.

So how interested are the big brands in the Paralympics? Around 300 athletes will compete for Team GB in the Paralympic Games next year. None of them have been selected yet, but coaches have a pretty good idea who they are. Most of them don’t have real sponsorship.

“Why?” is a question often asked by David Pond, who’s Chief Executive of Britain’s Wheelchair Rugby squad. His sport was the first to sell out when the Paralympics tickets went on sale. It’s a great spectator sport: aggressive, fast-paced and dramatic (including many occasions when the players are knocked out of their wheelchairs).

But only two of his squad have individual sponsors. Some of his team, he says, really struggle for money.

It’s an expensive sport. The wheelchairs cost around £4,000 and because the game is all about contact, they have to be replaced every 15 months. At GB level, it’s a full-time job.

Read more: Channel 4's Paralympics website

As Mr Pond puts it – what better story to inspire business than that of his players? All have triumphed over adversity, showing a grit and backbone most of us are rarely or never called upon to produce. Most had dramatic life events which put them in their wheelchairs – car accidents, diving accidents, even rugby accidents. But they picked themselves up and rose to great heights. Yet they remain under the big brands’ radar – for now.

There are Paralympians bucking the trend. Unsurprisingly, they are already a success in their field. Like the swimmer Ellie Simmonds, who won gold in Beijing in 2008. She is an ambassador for Sainsburys, which also just happens to be the first Paralympics-only sponsor (if you shop there, you’ll start noticing it on the bags of fruit and veg).

Lee Pearson, the Paralympian dressage champion who’s won nine golds at the Games, is one of the biggest earners from the sponsors. He puts it simply. You need a story and you need to make yourself attractive to the brands. If you don’t do that “you need to change your story”.

Justin King, the head of Sainsburys, has this advice for Paralympian athletes looking for sponsorship. Train hard and win in London next year. The rest should follow.