Increase Sponsorship Opportunities by Branding Your Athletic Department

High School Director of Operations Cory McCarthy explains how a strong team brand can help secure spon­sor­ships and cre­ate a sense of com­mu­ni­ty dur­ing a dis­con­nect­ed time.

Increase Sponsorship Opportunities by Branding Your Athletic Department

High School Director of Operations Cory McCarthy explains how a strong team brand can help secure spon­sor­ships and cre­ate a sense of com­mu­ni­ty dur­ing a dis­con­nect­ed time.

Can I bor­row a dol­lar? I’m exaggerating…a lit­tle. It’s hard out here to build a pro­gram with­out spon­sor­ships or dona­tions, espe­cial­ly from the folks who down­right feel bad for the taped-on num­bers, the once white (now gray) kicks, and the bas­ket­balls with no grip.

But noth­ing says we have a chance to win” like fresh uni­forms or the free shirt your coach gave you — that you can’t wash because you know for a fact it’ll shrink. 

That’s where I start­ed. As a young bas­ket­ball coach of a no-name, no-fame pro­gram, I bought 300 t-shirts and gave them all away. Why? Because no one turns down a free shirt. And because I want­ed every­one, every­where to be spread­ing the New Mission name.

T-shirts repping our logo were what launched our brand.

I want­ed the guys work­ing on the bro­ken man­holes in town wear­ing New Mission” on their chests. I want­ed the lit­tle kids at the laun­dro­mat rock­ing a t-shirt three sizes too big, rep­ping the blue and yel­low. I even want­ed the politi­cian, who need­ed a talk­ing point, to feel as if they were con­nect­ed to our lit­tle pro­gram in Boston. The pro­gram with no ele­va­tor, no PA sys­tem and no cafe­te­ria. (Thankfully, we’ve upgrad­ed since then.)

But how could I get any­one to believe in a tiny school of 250 kids with­out a gym, his­to­ry or tra­di­tion? The answer is iden­ti­ty. We con­nect­ed every ral­ly cry and team mantra to the iden­ti­ty of our pro­gram. We made it infec­tious. We played as a team, dis­cussed as a team, and act­ed as a team. That team-first approach made us attrac­tive for any­one look­ing to sup­port young schol­ars chas­ing col­lege and hun­gry for wins.

And I’ll tell you what, the bas­ket­ball gods are some­thing else. With our estab­lished iden­ti­ty, we won. We won char­ac­ter. We won cul­ture. We won in the class­room. And we start­ed win­ning on the court too. Once we start­ed win­ning games, we increased our vis­i­bil­i­ty with anoth­er order of t-shirts — 200 this time. We hopped into neigh­bor­hood parades and cre­at­ed a social media iden­ti­ty based on our feel-good story.

Make your team mantras and rallying cries visible to everyone.

Then we used our social media pres­ence to open­ly adver­tise our growth. We had acces­si­ble ref­er­ences like mix­tapes, com­mu­ni­ty ser­vice and col­lege place­ments. Sponsors don’t view a pro­gram like this with pity or guilt — they view us as a partner.

Sponsorships bring integri­ty to your pro­gram and sup­port the prover­bial swag”. If they invest, it means they believe, they share the vision. They don’t have to have deep pock­ets. In fact, word-of-mouth is our biggest con­trib­u­tor of them all. Whenever some­one men­tions our name, they feel con­nect­ed to us. Connected to the hard­work­ing, tough kids, who get it done in the class­room. And whose per­for­mance reflects their identity.

Eventually, when it came time to reach out to our first shoe spon­sor, they saw us as a pro­gram that iden­ti­fies with effort, integri­ty and respect for the game. Those vari­ables reflect­ed win­ning. We were able to secure team sneak­ers and gear, which lead to more team con­fi­dence and a Kawhi Leonard’s palm-sized boost in our performance.

Team gear can boost your team's confidence—and their performance.

We got sup­port from the Boston Police Department who bought meals for our play­ers. We quick­ly mobi­lized to sup­port local city coun­cilors, who helped us secure more shirts. Then we solicit­ed orga­ni­za­tions with inter­ests in oth­er sports. We were able to con­vince them bas­ket­ball was the most pop­u­lar sport in the city. And our data, which showed 90 per­cent of our play­ers attend­ed 4-year schools after grad­u­at­ing, didn’t hurt either.

These exclu­sive team spon­sor­ships, in turn, brought even more brand con­fi­dence to our pro­gram and investors. The new t-shirts were no longer like the ones I once gave away. They now reflect­ed the New Mission High School mantra: Family, Loyalty, Discipline, Character.

Not long after this, when we played St. Anthony’s (fea­tur­ing the great Bob Hurley Sr.), it wasn’t New Mission High ver­sus St. Anthony’s. It was two iden­ti­ties man­i­fest­ed and ele­vat­ed by team spon­sor­ships. Before the game tipped off, while the anthem was play­ing, I stood in front of a leg­end. I thought about how tough we had it years pri­or — how I once had to give a kid my Adidas sneak­ers at half­time because his shoes were beat to the tongue. And there we were, matched up with the great­est high school bas­ket­ball coach of all time.

We got crushed. But after the game, Hurley said, I can see why you guys are at this lev­el.” It was because of our iden­ti­ty. Sponsorships come with proven, prac­ticed and authen­tic team iden­ti­ty. It’s not some­thing you can fake or pre­tend to mod­el. It comes from a deep belief with­in the vision and bot­tom line of your program.

How to secure and maintain support and sponsorships.

  1. Start with you. The very first spon­sor for every strong pro­gram should be the one who cre­ates the vision and iden­ti­ty of the pro­gram. Coaches who spend their own mon­ey under­stand the desire, the need and the effort nec­es­sary to pro­vide for their teams.
  2. Increase your vis­i­bil­i­ty in the com­mu­ni­ty to extend the lifes­pan of your rel­e­vance. Don’t be stingy — bless the kids, staff or church­es with excess swag. Everyone wants to be a part of some­thing pos­i­tive and authentic.
  3. Be inno­v­a­tive. Why not trav­el to play the best pro­grams? No one wants to sup­port a pro­gram that doesn’t chal­lenge itself to grow. When we got team jack­ets, I went to over 80 games and proud­ly wore my gear. Sticking out like a free Netflix account pass­code in a Youtube com­ment sec­tion isn’t a bad thing.
  4. Practice your approach. Sponsorships can be trans­ac­tion­al, so your squad should be ready to artic­u­late the impor­tance of sup­port. On many occa­sions, we were asked to attend par­ties, fundrais­ing events and speak­ing engage­ments to sup­port those who have invest­ed in us. Having an ele­va­tor pitch ready for these func­tions can help you gath­er even more support.

Build your case, deliv­er your case, live your case. Make it come alive, both in print and in your actions, and it’s guar­an­teed to make a huge dif­fer­ence for your ath­letes and your teams.

Cory McCarthy spent more than a decade coach­ing bas­ket­ball. As Direc­tor of School Cul­ture and Cli­mate at New Mis­sion High School, he has helped lead the school to being named the 2012 EdVestors’ School on the Move, 2013 Nation­al Blue Rib­bon School for Improve­ment, and the 2017 Title One Dis­tin­guished School. McCarthy has rep­re­sent­ed Boston Pub­lic Schools at con­fer­ences such as ASUGSV Tech­nol­o­gy Sum­mit in San Diego and COSE­BOC in Boston, MA and New York, and has been a guest lec­tur­er at Emer­son Col­lege and UMASS Boston.