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by Rick Jones

One of my favorite songs is the Willie Nelson classic, My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys”. I’m a cowboy kind of guy. And, in the sponsorship world, I am one of the last of the cowboys – the hired gun – the commissioned salesman. I come from a long line of sponsorship salespersons that I greatly admire and love, and have tried to emulate. Cowboys like Rob Prazmark, Harlan Stone, David Falk, Jeff Jonas, and Jack Birch, just to name a few.

Selling corporate sponsorships is hard. The easiest thing in business is to spend money. The next easiest is to count money. The hard part is actually getting someone to give you money. In so many classic western movies, cowboys like Gary Cooper in High Noon and Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven are asked by the townspeople to rid their town of the bad guys and to do it all alone. Same with sponsorship sales. Often those individuals and organizations who cannot sell, ask me to come aboard and make it rain money for them. My compensation is pretty straight forward. I get 20% of the revenue I generate for you. I cover all of my travel and other prospecting costs, and then get paid only if you get paid. You keep 80%.

Let me repeat myself. Selling sponsorships is hard. I try to bat 300. After all, that will probably get you to the Hall of Fame in Baseball. But, what that really means is that you fail 7 out of 10 times. And, I don’t mean counting the folks that don’t call you back as one of the seven failures. No, I mean, seven companies that engaged fully with me and finally said no. The losses are all disappointing. But, that’s always been part of the territory. Yet, lately, I find that the wins are not as much fun as they use to be either.

A commissioned salesperson is a marriage broker. I do my best to make sure that both the Property and the Corporate Sponsor are equally benefiting from the relationship. All I ask in return is to be invited to the wedding and to get paid what we initially agreed to.

Sponsors are not what they use to be. Recently, I sold a new sponsorship only to have the sponsor come to the event and not show up for the sponsors’ luncheon nor anything else the Property had planned to show them. In other words, the bride failed to show up at the wedding. It was totally disrespectful. And, extremely disappointing.

But, it’s gotten even worse on the Property side.

I recently had one client fail to pay me fully for my commission for the third year of a three year agreement I had negotiated for them. Their excuse was that the work to service the client was more than they had expected. Really? My client later renewed their agreement with the corporate sponsor that I had brought to them, but did not feel they owed me anything from the renewal. Really? When is 80% not enough?

I brought a sponsor prospect in a very unusual product category to another Property client. I had proposed a fee of $X. The Property said they wanted to handle the negotiations and did a deal for a greater amount than what I had initially suggested. The client only paid me a fee of 20% of what I had proposed and only for the first year of a multi-year agreement. Really?

Last summer I was informed by a longtime client that they would not be paying me for the 4th and 5th years of a deal I did for them. The contract was for three years, with an option by the sponsor for years 4 and 5. The Property does not feel they owe me for those years, even though the sponsor exercised the option to remain the sponsor. The option that I had negotiated for my client on the front end. Really?

They also informed me that my services would not be needed in renewing another sponsor that I had brought to them and renewed twice already for them. Again, really?

And, just this week a sponsor decided they would go around me and negotiate directly with a group that I had secured tickets from last year for a major sold out event. Once again, really?

I’ve decided that I am no longer asking if things are right or wrong. There seems to be too much grey area in everything to definitively arrive at an answer. No, I am now simply asking if it’s honorable or dishonorable.

I still have faith that most people will do the honorable thing. The late, great Mark McCormack, founder of IMG (and arguably the best cowboy salesman of them all), told this terrific story.

Doug Sanders is a former PGA Tour golf professional who won twenty-one PGA tournaments in his career. In the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Mark McCormick’s agency IMG represented the colorful golfer Sanders. IMG’s deal was that they would receive 10% of all of Doug’s earnings both on and off the golf course in return for managing his career, finding sponsorships for him and creating other financial opportunities.

One day Mark was opening his mail in his office in Cleveland and found a handwritten envelope from some motel in west Texas, addressed to him. On the back of the envelope was a scribbled word, “Sanders.” Inside the envelope was $400 in cash. There was no note.

Mark called Doug and said, “Doug, did you send me $400 in cash and, if so, what for?”

Doug relied that, yes, he had sent the money to Mark. Sanders had booked a corporate golf outing without any help from IMG and had been paid $4,000 for that outing. The $400 was IMG’s commission.

Now that’s honor. No one at IMG would have ever known, but Sanders did the right and honorable thing.

I think that I have a lot of game still left in me and that this cowboy will continue to make it rain for my clients. But, I now have just one question that I ask of any potential client. “Are you Doug Sanders?”

Well, are you?

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