|Christian Duque and PJ Braun at the 2018 NPC Nationals.|
Competitors looking to make the fitness industry a career - or at the very least, supplement their existing incomes - need to have sponsors. Sponsorships don't just amount to money in your pocket or supplements in your pantry. In many ways, having a real sponsorship, raises an athlete's profile, gives them greater credibility in an industry consumed, if not overwhelmed, by status, and opens even more doors for a hardworking competitor. I don't care how many titles you've amassed, you don't want to walk around without sponsors. In fact, look at 7x Mr. Olympia Phil Heath. When he went for #8, he was probably the only bodybuilder on that stage without a supplement contract. Contracts don't affect your physique or, much less, your placings, but anyone, even a reigning Mr. O, without one - just looks weak. And for the record, not all sponsorships are created equally.
So what all does having the right sponsor mean, anyways?
The right sponsor is a company that takes care of its athletes; it's a company that invests into that athlete, be it featuring them in pop-ups at events, ads in magazines or on websites, and who uses said athlete in marketing campaigns, maybe has shirts made for them, and/or puts them in a prominent place at expos and/or big events. Look at how GAT treats Big Ramy, how Allmax treats Steve Kuclo, or even better examples, how BSN treated Ronnie and/or Muscletech treated Jay. Yes, big paychecks are nice and certainly worth every penny, but the right sponsors can make a rising star, a superstar.
Take my friend PJ Braun, CEO and President of Blackstone Labs, with natural IFBB Pro League Classic Pro Keone Pearson. PJ signed this amazing athlete and put tons of resources into promoting him like only a company like Blackstone can. Whether it was doing podcasts with Keone and his coach, IFBB legend Flex Wheeler, or it was raving about him over countless cardio confessionals to BSL diehards, PJ (a former, top tier national level NPC bodybuilder) made a point of putting all of his considerable cred behind a new competitor. He not only pushed Keone, but he defended the fact he was 100% Natural for these contests. He didn't have to do that, but when a competitor signs to a competitor-owned and operated company, it's a different story than working for a suit. Everything Keone went through, PJ went through. Also, unlike other companies where you can potentially answer to any number of corporate officers and/or a constantly changing roster of bigwigs, with closely-held companies, you deal with the owner(s) directly. That's another thing that makes a company like BSL, the right kind of sponsor.
The right kind of sponsor pushes its athletes, gives them even more opportunities, and truly helps them grow a larger, stronger audience. These companies see the big picture; they're keen to the fact that the more reach their athletes have, the more it will benefit the company as well. The ROI game is a complex one, but it's not rocket science. The reason most companies don't operate this way, is because athletes usually end up being used like cannon fodder. This is why so many great competitors bounce around companies, because the companies under-pay and over-work them. Would you be a loyal to a company that wanted everything, but did nothing for you? That's the wrong kind of sponsor.
If you're good to your athletes, they'll be good to you. Some companies, however, go above and beyond just being good. Going back to Keone, he's a superb athlete who's earned his gains and truly perfected his craft, but he's also hit the jackpot in having a legend like Wheeler in his corner and a sponsor like Blackstone Labs behind him. I mean, just think about the huge honor to be assessed by Steve Weinberger at the East Coast Mecca of Bodybuilding, days out from one of the biggest contests of your life!! That sort of thing, doesn't just happen, it's the product of many peoples' hard work, behind an athlete. It's truly a movement.
The truth of the matter is this, you can pretend like you don't need sponsors, but if you're serious about taking the next step, then you need to humble yourself and get real. The magazines are dead and the ones still hooked up to life support machines aren't signing exclusivity deals anymore. Long gone are the days you'd get $2k-$5k automatically deposited into your account each month, whether you shot or not, because you couldn't work with anyone else (assuming anyone else even wanted to work with you). The bottom line is, the gravy train - that was the magazines - stopped dead in its tracks about ten years ago. With the advent of more cellphone-friendly social media apps like Instagram, it flooded the industry with a whole new dimension of competition. Many companies would rather hire 10 Men's Physique or Bikini competitors than one or two, very well-paid bodybuilders. Most companies won't even look twice, let alone once, at muscular women. But this is where the old school mentality should kick in. Muscle sells; muscle is what makes the fitness world go round; you just need to know HOW to market that muscle, market your journey, and market yourself.
Provided you're hungry enough, relentless in your approach, and seize every opportunity to get on the radar of someone like PJ Braun, then it just be you signing that big contract! Who knows, it might be you at the (East Coast) Mecca, you on the massive banners at the Arnold, it might be you getting shot by Jeff Binns, Amir, or maybe even the biggest legend of them all, J.M. Manion. Can this fairy-tale, happy-ending, be the culmination of all your efforts? I guess you'll just have to give it 110% and see.