Broadway’s problem with Sponsorship but how you can get it for your show.

Someone usually brings it up in the first 30 minutes of every first marketing meeting on every show I’ve ever worked on.

“We should get BIG BRAND to sponsor us.”

And everyone agrees.

And 99.99999% of the time, it never happens.

Sure, sometimes we get a little product “in kind” or sometimes we get an opening night venue . . . but cash?  Ha.

Why?

Because our industry and how we develop and launch our products doesn’t fit into what the Sponsorship Suits look for before they write a check.

There’s a great story about a massive hit playing on Broadway right now.  Rumor has it that before the show opening, the Lead Producer was looking for Sponsorship under every rock and startup.  And doors were getting slammed in his face like he was starring in a production of Noises Off.

Then the show opened.  Then it was a big hit.

And then his phone started ringing like he was starring in a production of Bells Are Ringing.

And he told them all the brands that were now dying to sponsor his show to go @#$% themselves.  Because he didn’t need them.

Why did these brands avoid what could have been a big boon to them?

Here are three reasons why it’s difficult for big brands to jump on board:

1.  WE DON’T HAVE ENOUGH EYEBALLS.

Don’t kid yourself.  Sponsors don’t write checks because they’re feeling all warm and fuzzy about what you’re doing.  They do it to get something out of it, and one of the most important things they look for is advertising impressions.  And ours are geographically limited to only the tri-state and mostly in New York.  That’s a lot different than a billboard at Yankee Stadium that gets all those TV impressions.

And if your big selling point is putting their product in the show?  Big whoop.  So 16,000 people a week see it if the show sells out.  That’s a drop in the advertising bucket worth about a couple hundred bucks.

2.  WHAT IF THE SHOW ISN’T ANY GOOD?

We ask sponsors to come aboard our shows when they are still in development, before audiences and critics chime in.  What if the critics hate it?  What if audiences hate it?  Brands look to align themselves with successful ventures, and they just have no clue if your show is going to work, never mind if it’s going to say something that is counter-intuitive to the brand’s message.  You can see why a brand would get skittish.

3.  IT’S ALL IN THE TIMING.

That question that I mentioned that is heard at every advertising meeting I go to is usually asked about 3-5 months before a show opens.  Sometimes even closer to the date.  Sponsorship dollars for the big companies out there are long gone by that point.  They plan this stuff way in advance, and it takes forever for them to vet opportunities.  These asks have to come a year or so in advance, which brings us back to problem #2, because at that point, your show is even less developed.

Tough, right?

But I know you.  You like a challenge.  You still believe you’re the one that can get that sponsorship for your show?

If you still want to go down this road, then here’s what I recommend.

  • Don’t go after big brands.  Go after medium and small brands.  Brands that can make decisions faster, and brands that don’t need to get a million impressions to justify their check.
  • Focus on brands specific to your target area.  Think a bit like a softball league looking for someone to sponsor their t-shirts.  Local shops and companies are much more likely to get involved and be honored to do so.

And finally, when going after sponsorships of any size, remember that that sponsorship, despite its moniker, is not just about you.  It’s a quid-pro-quo arrangement that has to benefit the sponsor as well as the sponsee.   So when you’re at an ad meeting and sponsorship comes up, ask not, “Who will sponsor the show?” but ask “Who will get the biggest benefits from sponsoring my show?”

 

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Comments
  • Ken Scott says:

    One thing you have to factor in, besides for maybe Yacht racing, I would imagine that Broadway has the highest financial demographic of any group. Why do we let Playbill get all the sponsorship dollars in their programs? They are the only ones that get to leverage all the shows going on at once. Producers need to get together to have more eyeballs at once and get some dollars together.

  • Marshall says:

    Great blog, Ken! Also agree with Ken Scott re: the demo you’re reaching.

    One sponsorship that has worked for us in Dallas: small vineyards. Deal includes a kiosk in the lobby for taste testing/free samples. And since we also control the playbills (little “P”) we can create nice packages with signage and ads. (Huge believer in power of the playbill and the impact of a full page ad!)

    You probably have a bajillion unions and crime syndicates that wouldn’t allow this in NYC but it works for us! 🙂

  • Dan Radakovich says:

    You must recall that the demographic is not based on only the number of people[eyeballs] per show, but also how often and how long these eyeballs are on the product/ad. For example, my adaptation of Vern Sneider’s 1960 bestselling novel The King from Ashtabula has a recurrent story gag about how a chief problem of the college kid stuck as king is that his country has a population that eats per capita 1,500+ pounds of sweet potatoes a year, and the big difficulty is how to get something else for them to eat because they are tired of a one-item diet, despite nutritive value. Now the logical place to go would be the sweet potato growers associations. There are like 4 you could google right now. But the novel was set like his earlier work Teahouse of the August Moon in a place like Okinawa. The Okinawan sweet potato is a luxury item. It is a regular “mystery” ingredient on cooking shows like “Chopped”[Food Network]. It is a black or deep purple not yellow or orange, and an “ad” in the US foodie capital [NYC] lasting essentially half of the scenes of a longish show [2 hrs.23 mins in a Pgh table read] is a big difference compared to a say momentary plopping of a can of Coke for one scene for half a minute of guzzling on stage. But finding a Japanese growers’ association will take more work. Then too you have the possible merchandising aspects in the lobby, selling recipe books, sweet potato flavored taffy candy[simple salt water taffy is easy to get], soft drinks and hard[sweet potato brandy anyone?-that was a big element of Teahouse too BTW]and so on. Another thing people can do is approach professionals. There are product placement specialists in the film industry who can help, of course they will likely want money to do so. But people don’t have to cold call on their own. Plus, if using billboards to advertise plays, you can sometimes put the product there too someplace, it can finally, depending on the product, if a play is a hit and the product is liable to be around a long time, be pointed out once a play is a hit it becomes part of the tradition of the American theater and likely colleges and high schools will put it on for decades to come and they will get all that advertising for free if it is not something too brand specific.

  • Ethan Brown says:

    Ken – been reading your blog for awhile now, glad you finally touched on this. I used to work in commercial theater as you know and now I am a marketer at Unilever and manage many sponsorships on behalf of several national personal care brands. Your points are spot on. The more national the brand, the more scale you need to provide and prove value of your property up front. If you want a national brand on board, better include sponsorship of national tours, tv adaptations, and award retail pass through rights nationwide to maximize the number of channels that the sponsor can activate with your show. Otherwise you can prove local value through hospitality assets you can provide for non consumer good brands in financial and insurance industries where hospitality is must have to facilitate b2b interaction.

    No matter what, think of Sponsors own objectives and equity when looking at brand sponsorships. Ask yourself: how can you help the sponsor achieve their objectives, and does their brand fit yours and vice versa? Is it mutually beneficial?

    Just my 2 cents……

  • Bill Borger says:

    Ken –

    I’ve been reading your blog for sometime, but this is my first comment. As you probably know, The Muny (now in its 98th year), is America’s oldest and largest outdoor musical theatre (seating for nearly 11,000) with seven musicals every summer (all Equity, fully produced in-house for our huge stage). I’ve handled our corporate relationships for 14 seasons and worked in the corporate entertainment world prior to that. Two points: First, non-profits do have a leg up in the sponsorship arena (of which The Muny is one). We can focus on mission as well as quid-pro-quo benefits. It adds an intangible emotional connection with our theatre and our productions. Perhaps that is an area to consider when working on a connection with a certain show in the for-profit world. It takes more work than than a purely data-driven sell, but is often more successful if you can find the link. Some of my best connections come through our board (your investors?) and often may involve regular communication over many years until the right opportunity comes along. In that regard, you’re taking a cue from a non-profit development department and developing relationships over a long period of time without an immediate ask or pitch. When you have the right property, the pieces are in place for a discussion about participation as a sponsor as well as direct investment.

    I also like the element of bundling of the tangible exposure elements. This may be obvious, but because we manage our own playbill (like Marshall, small p) which I also handle, we can combine a program ad with signage, media, website, social media, video, pre-show activities (such as sampling), hospitality elements such as tickets, parking and VIP events), plus special ticket offers exclusively for the sponsor/partner and their employees. I know the playbill can be a challenge in your situation, but it does enable the partnership/sponsorship to touch on all important points for the partner.

  • Rick Kestenbaum says:

    Ken, does nobody do this for Broadway as they do for the film industry? I’m thinking I might look into doing it if that’s the case. As others have pointed out and as Playbill has proven, the aggregated Broadway audience does have appeal to marketers, and while individual sponsorships might be tough, if the concept is established at a larger scale, it is likely that there would be more trickle down opportunities.

  • Skip Lehman says:

    Ken,

    You are 100% correct about going after small to medium sponsors. Regional theaters have the upper-hand in attracting sponsors. For example The Merry Go Round Playhouse has a Season Sponsor (a local bank), a Producer/Underwriter for each production, an opening night sponsor for each production, a media sponsor for the season, and even a nightly “Spotlight” sponsor.

    You can’t believe the trouble we are having getting sponsorship for the 75th Commemoration of Pearl Harbor for this December it’s mind boggling to me.

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