Marketing Wizards: Tish Kelly and CWA Racing p/b Trek
Over the last few years, when a title sponsor ended their relationship with a bike team, it usually meant the demise of the associated team. Even giants in the domestic peloton like UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling and Team SmartStop haven’t been immune to cycling’s fickle sponsorship market. No matter what a team’s results had been, there never seemed to be enough sponsors willing to invest in the sport on an annual basis. So, when Papa John’s Racing p/b Trek’s title sponsor began experiencing several months of bad press in 2018 and it began to look doubtful that Papa John’s would sponsor the team in 2019, most cycling fans began to fear for the worst.
But instead of the team folding because of actions that they had no control over, the team rose like a phoenix out of the ashes. Capital Wealth Advisors (CWA), a long-time associate sponsor of the team took the opportunity to step up and become the team’s title sponsor. Then the team signed two of the peloton’s strongest riders – Samantha Schneider and Caroline Bauer – who were looking for a team after ISCorp ended their cycling sponsorship program after 20 years. And with the signing of Samantha’s father, Dave Schneider, the team also secured one of the best team directors in North America.
The result of this excellent maneuvering was that the newly christened CWA Racing p/b Trek had one of the strongest and most balanced line ups in North America. Naturally, the wins began to pour in making the 2019 season the best in the team’s history. Samantha Schneider, one of the top two or three most dominant criterium racers of the last decade, took some of the team’s biggest wins of the season at Tulsa Tough, Tour of America’s Dairyland, and last weekend at the Detroit Cycling Championship. The rest of the team has been extremely strong racking up wins and podiums all season long too. And with the 10-day Intelligentsia Cup kicking off this evening, there is a great chance that we’ll see even more wins for Madison Kelly, Caroline Bauer, Daniely Del Valle Garcia, and Samantha Schneider in the coming days.
Being able to overcome sponsor woes and enter the season stronger than ever before is no small feat. How did CWA Racing succeed where so many other teams have failed? To learn more, I turned to team owner and manager Tish Kelly to discover what’s different in how the team views the business of bike racing. Unlike many, Tish’s view of the sport isn’t conditioned to the thinking that things have to be done the same way that they’ve always been done. Having spent 25 years in and around the pro tennis tour, including a period where she was a nationally ranked player, Tish came to the sport of cycling later in life than others. Speaking to her, this seems to have freed her to think out of the box and move beyond the traditional marketing venues the sport has become accustomed to.
“Sponsors don’t necessarily get a lot of return on their investment by slapping their logo on a jersey and sending them around a crit circuit,” Tish told me. “You have to cultivate relationships and say, ‘Thank you for supporting me, what can I do for you?’ Getting sponsors attention is all we have to offer, so we have to be smart, especially with how we use social media.” And, when Tish references social media, she doesn’t mean the traditional rider account which can be impersonal and infrequently updated. A strong social media presence isn’t a request or “nice to have” at CWA Racing, it’s a requirement.
According to Tish, “It’s in all of my riders’ contracts. Our sponsors expect it, they want to see their products in use, that the riders like them, and that the riders say that they like them.” Of course, having a strong social media presence is easier said than done, especially for young athletes who aren’t comfortable having fans and being in the public eye. “Some of them go kicking and screaming,” Tish laughs, “I have to train the girls to do it, help them understand why it’s important. I explain to them that our sponsors are looking at all of their social media sites so they all have to pitch in. I’ve really instilled it into their brains that if they don’t give sponsors value, then they won’t be able to get the gear or travel to these races.”
“Just think about ISCorp Pro Cycling,” Tish said, “It was the perfect example to my riders that you can have the number one team, number one racer, number one director, number one everything, but if your sponsor pulls out, then you’ve got nothing. Our young team is and always has been legit, but historically, we’ve never been anywhere near ISCorp. And yet, we have 18 sponsors and now they have none. I think that’s the result of our systematic strategy to find sponsors and get them exposure.”
Whenever a rider joins CWA Racing, their social media presence takes a quick upward trajectory. Last year, when Emily Ehrlich (@emiehrlich) joined the team as a mid-season signing, she had a social media account within a couple weeks and has been growing it ever since thanks to an increased profile from her multiple wins and risk-taking style. Rider Caroline Bauer (@carobaur94) has also bought into Tish Kelly’s marketing philosophy, not only for her personnel social media accounts, but also for her company CaBa Design (@CaBaDesigner) that makes bags and purses out of jerseys, race numbers, and energy bar wrappers.
One rider that Tish has been particularly passionate about growing an online presence for is Samantha Schneider (@iam_samschneider_). “When Sam joined the team, she didn’t even have a social media account. She was a bit shy about it, but I told Sam that whatever she wants to do, this is how you do it. Sam should be on the cover of every magazines right now, she’s an absolute rock star but nobody knows her outside of the cycling world. She needs to be promoted. We’ll make Sam a rock star pretty soon, even if she doesn’t want to be! (Laughs)”
Tish’s out of the box thinking goes beyond Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook too. For example, CWA Cycling is planning on doing cross-promotional work with NASCAR later this summer. An opportunity that was made possible thanks to Capital Wealth Advisors' owner’s involvement with NASCAR and Tish’s friendship with NASCAR’s president Steve Phelps. According to Tish, “It all kind of dovetailed. A lot of NASCAR drivers are cyclists, so the connection is perfect. The sponsors are going to love what we do, it’s going to get a lot of attention.”
With doom and gloom being a common theme on USA Cycling’s Pro Road Tour (PRT), I think that we could all take a lesson from Tish Kelly and CWA Racing p/b Trek. Real solutions exist for pro cycling’s woes. Sure, they buck the status quo; they’re new and uncomfortable, but they make real, measurable differences. And, they just might lead to making Samantha Schneider, Emily Ehrlich, and Madison Kelly house-hold names. And for those of us who love bike racing, that can only be a good thing!