Wind in his sails: Racer hopes eco-friendly aim will draw title sponsor

Tommy Hilfiger was the title sponsor for Brad Van Liew's 2002-03 Around Alone campaign. The high-profile race, and features about Van Liew in national media, was calculated to be worth millions of dollars in advertising for the company.

Editor's note: The Post and Courier is following Brad Van Liew's quest to win the Velux 5 Oceans race.

When Brad Van Liew sets out on his third around-the-world race later this year, the lines that hoist his sails will be provided by a 130-year-old nautical rope company named Samson.

You'll see the company's name somewhere on the boat, along with all the other donors who help fund Van Liew's two-year Velux 5 Oceans race campaign.

Sponsorship is the engine that keeps a race campaign like Van Liew's sailing, but in this economy securing the holy grail -- a title sponsor -- is not easy to do.

Meaghan Van Liew, who manages the campaign's sponsorship, marketing and public relations, has proposals out to hundreds of potential name sponsors, looking for the right fit and a company that sees the benefit of attaching its name to a 30,000-mile adventure around the globe.

"This is not a charity, we don't ask companies for donations," Meaghan Van Liew said. "We are showing companies how their sponsorship delivers a marketable return."

Van Liew's boat in the 1998-99 Around Alone was called Balance Bar, at the time a fairly new nutritional snack company. Four years later, Van Liew's team and boat was sponsored by Tommy Hilfiger, the American fashion designer with his own clothing line. Van Liew's boat was painted in Hilfiger colors and was seen around the world in news footage of the race.

Tommy Hilfiger's PR machine tried to calculate the value of its sponsorship back then, but stopped counting somewhere north of $20 million in "earned media" value when the boat and skipper landed a five-minute segment on the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams -- this after a number of features in The New York Times and Men's Journal.

"You can't put a price on that kind of exposure," Van Liew said.

Single-handed, around-the-world sailboat racing is a sport dominated by the French, where European corporate sponsors can shell out $10 million for a campaign. The eco-class, which Van Liew competes in, is a much-less expensive endeavour, but still costly.

For a company such as Samson, sponsoring the campaign of a proven, winning sailor (Van Liew won his class in the 2002-03 Around Alone and placed third in the 1998-99 race) was a natural fit with the company's primary product.

"Teaming up with Brad and the Lazarus Project is a match made in heaven for Samson," said David Krupka, recreational marine sales manager for Samson. "Brad puts our high-tech running rigging to the true test, under extreme conditions in this race. We have the greatest of confidence that our products will perform for Brad and are thrilled to be a part of his next bid in this global competition."

Right now, Meaghan Van Liew is looking for companies that fit with the theme of her husband's race campaign. She said the target audience is environmentally conscious businesses attracted by Van Liew's quest to sail 30,000 miles around the world without the use of any fossil fuels. He plans to use solar and, of course, wind power. It is the kind of message the Van Liews hope will be attractive to an international company.

Some of the appeal to sponsoring a racing campaign has as much to do with associating with a winner and adventurer. In the past, sponsors host parties, introducing the skipper to clients, who usually listen with rapt attention to Van Liew's tales of surfing up 30-foot waves in exotic corners of the globe.

"They become part of the story," Brad Van Liew said. "The story is not just the guy out there racing, but the team behind him. It is a real human interest story."

Brad Van Liew calls the efforts to secure sponsorship "at least half" the job of getting to the starting line. It has become a chicken-and-egg thing. It's hard to sell a race campaign to a company unless it is underway, but it is hard to get started without the guarantee of sponsors to share the costs.

"In an ideal world, you would find a sponsor first," Van Liew said. "In the United States, it's more challenging to do that. If you wait until somebody signs on, you likely won't be able to get ready in time."

While the search for sponsorship -- primary and otherwise -- continues, Brad Van Liew will supervise the re-fit of his 60-foot yacht while Meaghan keeps searching for a company that wants to circumnavigate the globe with a boat carrying their name on the hull.