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Whether they are an established brand in the Chippewa Valley or a new kid on the block, area sports entities know one of the keys to long-term success comes from sponsorships.

Successful products can be put onto the diamond, ice or race track but that alone doesn’t guarantee longterm success for the bottom line.

The Eau Claire Express are preparing for their 15th season of Northwoods League baseball play and have found plenty of success with three division championships and a league title in 2010. Part owner and chief financial officer Andy Neborak has been involved with the franchise for most of those 15 seasons and said building relationships with local businesses helps consumers when they come to see a game at Carson Park.

“The way that I see advertising and sponsorship is that’s really the foundation of what allows us to keep our product affordable,” Neborak said. “Some of those dollars may not be tracked to certain things, but that revenue stream allows us to keep concession prices affordable, ticket prices affordable and allows us to stay along that line. It’s a very important piece for us.”

Neborak said the franchise has several long-tenured sponsors and one of the main goals for the front office is to find new ways to get those businesses out there for as many eyes to see as possible.

“We have a pretty solid group that comes back every year and there’s a lot that have been with us all 15 years,” Neborak said. “But at the same time there’s a lot of new ones every year that maybe haven’t worked with us before. For us it’s a challenge of keeping things fresh for all those people – people aren’t going to do the same thing for 15 years.”

Those ideas can come in the form of various naming rights, in-game promotions as well as signage around the ballpark. The Northwoods League is a summer college baseball league that brings many of the top players from around the country to the Midwest. Currently Major League Baseball players such as Auburndale native Jordan Zimmermann and Kole Calhoun as well as Milwaukee Brewers farmhand Nate Orf called Eau Claire home during their college playing days.

Neborak and the Express can market that pipeline of talent, as well as homegrown players from the valley including Chippewa Falls graduate Trevor Olson and Chippewa Falls McDonell alum Zach Gilles who suited up for the team in 2018. However the Express choose to give their sponsors exposure, they want to be sure they are giving the best bang for their buck.

“It’s great support for us but we need to be sure we’re also thinking of businesses sponsoring us as well and create ways they can quantify their investment with us also,” Neborak said. “With other ways for them to spend their advertising dollars and sponsorship dollars, there’s a responsibility for us to make sure it’s a win for that business as well.”

While the Express are already a known entity in the Chippewa Valley sporting community, the Chippewa Steel of the North American Hockey League are concluding their first season in Chippewa Falls. Team business manager Jake Serwe has spent much of his first year with the Steel learning about the area and building relationships with local businesses.

Sponsorship, merchandise and ticket sales are all equally important to the Steel financially said Serwe and the franchise values building relationships with local businesses that are also active in the community.

“You realize the big players in the community and the businesses that support a lot of different community-minded things,” Serwe said.

Like the Express, the Steel look for ways to diversity what can be offered to sponsors. Whether it is print, radio, social media or in-game marketing, early on Serwe and the Steel are all about wanting to build relationships.

“The biggest thing is it’s about a business relationship,” Serwe said. “We don’t look at it as a sponsorship per say, more of a partnership of how we can partner together and help not only grow their business but help give back to the community through the different partnerships we do.”

That includes pairing local business with game night sponsorships, fan giveaways and more that goes above and beyond simple signage around the Chippewa Area Ice Arena.

Red Cedar Speedway president Mark Thomas has been involved with the Menomonie racetrack for 20 years and was recently elected president of the raceway. Red Cedar runs a full schedule of dirt track racing on Friday nights from April through September and Thomas has found the value from sponsors not only with the fans in the stands, but from the drivers and crews in the garage.

“It’s a neat clientele of people in the fact that they’re more likely to say ‘hey, such and such of a business sponsored us. I’m going to go patronize them because they sponsored a race’,” Thomas said of the drivers and crew.

Thomas is a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Stout in the Kinesiology and Health Department and this spring is teaching a class on theory management and coaching. Thomas said a lot of the fundamentals he teaches — the importance of community in building relationships — are also key to establishing and maintaining sponsorship partnerships.

“When we approach a potential sponsor or business about hosting a night of racing at the Red Cedar Speedway, it’s absolutely huge to us not because of the money, but the exposure with that business’ clientele,” Thomas said.

Whether it’s a name and logo on a sign or a full scale multifaceted marketing campaign, the relationship between a business and sports entity comes down to one main thing — trust.

“You’ve just got to know your clientele and know what they need,” Thomas said.

“The way that I see advertising and sponsorship is that’s really the foundation of what allows us to keep our product affordable. It’s a very important piece for us.” Andy Neborak, part owner and chief financial officer of the Eau Claire Express

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Chippewa Herald sports editor

Chippewa Herald Sports Editor