Colavita, women's cycling a winning recipe

Jonathan Devich/epicimages.us

Colavita has had 12 Olympians on its team in 13 years of sponsoring women's cycling.

In 1978, Colavita, the Italian pasta and olive oil company, put down roots in the U.S., and it soon became one of the nation's top fine-foods companies. In 1999, vice president of marketing John Profaci began sponsoring a professional women's cycling team. Thirteen years later, Colavita is still going strong as one of the top-ranked U.S. cycling teams. espnW's Kathryn Bertine sat down with Profaci to discuss why investing in women's sports is smart and proactive.

espnW: Most sponsors are drawn to supporting a team because of a personal connection to the sport, be it as an athlete or a fan. What is your connection to cycling?

John Profaci: After graduating college in 1984, I was very fortunate to have discovered cycling, as it set me on a positive lifetime path to competitive athletics, fitness, social interaction and outdoor travel which I remain engaged in even 30 years later. No other physical recreation can provide so many people -- no talent required -- with the perfect opportunity to do "what the doctor ordered" mentally, physically and spiritually. However, my personal preference for this activity is not the reason Colavita is a continuing sponsor. As marketing director of Colavita, my family and employees depend on me to spend the company money prudently. My job is to familiarize and educate home cooks around the country about our Colavita brand products. Although the " textbook" cycle of any corporate sports sponsorship is three years, I have been very pleased with the level of branding success and consumer patronage the fans of cycling have provided to Colavita. We are going on Year 13 of pro and amateur team sponsorships.

espnW: As a Category 3 cyclist -- which is a highly competitive field in the amateur ranks -- you also own a coaching company, Full Throttle Endurance. I take it you believe sponsors should practice what they preach, so to speak?

JP: I do my best to maintain my own competitive spirit as I head into my "autumn years," and find joy assisting other athletes, teams and organizations with my own knowledge, contacts and experience in sport sponsorships. After bike racing for many years, [I] decided that triathlon was the sport I would pursue personally into old age -- little to no crashing there.

So with the generous and like-minded cycling-team sponsors such as Jamis Bicycles, Rudy Project and Champion Systems, who also wish to support as many athletes as possible, I was able to assist and impact another group of men and women athletes on the Full Throttle Endurance triathlon team in NYC. This has proved to be a wonderful experience on many levels.

espnW: There are many corporations that opt to back men's cycling before (if ever) considering the women's field. How did you first take an interest in women's cycling, and what kind of return on investment do you see from sponsoring women?

JP: I would say traditionally, the most effective way for a company to promote its brand in any sport has been to enter it on the men's side, simply because the media focus and attention remains skewed to the men's teams. However, because data shows that women outnumber men when it comes to household-product purchasing decisions, this creates somewhat of a dilemma for brand marketers. Unlike other corporations who sponsor only men's teams, Colavita sponsored both men's and women's team programs simultaneously. I've said this many times over the years: The reason we can support the pro men program is because of the value we receive supporting the women's team.

espnW: Tell us a little bit about how a sponsorship/partnership works when it comes to women's cycling. What needs to happen to get a cycling team off the ground?

JP: I learned about sport-team sponsorships through a NASCAR team promoter back in 1997, who pitched me on getting Colavita involved as a 10-inch-sized bumper sticker sponsor for $350,000 with one of the existing cars. Although I'm not a fan of NASCAR myself, I was intrigued by the amount of money brands were paying to get their small logo stickers anywhere on a car. Obviously, those small sponsor logos are not visible at all to spectators as the cars zoom around at 200 mph, so how can you justify the spend? Although I decided it wasn't a good fit for us, I learned that a sports sponsorship value is not necessarily about the visibility of the logo on the car -- unless you are the title or a major visible sponsor -- but the "license" to boast the sponsorship in your company's marketing, PR, event planning and advertising to enchant the millions of fans of the sport. The fans of the sport embrace the brands who keep the sport alive.

A few years later, I took this marketing lesson and decided to put in play with the more relevant sport of pro cycling for Colavita. I realized that like NASCAR, professional cycling also entertains a very loyal fan base in markets around the country who appreciate brands who sponsor their sport. The major difference is that in cycling, you can be title sponsor of a team for about the same cost as a NASCAR bumper sticker. Go figure!

Sponsoring a sports team is really not all that complicated, but it takes time, a lot of money and good staff. It's a small business with quite literally "lots of legs" to it: clothing design and production, finding equipment sponsors to help reduce costs, hiring cyclists, vehicles, insurance, staff, etc. But, so many companies back away quickly from sports sponsorships because they don't realize the most important part of the sponsorship: the need to integrate the plan into the overall consumer-marketing plan to enchant the millions of fans of the sport. The return on investment cannot be justified simply by the printed logo on the clothing and cars, and so most brands come and go.

espnW: Title IX recently celebrated its 40th anniversary, yet we know there is still a lot of ground to cover in terms of equality for women's sports -- cycling especially, where women are not always given the same race opportunities, sponsorships or salaries as the men. As a sponsor, what are the biggest challenges you see in women's cycling, and what can we do to overcome them?

JP: A more balanced and equal media focus between men and women's pro cycling has come a long way in the U.S., but nowhere near what occurs in Europe. For instance, when the Giro Donne [women's Giro D'Italia] is occurring each season, you can watch that great women's-only race event in every Italian household on TV. Think about this: Western Europe fits within half of the land mass of the U.S., and there were over 30 UCI-registered pro women's teams, as compared to only two in the U.S. during the 2012 season. The most talented U.S. women cyclists therefore need to live and race in Europe, not only because of the level of competition, but also the opportunity to earn a living with better prize money. All of those UCI pro women's teams in Europe exist because of the additional publicity provided to the women's side of the sport. As a result, more companies can invest in the sponsorships because there is actual return of investment by way of news reporting and visuals of their brand. This doesn't happen in the U.S., and unless U.S. media companies -- newspapers and websites -- start dedicating more time and space to women's cycling, the women's sport will never really grow here, which is a shame.

espnW: The recent scandals within men's cycling have caused some sponsors to withdraw their support not just from men's cycling, but from the women's peloton as well. Do you think this reasoning is justified?

JP: I imagine there is a trickle-down theory there, but I don't think anyone who pays attention to cycling believes [cheating/doping] is happening to the same extent in the women's side. Cycling is bigger than the pro ranks. For a company or sponsor to pull out of a sport which is fun, healthy, recreational and is something millions of people do every day ... that shouldn't happen. I don't believe Lance Armstrong or anyone else involved in scandal can take the true essence away from cycling. It might take something away from the high-level men's side of the sport, but that is not everyone's interest. I don't think Armstrong or anyone else doing something negative on the men's side is going to have a lasting impact on the women's side of cycling. I can't see a spectator watching a pro women's race and associating it with Lance Armstrong. That doesn't happen. The women are their own sport.

For Colavita, we have an audience that grows every year. My interest is local teams, pro women and amateur riders of all abilities. Companies need to remember the bigger picture when it comes to sponsorship. They can't just sit back and say, "Where's my return of investment?" They have to go get the value. They have to promote and have pride in their commitment. That's the bigger part of the value of supporting sports.

espnW: Colavita has had 12 Olympians, one world champion and 12 national champions on the team during its 13-year run, which is directly related to your role in enabling these women to compete professionally. Did you ever imagine that pasta and olive oil could yield such powerful results?

JP: It's a great feeling for me to see those statistics and accomplishments of the many athletes who were part of our Colavita women's team at some point of their careers. Needless to say, I hope all of them will remember Colavita when they finish pro cycling and spend more time shopping and cooking! Ha!

But seriously, I feel very satisfied on a personal level that my decision to support this team has helped so many young women athletes over years. That satisfaction has nothing to do with the business return.

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