Crowdfunding in sports – Powerlifting

Sports fundraising, high performance, competition, sponsorship, minimizing costs and powerlifting: the money issue


The Crowdfunding Experience

This is an experimental report. A report about an exciting (maybe too exciting), surprising and painfully unsuccessful experiment. As most people with minimum scientific training know, we often learn more from unsuccessful experiments and failed attempts than with the neat results we present in the published academic papers. In fact, to tell you the truth, the well behaved results in the articles, more often than not were designed to look that nice after a huge number of failed attempts, including normalizing the experimental conditions.

Here’s what I did: I designed a crowdfunding project to fund the participation of my team at an international powerlifting competition (the RPS International Open, March 1st, 2013 – Columbus, Ohio).

Project justification:

  1. Intrinsic relevance:
    1. The RPS International Open is an important event. Without exploring gruesome details about the weird federation abundance in powerlifting, I did explain that it was an important event, organized by a reliable organization, during a very special occasion for the strength sports community as a whole;
    2. The two members of the team were already high ranked at the international level, thus deserving support for participating at the said event
  2. Local relevance: Brazil lacks sports visibility in general. The opportunity to allow two of its best representatives to participate at an important international event is regionally relevant
  3. The participation in international competitions generates internal value for the country: the athletes are also instructors, coaches and university professors in the field of sports science. Competitive experience is the much desired “bridge between science and practice”.
  4. Powerlifting is important: powerlifting is “the basic” sport. The lifts constitute the fundamental repertoire of human movement (squatting, pushing and pulling), therefore, the basis for any and all training.

Other arguments were constructed along the way and might have been even more relevant, each targeting a different potential support group:

    1. The feminist argument: one of the athletes was me. I am a well known, yet controversial, feminist. I write about feminist and gender issues in general. Feminist leaders constructed the argument according to which supporting women in sports, and in strength (traditionally male) sports in particular, is relevant.
    2. The cultural argument: sport and sport initiatives and individual projects are as deserving of support as any other cultural project (someone’s book, video-making project, etc.)

Benefits to backers:

Benefits to backers were distributed along seven categories:

US$12____One ebook about one of the following subjects: advanced training issues; training basics; social, philosophical and anthropological issues about sports, strength and movement.

US$25____Two ebooks about one of the following subjects: advanced training issues; training basics; social, philosophical and anthropological issues about sports, strength and movement.

US$50____One ebook about one of the following subjects: advanced training issues; training basics; social, philosophical and anthropological issues about sports, strength and movement
AND A t-shirt with our logo

US$100____Two ebooks about one of the following subjects: advanced training issues; training basics; social, philosophical and anthropological issues about sports, strength and movement AND one bi-monthly newsletter about STRENGTH (technical and social aspects)

US$250____Three ebooks about one of the following subjects: advanced training issues; training basics; social, philosophical and anthropological issues about sports, strength and movement AND one bi-monthly newsletter about STRENGTH (technical and social aspects).OR, if you are a company: Your logo in our uniform and sharing your company’s support in our social media

US$500____Three ebooks about one of the following subjects: advanced training issues; training basics; social, philosophical and anthropological issues about sports, strength and movement AND A personal 10 week workout plan. OR, if you are a company: Your logo in our uniform, sharing your company’s support in our social media and your link at our websites as official sponsor for our 2013 competitive season

US$750____Three ebooks about one of the following subjects: advanced training issues; training basics; social, philosophical and anthropological issues about sports, strength and movement AND Two personal 10 week workout plans. OR, if you are a company: Your logo in our uniform, sharing your company’s support in our social media, your link at our websites as official sponsor for our 2013 competitive season plus two articles about your product/service for your use (and published in our websites)

The digital platform

We used a Brazilian platform called Catarse. After some research and artist friends’ suggestion, that was the rational choice to make. Choosing an international platform had one major disadvantage: wiring the funds raised. That could erode much of our effort.

Catarse only supports “all or nothing” funding actions, which is a disaster for sports projects because of intrinsic problems I will address later.

A brief introduction to Crowdfunding

In a nutshell, crowdfunding is a collective effort to pool money and fund a given project. That implies that someone has a project that interests one or more social networks, that these networks potentially act upon being called and that there is a sufficient number of acting individuals in the networks to allow the project to be funded by a large number of small contributions.

Today, crowdfunding is done through digital platforms specifically designed for this purpose, such as Indiegogo, Kickstarter and others.

The model evolved from donor mobilization. The history of collective fundraising is immemorial, but the first internet based collective funding campaign seems to have been the U.S. tour of the British rock band Marillion, when $60,000.00 were raised by fans.

Today, crowdfunding necessarily involves an exchange. It is assumed there will be perks for each contributing level. In practice, that leaves crowdfunding in a grey zone between philanthropy, partnership and pre-selling.

Consensus about Crowdfunding expectations, pre-requisites and guidelines

Some of the most cited guidelines, advice and comments about crowdfunding are:

  1. Crowdfunding is about crowds, so it is recommended the project creators make a good assessment of their crowd. Significantly followed social media is a must.
  2. Who are the backers: philanthropists, investors, customers ( ). In the crowd, there will be some of each category. Each one responds differently. While philanthropists are willing to pitch in regardless of immediate return, other categories of backers must perceive the project as something they will personally benefit from.
  3. The project must be clearly and attractively presented. Today, the introduction video is considered one of the most important pieces of the campaign.
  4. Pro-activity and team-work: crowdfunding is extremely time-consuming and risky. It is a project made to succeed in a short time (usually two months maximum). Therefore, experts suggest project creators organize a team of people to work with during the campaign. The campaign involves keeping organized updates, social media sharing, e-mails, individual contacts and basically creating new content to attract potential backers in the network.
  5. The “inner circle”: it is estimated that 30% of funding comes from friends, family and colleagues. They will constitute your basic team and also the contributing core. Experts consider that inner circle (that’s my term) involvement creates validation  (  )
  6. “Being personal” – experts insist that crowdfunding involves personal exposure. Personal stories and passion for the project will inspire trust, which is the basis for taking the initiative to back a project (
  7. “Finding an audience that cares”  – I found this advice to be the most ironic. I’ll get back to it later
  8. “Getting off to a quick start” – studies show that the success probability of a campaign is correlated to the speed and level of contributions achieved. It is calculated that a given project is five times as likely to reach its goal once 25% has been pledged.
  9. Identifying influencers: major digital influencers seem to be determinant for a project’s success.
  10. Having a business project just like any other (It requires a plan including goals, strategy, a budget, and known resources in advance of going live.)
  11. Being extremely committed

What I learned about crowds

  1. Some issues about crowd dynamics are not covered by any study or manual: only experience with that specific crowd will do. It is naïve to think the experience accumulated with business startup crowdfunding projects can be applied to disaster relief or movie making. Even if one is obviously more investor-based and another philanthropist-based, this is not enough for the immense majority of projects that are neither one or the other.

Now we come to sports. Sadly, an individual sport project (as opposed to a social sports project, much more likely to be seen as deserving of any support) is hardly understood as deserving of support by any crowd, including the crowd of people who would potentially benefit from the same kind of funding. We actually lack proper understanding of the dynamics of sports crowdfunding. In spite of the variety of crowdfunded projects we have today, most of them are still in the “traditional” cultural realm: the arts in general, including cartoons, dance, theatre, books, etc; collective learning tools, software and even science. The other growing crowdfunding niche is startup businesses. None will teach anything about the behavior of crowds towards sports projects.

My project was to fund my team’s participation at an international competition. No matter what kind of argument I developed, no matter how attractive the perks were (the e-books can actually be acquired cheaper than they will be when available at the website), it didn’t work. The “crowd” was unresponsive. Actually, my evaluation is that it was responsive: it was negatively responsive.

The 99 backers we have until now (four days before the deadline) are constituted by a few of my team-mate’s friends and relatives and a larger number coming from my admirers (no fans – I’ll get to this later). This is a very small number considering the sheer size of my network (more than a dozen thousand in social media and thousands of blog views) and the profuse manifestations of admiration and support during periods I need none.

This means that either my rejection rate is extremely high or the project’s rejection rate is equally high, since not even attractive perks have done the trick. A closer analysis might clarify the underlying phenomena. While fans support a rock band tour because they will directly consume the “service” provided by the people they allegedly admire, athlete’s admirers don’t consume anything. Actually, there is very little (I think actually nothing) published about amateur athlete fan following. Why does anyone admire an athlete who doesn’t make any money out of his/her sport and doesn’t provide a nice show to be watched on Sundays? Because what he or she does is extraordinary. The extraordinary is admired by crowds in an extremely ambivalent manner. The over-achiever is admired and envied for the same reason: he or she is seen as a paradigm of some desired behavior or deed, at the same time as resented for having something “admirers” will never have.

People (“crowds”) are as willing to read about over-achievers as they are willing to bash and attack them at the slightest display of vulnerability.

Unfortunately, crowdfunding cannot be presented to any crowd as a proposal for “diffuse partnership”, as I have put it. First, because it doesn’t stick: what people immediately perceive is that you NEED the money. You’re not proposing to share anything in exchange for your participation in a competition. Again: no matter what you offer. These people will buy my e-books as they have done before with other items as soon as they understand I don’t need their money anymore.

So, if you are an outstanding athlete in your field, I advise you not to crowdfund for your travel expenses, preparation or anything of the sort unless you have already constructed your image as the nice, poor, needy, naïve and talented young athlete who has found him or herself in stardom in spite of him/herself.

That took me a while to understand. For weeks I exposed all my titles and ranking status, thinking I had to justify my proposal through MERIT: “look, people, I am the real thing: partner with me and we’ll get there”. Wrong: merit won’t justify support because the crowd doesn’t play the role of the partner.

Rule number one: in sport, crowds will not reward or support MERIT. They will not support the proud and aggressive. Most amateur athletes are exactly that.

Rule number two: your performance is not a socially relevant cause (except as constructed by you). Don’t count on any philanthropic attitude. That was a stab in the heart because powerlifting is relevant per se for me. I had to deal with it.

Rule number three: crowds react according to very simple and immediate reward arguments. Don’t expect them to understand indirect benefits that will stem from your participation in a competition.

It took centuries for scientists to carve a space for basic science in any society for the same reason: if the enterprise is not seen as something immediately useful or rewarding, people will not support it and will not exert pressure over governments and corporations to do so. That, considering it is something they can’t identify with (you do something they either can’t do, or don’t understand).

  1. If you don’t have the inner circle committed, it is highly probable that the larger crowd won’t be reached or recruited

That’s a nice one not covered by the experts above. I admit they emphasized the importance of what I am calling the “inner circle”. What I am saying is different: you won’t take off without them. So, unless you are 100% sure your family and friends are backing you 100%, be prepared for a big blow. Committed means Committed with a capital “C”: your friends and family must understand how crucial it is for the project to be successful and the tasks to be accomplished. There is no virality without such commitment.

  1. The inner circles (family, friends, pseudo-friends and para-friends) are highly unpredictable for reasons that go beyond my sociological skills. Everybody has probably experienced the unpleasant (to say the least) situation in which a “crowd” (usually claiming to be your friends) pushes you to do something or lead some initiative, only to find yourself alone later on during the enterprise. That is more likely the rule for very pro-active individuals, which, not coincidentally, are the ones willing to create and develop risky projects such as a crowdfunded one is.

That is exactly what happened to me in this project (and many, many others). When I consulted with what I believed was my “inner circle”, they were all for it. Actually, the response has always been “we are with you through thick and thin, whatever you invent”. Not true.

  1. If you have more than one target crowd, the tasks may become unmanageable. One of the reasons is that you will need to feed different “personas” (and a lot of different content) the whole time.

At a certain point, it was obvious that the sports community was not buying the project. In fact, it was actively rejecting the whole thing. The goal was modest and, at first, I thought I would reach it through this community alone. After I realized I was probably failing, I had no choice other than resort to other potential supporters.

A few years ago, I became a public figure in gender issues and feminism because of my writing and my personal story. Feminist leaders took the initiative to broadcast the crowdfunding project and that is where a substantial part of my support came from. But it was very time consuming and complicated for me as well as for them: we basically created a parallel project with a set of entirely different arguments, new videos, etc. The feminist movement is sufficiently organized to play the role of an effective “inner circle”. It is possible that if I had designed the project as a feminist enterprise, emphasized political results and downplayed performance, I would have achieved the goal.

The artists were another possible target group both for family reasons and because I have recently written and talked about the interface between sport and art. Again, that required more video-making, content writing, mobilizing different influencers and it basically did not work. The video was one of my most readily consumed ones, with hundreds of logs within a few hours. It was a long video (20 minutes) with sophisticated arguments about the nature of art. The number of people watching and sharing it surprised me. Yet, no support came from this curiosity.

Bottom line is: if your original targeted crowd is unresponsive, your chances of succeeding are faint. Mine was – I failed.

Small crowds: a segmented approach to your sphere of influence


Family and Friends

Family and friends belong to the same sub-group when considering the phenomena involved in this kind of enterprise. Some people don’t have a relevantly engaged biological family. It doesn’t matter: “friends and relatives” refers to the closest circle a person has ties with because they are affective. They should be the most resistant to interest considerations and rational risk assessment.

As I pointed out before, we frequently over-estimate the degree of commitment we have with other people. Unfortunately, a crowdfunding effort puts all this to the test. You will get to know your inner circle, whether you want it or not.

Pseudo-friends or para-friends

This is an interesting and important category. The terms are not supposed to be pejorative. It just means these are  people you have some unlabled and friendly connection with (you may have met them at a meet, helped them with spotting or given some useful advice). These people are unpredictable: they can either jump in and become your biggest champions or totally ignore your project. It is important that you are clear about this. In any project, some of these people are the most highly committed.

Admirers and fans

Beware of them. An amateur athlete does not produce anything the admirer consumes. There is a great difference in attitude between fans and admirers of football players, actors or singers and fans and admirers of powerlifters, chess players and theoretical physicists. In the latter category, the admirers are much more ambivalent and their attitude is much more likely to become hostile. These people are not providing anything useful or comforting: they are producing an image of what the average person considers unreachable (“extraordinary”).

They will buy your equipment, your book and pay to watch your seminar. They don’t like you and they won’t support you. It’s as simple as that.

Friends’ friends and virality

That’s where the magic happens. If your friend’s friends understand the importance of your project, you may succeed. A good part of the people that supported my project did so because of the feminist connection. The feminist movement is strong and powerful. We may disagree between us in many issues, but there is a sanctioning logic that few other groups have. If feminist leaders sanction a certain project, it will take off. Unfortunately, I have not formatted it from the beginning as a feminist project. We re-formatted it as such. It helped, but never actually solved the acceptability problem. The feminist argument was patched over the “intrinsic relevance” one and it didn’t work.

The bigger crowd and its behavior towards fundraising projects

Outside the inner circle, there is something much less coherent that is loosely distributed along concentric circles around you: this is your network or influence sphere. Each layer of the sphere is further from you. Therefore, it has less ties and common interests with you. Your challenge is to reach the furthest away from you as possible, into the outer layers of the sphere.

The only way to do this is through the engagement of the inner circle. If they are not committed, your outer layers will never be reached. It is highly improbable that people will even have a chance of knowing about your project without this.

If they do know, their support depends on the likability of your project and the symbolic items of your public identity. These people don’t know you. However, they might have read a story in the specialized media or, worse, in mainstream press, where you openly oppose some highly cherished value of theirs. You will never get their support or solidarity.

You might get them to engage in a pre-sale, if you succeed in catching their attention to the item being sold. Let’s say you are pre-selling an equipment you manufacture or a book. Even if you have a very high personal rejection rate, you might succeed.

According to experts, commercial transactions are not correlated to “niceness” or personal acceptability. Solidarity is.

The project and the project-maker: acceptance, attraction and rejection rates for your project and yourself


Emotional challenges for a project-developer

What is being tested? Your acceptance or your project’s acceptance?

Many things are tested in a crowdfunding initiative as risky as mine (meaning, the participation in a coveted championship by a high performance female athlete). The first test I met was my own relationship with the project. I discovered that something as intimate and personal as my relationship with powerlifting cannot be the object of a crowdfunding project because the exposition and publicity actions required are not compatible with my motivation. So, the first thing being tested is how far off your little metaphorical platform you are willing to go into the emotional hostility of the crowds.

Another very personal thing being sadly tested is the “friendship meter”. Unfortunately, even if you are already quite realistic, a crowdfunding initiative may reveal you have even fewer friends than you thought you had (and who claimed were your friends). Unfortunately, you may discover that when you most needed to trust  such people. Most probably, that will be a factor in bringing your project down. It was, in my case: my inner circle showed to be much smaller than I expected it to be.

Unlike a movie or a book, where basically what is tested in a crowdfunding initiative is the acceptance of the project itself, in a less obviously “supportable” and cute project, such as athletic performance, the personal acceptance of the project creator is also tested.

As I pointed out before, the relationship between admirers and athletes (or other people who achieve what is seen as extraordinary) is highly ambivalent. If the admired person contains more disturbing elements than their success already is, any situation interpreted as a display of vulnerability tests his or her acceptance, or rather rejection, by the crowd.

If you are a highly successful athlete, you may have a high rejection rate. If you are a highly successful female athlete, your rejection rate may be even higher. Add any other items of non-conformity to the list and you will go up in the rejection scale.

How to “read” acceptance and support

Given that you understood that most people in your real network probably didn’t just “forget” to support your project, but responded negatively to it, how should  you interpret the opposite?

  1. In an unsuccessful project, most backers are your inner circle, period. Good: now you know who they are.
  2. You may have designed the project as a “diffuse partnership” one, as I did, but you met philanthropists along the way. People who don’t know you, but, for reasons you ignore, believe athletes must be backed regardless of any individual benefits he or she will get from such support.
  3. You will find people who are so interested in the perks that they don’t care about any potentially disturbing symbolic items you may carry with you. I have about a dozen such backers. Some of them insisted on receiving the e-books before the end of the campaign.

How to “read” rejection

It is hard, but, deep down, even when it is personal, it is not personal. Yes, you are being personally rejected but what is being rejected is not you, it is what you represent to those who reject. In my case (and your case, because there is a great chance that you are a high performance athlete reading this), I am clear about the “rejection of the extraordinary” phenomenon. This is not equal to rejecting “the other”. It is quite the opposite: it is a rejection of something painfully well known.

Additionally, you may be rejected for other reasons. If you are not white, heterossexual and male, you might be rejected for any combination of “otherness” items: ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, political or ideological stand, whatever.

Support, solidarity and pre-sale

My advice is: if you are not providing entertainment, useful merchandize, or your public image deviates from the fragile and cute, don’t count on support or solidarity. There will be none.

Corporate sponsorship, partnership and “diffuse partnership”: why it doesn’t work for a championship participation and much less for powerlifting

Almost five thousand words later, we come to the conclusion: crowdfunding does NOT work to fund competitive participation for powerlifting athletes:

  1. We don’t provide entertainment. Therefore, the admiration we attract is highly ambivalent and does not produce solidarity;
  2. We are not fragile and cute;
  3. High performance has not been construed as socially relevant, in spite of so many years of activism on this line;
  4. We are not an Olympic sport, which makes us even less popular and attractive;
  5. Whatever the perks we offer are, our performance gets in the way for the crowd to perceive us as interesting “diffuse partners”

Powerlifting and performance funding

So, we are not nice and cute. The crowd will not support us. But they will buy anything we tell them to, including support other causes and people. Even other athletes.

The reason is simple: TRUST. We are highly competent opinion makers. We are reliable and trustworthy. No one needs to like us to believe us. Actually, it’s easier to be trusted if there is no affective tie: people know you are saying the truth because you are nasty and unlikable.

Consumers want our strength and they want to learn how we got where we did. Our training advice is highly valuable and people are willing to pay for it. Our experience with food, supplement and equipment adds value to any brand.

Because we lack any other financial support, many of us have higher degrees, good jobs and very well developed communication skills.

We are valuable to corporations. They really won’t care if we are nice or not.

This is where any financial support we may have has to come from: corporate partners. There is still a long way to go until companies understand what a valuable asset we may be as we are the materialization of the most cherished symbols of market economy: power, strength, knowledge and reliability.

Let’s hope our portfolios make it to the CEOs’ desks.

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