US Ski Team, USSA exploring new options for supporting athletes | SummitDaily.com

US Ski Team, USSA exploring new options for supporting athletes

Sebastian Foltz
sfoltz@summitdaily

She's currently ranked No. 3 in the world in women's slopestyle by the Association of Freeskiing Professionals. Last year included a trip to Sochi for skier slopestyle's first appearance in the Winter Olympics, where she finished 10th on the world stage. The year before she finished No. 1 in the International Ski Federation World Cup rankings, earning a World Cup slopestyle title in the process.

But if U.S. Freeski Team member Keri Herman wants to continue her career, it looks like no one's going to pay for her to do so.

While the 32-year-old Breckenridge skier still has some faithful gear sponsors and is still a member of the U.S. team, none of them are paying for her travel or living expenses, and there is no regular paycheck.

Since being dropped by her former lead sponsor, Monster Energy drinks, no one's picking up the tab. There are those who say she could get a job, but who'd hire someone who can be in town for only a week or two at a time for most of the year?

"I'm struggling to maintain my career," Herman said in a candid interview with the Summit Daily. "It's frustrating. I've had to skip a lot of contests. I couldn't afford to get to them."

If she had the same résumé in the Alpine skiing and snowboarding worlds, or even as a men's freeskier, that likely wouldn't be the case.

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But as it stands, she said, "I'm barely scraping by and at the top of my game."

U.S. Ski Team membership offers a range of benefits, from fully staffed training camps across the country to lodging at certain competitions around the world and health services. But for freeskiers and most other winter athletes, the team doesn't pay any of them to travel, much less cover day-to-day expenses. Athletes have to hope for sponsors in order to cover those costs, otherwise it's entirely out of pocket.

"There's so many things I'd like to take advantage of that I can't afford to," Herman said of her situation over the last year.

In Herman's case, her age seems to be a factor in a relatively young sport with big-name sponsors focusing on younger athletes, but her problem is one that's shared by any number of winter athletes across the country. Whether it's a top athlete struggling with sponsorship or an aspiring athlete yet to gain recognition, simply put, following a dream is expensive.

raising new revenue

So while the Lindsey Vonns, Ted Ligetys, Mikaela Shiffrins and Shawn Whites of the world aren't struggling to get by, they are in the minority.

It's a problem the U.S. Ski and Snowboarding Association (USSA) hopes to address with the recent announcement of its expanded RallyMe crowdfunding program.

"We're unique in the world in that we're the only national ski association that doesn't receive any government funding," USSA executive vice president Luke Bodensteiner said of the need for exploring new revenue streams. Bodensteiner further explained that roughly 40 percent of USSA's income comes from corporate sponsorship, another 40 percent is a result of USSA fundraising efforts and the remaining 20 percent comes from TV rights and FIS revenue streams, among other sources. But that income does not cover athletes' travel and living expenses. Instead, it goes toward athlete programs, training and facilities, like the Center for Excellence in Park City, Utah. Athletes need to either cover those additional expenses themselves or through sponsorship. The reality in the latter case is that there are far more athletes out there than there are companies interested in individual sponsorships.

AN AMERICAN CHALLENGE

"It's a challenge that's unique to American athletes," Bodensteiner said. "In every sport we compete in we're the financial underdog."

Enter RallyMe.com. To help lighten that burden USSA announced earlier in the week that it has increased a marketing push with RallyMe.com, a crowdfunding sight designed to help individuals raise money.

Whether it's making a movie, starting a business, raising money for charity or some other project, crowdfunding sites are an increasingly popular venue for fundraising — a sort of capital funding system for the 21st century.

Through RallyMe, U.S. athletes can now raise money to cover their costs in order to continue to pursue their goals. Athletes' individual sites include their personal stories as well as a variety of donation options.

Bodensteiner said that after PayPal fees and a 3 percent charge that goes to RallyMe, athletes receive the remainder of any donation to their personal sites. They can then use it for anything from travel to living expenses.

The program was in place for some athletes, clubs and teams to try prior to the 2014 Winter Olympics, but it is now backed by a larger marketing effort undertaken by USSA for the coming year.

"Based on what we learned last year, we decided to put a little more effort behind it," Bodensteiner said. "Last year, we left it up to the athletes."

Even with less of a focus on promotion last winter, USSA officials announced that some 95 athletes, local teams and clubs raised more than $500,000 combined through RallyMe.

RALLYME RESULTS

"We've seen some pretty incredible results," Bodensteiner said, adding that the site is not for the well-financed athletes in the sport.

"You won't see Ted Ligety using a Rally. It's definitely geared toward the athletes whose expenses exceed their income. And, frankly, that's most of them."

He also added that while Ligety and others in his situation won't need RallyMe, they will get behind efforts to promote their teammates who do.

Bodensteiner acknowledged that some athletes have responded with concerns. Most of them saying that they didn't feel comfortable asking for support or that it feels like a handout or charity. In the future, he said they will look at ways to continue to reform the process — using RallyMe for teams as a whole rather than individual athletes, for example. That way there is less a feeling of guilt.

Once it becomes more commonplace as a source of income, athletes may more readily accept it simply as revenue. Because at the end of the day that's really how any athlete is funded. Is the RallyMe revenue really any different than income from ticket sales at a game or event?

For now, while she's started her own RallyMe account, Keri Herman falls into the reluctant-to-accept-it camp. Throughout her career, she's prided herself on never having to accept outside help.

"It's embarrassing to have to reach out like this. It's just a very strange feeling," she said without her usual smile and enthusiasm. "It's a last resort."

But while her pride has made it difficult, she said she's also been really touched by the response so far.

"I'm so grateful for everyone that responds," she said. Whether it's friends or complete strangers, "The people that have reached out have been so kind."

And she acknowledged, guilt notwithstanding, that it's a great opportunity to help make ends meet.

"I think it's really, really great that there's an option out there."

To assist Keri Herman and other winter athletes, visit USSA.RallyMe.com.