Series: Working the money trail |

Series: Working the money trail

SUMMIT COUNTY – “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.”

– The Rolling Stones

It’s no coincidence that the world’s best adventure-sports athletes are compared to rock stars: They live the lifestyle of their dreams, and they make a good living doing it. It’s Mick and the Stones on a smaller scale.

In adventure sports as in rock, there are idealistic up-and-comers, persistent old-timers and the cream of the crop – everyone fighting for a piece of the same pie.

The adventure-sports pie is smaller than the pop music pie. But the advice the Stones gave in the above lyric can serve pie-seeking athletes very well.

Sponsored athletes don’t always get what they want. Some don’t get much of anything. But with persistence and good competition results, skiers, snowboarders, bikers, kayakers and other adventure-sports mavens, can get what they need. And a handful can become the Mick Jagger of their sport.

All taken care of

If Jagger skied he’d be like Greg Tuffelmire of Frisco. Sponsored to the teeth, Tuffelmire is one of the few skiers making a living in the new-school realm of halfpipe and slopestyle.

Tuffelmire not only gets gear from his five equipment sponsors (Volkl, Technica, Smith, O’Neal, Auclair, Copper Mountain), he also pulls in travel expenses, contest entry fees and a salary that frees him from the need for a traditional job.

“They take care of me pretty well,” he said.

Tuffelmire gets what he wants and what he needs. But it wasn’t always this way. He remembers the days when he would live rent-free in his parent’s Michigan home in the offseason just to save enough money to be jobless in the winter.

He was building a sponsor portfolio, just as many young skiers are today, getting enough to scrape by and setting the stage for a dream come true.

“It’s a slow process, and it’s tough,” Tuffelmire said. “You have to work hard. It takes quite a bit even to get product from companies … and you can’t live on product.”

Combine product and money, though, and that’s the full package.

You get what you need …

Gary Fondl skis, too. But he competes on the big-mountain, or extreme skiing, circuit, where sponsors are less likely to throw money. Indeed, there is a hierarchy, both within sports and between sports (more on this later).

Fondl, who competes in extreme skiing events like those on the Colorado Freeride Series, can be considered a professional skier, but it’s not a living.

“You have to be really at the top of the pack to make a good living,” he said. “We’re all just hard-core skiers having fun and trying to make a few bucks while we’re doing it.”

So, every offseason, Fondl sends his skiing resume to companies, trying to get what he needs. He has five companies on board but lacks the all-important ski sponsor after his relationship with Volant was severed when the Denver-based ski manufacturer went out of business. He gets outerwear from Patagonia, a ski pass from Arapahoe Basin, bootwork and repairs from A Racers Edge in Breckenridge, helmets from Boeri and all the Go Fast energy drinks he can drink or hand out.

But his entry fees and travel expenses come out of his own bank account, and as of now, he’s paying for his own skis.

“Right now, Atomic and Volkl said they’d get back to us,” Fondl said. “So it looks good, but nothing is ever set until you sign a contract.”

The fickle flow of funds

Same process different sport for former Breck resident Nat Ross, who lies somewhere between the level of Tuffelmire and Fondl as a sponsored mountain biker. As part of team Subaru/Gary Fisher, Ross gets bikes, travel expenses and entry fees. He also collects a host of goods and services from Red Bull, Cliff Bar, Smith, A Racers Edge and Tokyo Joe’s.

Ross feels “extremely lucky” to have the backing of a team, but he doesn’t get paid, and he knows the money in mountain biking is shifting from his beloved cross country to downhill and cross-style races.

“You hear people complaining,” Ross said. “I hear a lot of people who don’t have what they used to.

“It’s hard not to compare, and it comes up every now and then, but it doesn’t do you any good. Once you start comparing, you get all bent out of shape.”

The athletes know it’s a fickle wind that steers the flow of sponsor money, influenced mainly by the public’s interest and a company’s ability to predict (or persuade) that interest.

Even Tuffelmire, at the top of his sport of new-school skiing, can feel slighted when he looks at the money similarly talented athletes make in the sport of snowboarding – the long-reigning jewel of the action-sports economy.

“It bums you out when you think about guys doing the same thing you do and getting paid more,” he said.

Then he remembers how lucky he is, living the type of dream that Jagger and the Stones sang about, albeit in a different, less lucrative, realm.

“It’s more or less the lifestyle,” Ross said, “and that’s why you can’t really complain about the money.”

Jason Starr can be reached at (970) 668-3998 Ext. 231 or at

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