The business of success
What’s in a name? A lot, if it can be emblazoned on clothes or equipment, seen by throngs of live and television viewers and capitalized upon at the cash register.
The name of the game in the world of competitive athletics is sponsorships. They are almost essential to the career of any athlete who needs funding and equipment to succeed at the highest level.
However, as an athlete, there is sometimes a fine line between pleasing a sponsor and selling your soul.
In Summit County, a playground for aspiring outdoor and emerging new-school sport athletes, the battle for sponsorship money is fierce. This is due, in part, to the high cost of equipment and the high cost of living here.
“It’s a mutually beneficial partnership,” said Breckenridge resident Leslie Ross, who is one of the top telemark skiers in the world. She is sponsored by local sports shops as well as by national and international companies such as Patagonia, Smith and Tua.
“Sponsorships allow athletes to do what they love to do. But, it’s also time-consuming. You spend a lot of money just on photocopies and phone calls. You feel like you’re begging sometimes, and groveling is never any fun. “The first thing you have to understand with sponsors is, these companies are being asked by so many people for all sorts of stuff. But, it’s a vital part of the whole competition experience. You have to travel, and there’s a lot of expenses. For the company, they’re getting exposure for their products and having the credibility of an athlete to back them up.”
Although her sponsors allow her to compete and travel, her commitment to the company also is important.
“There’s a loyalty you always have to keep in mind,” Ross said. “You really need to be conscious of what you’re wearing and what you’re doing. Even on the casual end, if you’re out on the mountain holding someone else’s skis and someone takes a picture, it could be trouble. The big picture isn’t looked at if that’s what got captured. Even with all the rest of the stuff you may be doing.”
ON THE TOP OF EVEREST
Instant loyalty is included in the contract for athletes such as Jody Thompson and Kim Clark, who, thanks to Ford Motor Company, took an all-expense paid, eight-week trip to the top of Mount Everest in Nepal last April. The two were part the five-member Team No Boundaries, which intended to become the first-ever all-women team to summit the 29,050-foot peak. Thompson, Clark and Lynn Prebble reached 28,750 feet, but had to turn back because of oncoming weather and other challenges.
Team member Alison Levine, an investment banker in Northern California, brainstormed the idea of the all-women team. She pursued sponsorship for a year and a half before Ford enthusiastically picked up the idea as a marketing tool for the 2003 Ford Expedition. The motto for the vehicle is “No Boundaries.” Levine landed the sponsorship, then set to work recruiting women for the team who were qualified with high-elevation mountaineering experience.
“It was perfect marketing,” Thompson said. “It was an opportunity I couldn’t say no to. I got the call saying they would pay for everything. That’s exactly how it was presented. I was like, “Are you sure? … Everything?’ It was like winning the lottery.”
As part of the contract, the women of Team No Boundaries agreed to not write a book about their Everest experience or agree to a movie deal for one year after the climb. The team also was instructed to wear the provided clothing with the Ford label and forbidden to wear anything advertising Ford’s competitors during the six weeks of and surrounding the trip.
“When we were getting on the plane to New York, I realized I was wearing a Saturn (Cycling) Classic T-shirt,” Thompson said. “It didn’t even occur to me at first that I shouldn’t be wearing it. That was kind of different. Basically, you feel like you’re it; Ford was who I had to be. They had it dialed in.”
Of course, Thompson was able to keep everything she was given, including the Ford-issued down suit valued at $1,500.
Aside from local shops like Mountain Outfitters paying for her bike race fees, the Ford sponsorship was Thompson’s first real experience with what she called “the big, long contract.”
“It’s interesting to know that you can go out and get sponsorships like that,” she said. “I was not seeking the Ford sponsorship. It fell into my lap. In something like adventure racing, you pretty much need it. It takes a lot to get to some of those crazy places. But you have to give so much to whoever sponsors you. You need a lot in return.”
Sponsors rarely provide athletes with enough in return to live comfortably when they are not competing. Take Matt Dayton of Breckenridge, former member of the U.S. Ski Team and competitor in the 2002 Olympic Nordic Combined events.
“A lot of my funding was from the (U.S.) Ski Team, which, in turn, was funded through sponsors – Sprint, Chevy, Bank of America,” said Dayton, who is newly married, now living in Denver and about to pursue a business degree at Regis University. “All those companies give money to the team and it trickles down. As an athlete, your income is limited to funds you can generate from sponsors.”
As he was competing on the World Cup circuit, Dayton, like his teammates, was allowed to sell the space on the front of his helmet to a sponsor. He said he chose the Breckenridge Ski Resort because “Breckenridge is my hometown, and that’s what I wanted to advertise.”
He feels mostly indebted and loyal to his local sponsors, which also included the Breck Athlete Foundation and the Summit Foundation. Although his income from big sponsors was not steady, and limited mainly to time on the road, Dayton maintained loyalty to them, too.
“When I was in Steamboat training (with the U.S. Team), I needed to pay my own rent, gas, food and basic living expenses. But on the road – airfare, gear – that was where sponsorship was necessary. Pretty much everything on the road was paid for. And that was where you had to be conscientious of conflicting sponsors.
“Our whole team was sponsored by Fischer. If I was off on my own and telemark skiing on the mountain, I wasn’t concerned with what skis I was using. But if I was at a race somewhere, I certainly wouldn’t be out warming up on another brand of skis. When you’re flying all over the country and world, sponsorship is key. But the only people earning money and making a lot are the ones consistently in the top three.”
Although attaining sponsors and pleasing the company can be demanding for athletes, most are grateful to them. After all, who dares bite the hand that feeds?
“Sponsorship really helps you,” skier Leslie Ross said. “It can be stressful. But, if you have these corporate partners, it helps validate what you’re doing. For people like Kim and Jody, it’s given them so many opportunities, and it’s great for the future of women in climbing. It’s a nice tribute to them as dedicated athletes. It’s a nice reward. You’re spending a lot of time getting involved in your sport. Sponsorships allow you to do that. They also keep you up on the latest and greatest in gear. It probably wouldn’t be affordable otherwise.”
Shauna Farnell can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 236, or at email@example.com.
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