Free gear: The ultimate dream in every ski town
Snowboarder Andy Finch knew he wanted to get sponsored back when he was 13 years old and living in Fresno, Calif. “I got jerked around for about three years,” he said of his first tries at getting a sponsor. When he was 15, a representative from Swag clothing and Palmer snowboards finally called back and asked him to bring over a video. “By the end of the night, he was like, ‘what board do you want?'” Finch said. “On my 16th birthday a box of each showed up, though neither company knew it was my birthday. A week later I went on to win my first national title.”He said he couldn’t remember if he had signed some kind of contract or much else about the deal. “All I knew is that I finally had free product,” he said.Not every rider has the same story about how he or she first got sponsored, but everyone remembers that first time they got free gear. Skier Sarah Burke, who is in Aspen this weekend to compete in the superpipe at Winter X Games 10, said it was a complete surprise when she first got spotted. She had skipped a moguls training day and gone out to the terrain park with some friends. A man named Mike Douglas happened to be out on the course doing some filming. Burke popped a 1080 off a kicker and soon afterward Douglas came up to ask if she had a sponsor.
“It was out of the blue,” she said. “My friends were like, ‘You have no idea what just happened.'”That contract was for three pairs of skis. But soon enough she had other sponsors and her life changed quickly. “I went to Japan, I went to Africa, I was head to toe at that point.”So it’s about the big air and, as Finch says, “no one can deny first place.”In the end, though, people get sponsored because it helps sell a product. In the beginning, most athletes are getting something of a helping hand. Often, it’s a stretch and something of a gamble for a company to give out free product or pay travel costs. Eventually though, the athlete can come to give a company more legitimacy.”Sponsorship isn’t just going out and performing,” said skier Zach Crist, who has three X Games medals. “Just because you rip doesn’t mean you’re helping sell product, and that’s ultimately what matters.”Michael Gardzina, aka Chaka, is a Burton team manager, the Mr. Goodwrench of Burton Snowboards, and one of the men who helps choose new members of the team. He’s out in Aspen this week for the X Games.Gardzina’s focus is on the youth team. The youngest member is 8 years old.”He has a 4-year-old brother that’s chomping on his heels,” Gardzina said. “It’s crazy how good the youngest kids are.”It’s unlikely that a cold call to someone like Gardzina will get any kind of response. He says he gets hundreds of videos each month.”The most random way is to go out, make a video, and send it in,” he said. “That’s the longest shot, but it happens.”
Gardzina said most of the kids are chosen through ski academies and the coaches of major ski teams throughout the country.”Obviously they have to have riding skills,” Gardzina said. “A lot of it has to do with style, how they do it. All in all, it’s marketability. We want kids who are well-spoken, good looking.”Gardzina said there are various levels of sponsorship depending on ability and recognition. “The most basic level is free product or gear. The next step is incentives: money based on podiums or coverage. The next step is travel money. And all the top guys have salaries, as well as travel money, incentives and gear.”Things are getting better for skiers and boarders at the X Games. When it started 10 years ago, sponsors didn’t take it nearly as seriously, and neither did the athletes. “Up until five years ago only a couple of athletes had agents,” said Katie Moses Swope, manager of event publicity and athlete relations for ESPN. “Now, 75 percent have a publicist, manager or agent that is specifically there to promote the athlete.” Swope said it’s all about the sponsors.”That’s what’s paying their bills. ESPN does not put the athletes up. These guys are professionals.”Sponsorship works similarly for the X Games. Ian Votteri, assistant director of marketing for the X Games, said sponsorship is essential to putting on the games. Companies that want to appeal to youth markets want to sponsor the X Games.
“It’s about image, of course,” Votteri said. “A lot of action sports are driven by image, by hairstyle, by how people talk.” He said certain companies bring credibility to the X Games by setting up a booth and sponsoring athletes. Similarly, the X Games brings credibility to numerous companies by showing the events live on TV.In the end, it’s about selling a snowboard, a pair of goggles or a soft drink. So the gravy train is available for those who are good enough. Evidently, all it takes is good looks, the ability to pop a couple of 1080s in a row and baggy pants. But don’t expect all the gravy at once. “I make a good living,” Finch said, “but I started off making 10 grand a year.”Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is email@example.com Sponsorship on page 5
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