Deal or No Deal: What it means to be ‘sponsored’
No way around it – fall is upon us and winter is coming. For many FIS-level athletes, equipment has been secured and training has begun; younger athletes might still be in the throes of finalizing their equipment decisions for the upcoming season, but make sure to hustle at this point. Every year it gets harder to acquire popular sizes into October and many coaches, equipment managers, athletes, and parents scramble to procure what is needed.
In the process of selecting new equipment, let’s not forget the big ‘S’ – Sponsorship. A single word and concept that seems to manifest itself in many ways when it comes to dealing with the various ski, boot, and binding suppliers in the race world. Sponsorship carries a certain cachet that boosts the ego, can pad the bank account for travel expenses, and in many cases gives you access to factory-level service.
Twenty years ago, when racing drove the development of consumer skis, budgets were big and equipment – including jackets, backpacks, helmets, etc. – were being handed out gratis at a remarkable rate. Many FIS athletes had some level of manufacturer support while competition amongst race reps was fierce for collecting the best stable of athletes sporting their brand.
“Companies have drastically reduced the number of ‘full-ride’ and even ‘buy-one/get-one’ athletes.”
Fast-forward to today and the landscape has changed dramatically. With years upon years of budget cuts, marketing and race departments have been forced to get more creative while simultaneously reducing their overall level of support. Though today’s athletes may not be clad head to toe in their chosen equipment supplier’s softgoods, the practice of supporting junior athletes as much as possible is still present in the race world.
Just how have the economic realities shaped the current situation? For starters, companies have drastically reduced the number of ‘full-ride’ and even ‘buy-one/get-one’ athletes. While ski companies put forth a great deal of effort to identify and woo young talent at the local and regional levels, budgetary constraints have forced them to cut what they spend. Some have outwardly owned this while others have quietly restructured their programs, but the harsh reality is that fewer athletes are receiving these high levels of backing.
Second, and speaking of restructuring, many companies have rolled out new, semi-publicly published criteria for the different levels of sponsorship they do offer. They use different terminology – Platinum, World Cup, Bronze, NorAm – but there are typically four levels at which athletes can qualify and the further up the ladder you climb the less you can expect to pay for your equipment.
Yes, you read that correctly – pay. Given the current climate, an athlete has to be pretty exceptional to warrant a full complement of gear at no charge. Think of it like go-karting or motorcycle racing: The best weekend warrior at your local track might get 20 percent off parts and service at your local dealer, but Honda is not sending him or her a new go-kart or race bike every year for free. The same concept applies to ski racing.
The good news about published criteria is that it gives athletes and parents a very cut-and-dried picture of where they stand even when the criteria varies from company to company. You finished on the podium at the U16 National Championships? Nice job – you fit in at level ‘x’ for Rossignol and level ‘y’ for HEAD. Busted your tail and skied your way to two top-10 FIS age rankings? Check the criteria matrix and you will know what to expect when you talk to the race rep.
As with nearly all things in life, there is fine print (not actually printed) that relates to sponsorship and is worth keeping in mind. These are basic ideas that a good coach, shop owner, equipment manager, or older athlete might impart as wisdom that proves true year in and year out.
- Sponsorship should not be about finding the best deal possible. Equipment varies enough from brand to brand that what works well for one athlete may be a terrible choice for another. “I look for assurance from the coach that the athlete works hard and has goals to improve their skiing to the highest achievable level,” says Fischer’s National Race Coordinator, Will Courtney. Money saved on equipment that is applied to training or travel can end up being money thrown away when all that training is spent fighting against skis or boots that really do not suit a particular athlete. Courtney adds, “I’m not trying to support athletes who are just looking for the best deal.”
- Even with set criteria, sponsorship still has wiggle room. Most of the programs out there allow for rep discretion, which runs the full spectrum. If you spent most of last season on the sidelines with an injury, there is a reasonable chance you will still have support come August. Did you miss qualifying for a silver spot by one ranking? It is worth asking, politely, if there is any space left for you. You may stay at the bronze level, but advocating for yourself can go a long way.
- Almost all levels of sponsorship have limited space. Even with the creativity utilized to reshape their programs, resources for race departments are finite which makes it impossible for every athlete who qualifies to be guaranteed a spot. Start the process early – spring is best – and you will give yourself the best chance of locking down support.
- Lastly, and perhaps most important, is to remember that each sponsored athlete, regardless of the level of support, is an ambassador for the company sponsoring them.
Sportsmanship, hard work, humility – these are the hallmarks of a great ambassador. Parents, remember that this applies to you too. Suggesting that your kid is only on a brand because of the deal you got is not the message ski companies are hoping you will convey. Additionally, for both parents and athletes, perspective is critical. A few tough training sessions or a string of bad race results rarely can be blamed entirely on the equipment. Keep that in mind when your frustration boils over.
So, whether you are looking ahead to next season or trying to find equipment for this one, this bit of knowledge can help you make a savvy, appropriate decision. And while you may not find yourself in a position to qualify for sponsorship (remembering that far fewer skiers qualify than those who do not), focusing on getting the right gear to maximize your potential may open doors for you down the road.