Jeez, how many fucking times...
IT'S NEARLY IMPOSSIBLE TO GET RICH SKIING. BUT FOR THOSE WHO CAN, IS IT EVEN WORTH IT?.?
Mike Douglas and cinematographer Ben Mullin stand on a frozen lake deep in the Coast Mountains outside of Pemberton, British Columbia. Above them, a 200-foot-long, six-foot-wide cleft in a rock face presents an opportunity for a dicey straightline that could make for a money shot. It's slated for the team video Douglas is directing and producing for Salomon's Japanese division.
Douglas and Mullin debate a variety of angles before settling on a standard barbie shot from across the lake. "If he was any other skier, I wouldn't ask his opinion," Mullin explains. "But he's signing my paychecks."
A short snowmobile ride later, Douglas appears at the top of the cleft. But before dropping in, he takes care of a second bit of business--donning a helmet camera to capture this line for his all-POV segment in the upcoming Matchstick Productions movie, Seven Sunny Days. He radios Mullin that he's ready, and the camera rolls. Douglas makes a few set-up turns and flashes the chute. One line for two films is in the can.
Two days later, Douglas sits in a Whistler café at 10 a.m. He's been working since seven, meeting with Salomon's international marketing crew before they head back to France. Over a plate of eggs Benedict, he reconstructs his week.
"Let's see," he begins. "I met with Whistler Blackcomb about their spring photo shoots and MC'ed a party for them. I've had Mullin here for two weeks while I directed shoots for the Salomon movie. I've been filming my segment for MSP. I met with Salomon regarding team planning and product. And always in the back of my mind I'm planning upcoming shoots, things we need to prepare and what we need to rent. I also hung out with my in-laws and tried to keep my pregnant wife from killing me."
Douglas is busy because, by nearly any relevant metric--exposure, income, portfolio, respect--he is among the most successful professional freeskiers in the world. At 37, he's also one of the oldest. But while Douglas is a spectacularly talented skier, there's one key metric by which Douglas doesn't entirely measure up: raw ability. And he freely admits it.
He succeeds because there's a lot more to success in the notoriously fickle arena of professional skiing than just skiing well. Behind the glossy images of skiers charging down Alaskan faces, launching over gap jumps, or standing on the podium, there are athletes struggling to navigate sponsorship politics in an ever-changing market while desperately trying to avoid injury. Of the 150 to 200 people in North America and Europe claiming to be professional freeskiers, less than 10 percent actually make a sustainable living. Until the industry decides he is unmarketable, Douglas is one of them.
Brant Moles isn't part of that 10 percent. In the late '90s, he was heralded as the Next Big Thing in big-mountain skiing. After the sport's formative years were dominated by the likes of Shane McConkey, Kent Kreitler, and Seth Morrison, Moles's wins at the 1997 U.S. and World Extreme Skiing Championships symbolized a new depth of field with fresh personalities. When ensuing contracts allowed him to pay off a $10,000 credit-card bill and cover a spring's worth of skiing in Alaska, he thought he'd won the lottery. But after four hip dislocations and a broken ankle, he watched the sport leave him behind while he rehabbed on an exercise bike.
"I was so focused on getting back to where I was that I didn't have time to learn a mute grab 360," Moles says now. "In 2005, I was finally back, but the industry had changed. I was on trips with friends, thinking I was skiing well, but I wasn't able to grab my skis every time I jumped. I thought, `Huh, I'm not getting the response I thought I would.' "
So Moles did the one thing he knew he could do: He entered the U.S. Freeskiing Nationals at Snowbird. In a field of skiers five to 10 years younger than he was, he placed fourth. The result was strong enough to approach a few companies with what he thought was a reasonable proposal: a $5,000 travel stipend to cover the remainder of his season. Moles was humbled to discover that this was now considered a hefty payday for a big-mountain skier, but he was happy to receive some interest. Three days later, he blew out his knee and broke his femur.
"I had a few offers and they evaporated. I was top five in one of the deepest fields in big-mountain freeskiing and I didn't even get a pat on the back," he says now. "I've made some money but because of injuries and bad decisions I'm certainly not much further along than when I started this whole thing. I've lived in Utah for over 15 years and I'm one of the only world champions who actually lives and skis here. I still have a hard time getting a [comp] ski pass."
Professional freeskiers, paid to represent sponsors outside the traditional racing and freestyle competition venues, have been around since K2 put together the original Performers team in the late '60s. For 30 years, aside from Glen Plake, Scot Schmidt (both had contracts), and a few more extreme skiers, the vast majority of pros made do with a few free pairs of skis a year and, if they were really working it, a photo-incentive deal that paid them a few hundred bucks a winter.
That all changed in the late '90s, when ski marketing took a pronounced leap to target the younger consumer. Communicating to that consumer required a shift to image-driven, personality-focused marketing campaigns. Suddenly, the ski manufacturers gave out a lot more free skis. They also built teams of credible athletes who resonated with younger skiers.
The top skiers of this group soon had contracts, annual retainer fees, and something approximating professional athletic careers. This, in turn, created a new dream for the less accomplished skiers--the photo and movie fodder of magazines and film segments. The end result was an enormous divide in terms of who makes what.
"There's a little club that's making really good money," explains Douglas, "and a really big club that's not." By really good money, Douglas means an annual salary north of $200,000 paid from contracts combined from ski companies, eyewear, clothing, and for the lucky few an energy drink or some other non-endemic sponsor like Target or Nike.
While no one was willing to talk specifics for this article, educated generalizations can be made: Top-tier competition skiers with a stranglehold on the X Games podium and a good agent--or multitaskers like Douglas--can command upwards of $200,000 a year. Established veterans with several years of competition results followed by several years of good coverage in magazines and movies are more likely in the $80,000 to $100,000 range. Everyone else, the aforementioned "big club," is making anywhere from $50,000 down to absolutely nothing.
There are a few ways you can climb to the top tier. The obvious method is to recalibrate the height-o-meter of the X Games superpipe, like Simon Dumont. Last winter, he claimed nearly $150,000 in contest winnings alone. That's on top of his retainers with Salomon, Oakley, Red Bull, and Target. Or you could parlay your status as the symbol of Swedish freeskiing into a gig as the face of an international fashion brand, as Jon Olsson did with Stockholm's J. Lindeberg. Olsson now owns a Lamborghini and lives in Monaco for tax purposes. "I'm number two," Dumont admits when asked who he thinks is the best paid freeskier in the world. "Jon's number one."
Including Olsson and Dumont, there are probably fewer than 10 pros in this club. These are the younger new-school phenoms who combine photogeneity with an image the younger consumer tends to worship--counterculture icons like Tanner Hall or France's Candide Thovex.
But the top of the big-mountain realm, what Moles was chasing a decade ago, is less rarified. "I would highly doubt any big-mountain skiers outside Europe are making $200,000 a year," says Shane McConkey, who's been negotiating his own contracts since 1991 "Jibbing is more popular than big-mountain skiing. That's a fact. Our market has always been small enough that we don't have agents. We fight our own battles."
Still, McConkey stresses that he has no complaints. If guys like him or Seth Morrison or Chris Davenport are a few notches down the income scale, their longevity alone is enviable. In a job where five years of earning is considered a long career, they've been employed for over 10.
So has Douglas. But far more than being merely in the public eye, his job is tied to an absurdly complicated contract. It draws from several different divisions of Salomon--to cover his work as a skier, consultant, and independent contractor. Still, every year he fights for his job.
"This isn't Toyota," says K2's Brand Director, Jeff Mechura. "This isn't Coke. We're a relatively small industry, but athletes sometimes view us as these huge corporations with limitless funds."
"Athletes seem to think that the industry has unlimited resources to hook people up," agrees Rossignol's North American team manager, Paddy Kaye. "It's super-tight, especially this year with the global snow situation."
Jenny Naftulin, Salomon's alpine marketing coordinator concurs. "Basing a multi-year contract off one film segment per year is becoming more difficult to justify. These days it's about well-balanced athletes. Can the athlete add good feedback to product testing? Can they get creative with self-promotion? Can they help with clinics and events?"
Harder still, skiers' tried-and-true methods for climbing up the industry ladder produce diminishing returns these days. Companies expect a lot more for the thousands of dollars they pay their athletes than they did just 10 years ago. Back then, a cover shot for a magazine would all but guarantee a skier both a contract and a raise the following winter.
"Cases like that are becoming more and more rare," says Naftulin, who is constantly approached by skiers boasting about their coverage in magazines or films. "Even if you're creating a film segment that goes down in history and gets in front of thousands and thousands of eyes internationally, how do you tie that into Salomon's retail components? How does it sell skis? To base a contract on a film segment, it's too much of a risk for a big company."
Likewise, pure competition results, outside of massive X Games exposure, no longer cut it either. Drew Tabke won the 2007 U.S. Freeskiing Nationals and took second on the IFSA World Tour yet doesn't receive a travel budget from his sponsors. "The only money I make skiing is money I win," he says. And with the largest first-place prize purse on tour being $3,000, Tabke's down months are filled with standard ski-bum jobs like valet parking and dishwashing.
"It's a short life, I don't care who you are," says Boyd Easley. Like Moles, Easley dealt with injury issues. In 2002, Easley joined Armada Skis alongside Tanner Hall, J.P. Auclair, J.F. Cusson, and Julien Regnier on skiing's first über-team. While Auclair, Cusson, and Regnier gave the upstart manufacturer some established legitimacy, Armada turned to Hall and Easley to put their stamps on skiing's future. Then Easley blew a knee in 2003 and again in 2004
At the start of the 2006 winter, Easley's contracts with Armada and Oakley came up for renewal. Both sponsors had been supportive throughout his injuries, but it had been three years since he had contributed significantly to the sport. Easley knew he would have to prove that he could still compete in a market dominated by younger skiers with bigger tricks and better knees. And he understood the reality: Skiing had come so far that the tricks he used to win competitions three seasons ago wouldn't even qualify him for a final anymore. Rather than renegotiate in bad faith, Easley retired.
"I was at the top of my game. I'd made my mark and that's where I needed to get back to," Easley says. "I never got there. You're going to wear out sooner than later because your body can only take so much. So, you make it for five or six years and it's a good life. But what are you going to do afterwards?"
Easley is now a sales rep for an oxygen company. Moles coaches, paints houses, and tends bar. Even Kent Kreitler, a freeskiing pioneer with dozens of movie segments, sees the off-white light at the end of the tunnel: He recently became a licensed realtor in Idaho.
Of course, talking about professional skiing strictly in terms of dollars and cents sort of misses the fluffy, powdery point. "I'm having more fun than anybody," says Dumont. "I travel around to contests, party with my friends, ski, and make a good living off it. It's the best job you can ask for."
Ultimately, it's Tabke--the one skier interviewed who hasn't even sniffed a living from skiing--who puts it in perspective. "It's funny when I hear people saying we deserve to be paid more," he says of the common gripe among big-mountain skiers. "We're partying and skiing. What do you want to be paid for? It's not like I wouldn't welcome a hundred thousand a year just to ski, but it's not my goal. If the industry and I cross paths and opportunities present themselves, I'll take them. But I'm happy doing my own thing."
A day after directing a Salomon commercial shoot involving the entire jib team, Douglas stands beneath the final jump of the Mammoth terrain park--a 30-foot booter in full view of the lodge deck and the lift line. Mullin is above, shooting the inrun as Nick Geopper, a 13-year-old grommet from Indiana, rockets toward takeoff. Geopper is a student in Salomon's Jib Academy--a ski camp composed of skiers spotted in a talent search. After a local qualifier at Ohio's Snow Trails Resort, where he displayed more potential and enthusiasm than 52 other kids, Geopper got an invite. For nearly a week, he'll do almost nothing but lap the park alongside Salomon athletes he's seen in movies and magazines, skiers like Peter Olenick and Sammy Carlson.
It's a perfect spring day with afternoon sun turning the snow into forgiving corn. Dumont, who can't ski due to a tweaked knee, has made it here to cheer on Geopper and the rest of the Academy members.
It's not that big a jump, but Geopper's not that big a kid, and his soaring back flip elicits a few oohs and aahs from the crowd. Douglas shakes his head. "It took me until I was 24 to land a back flip," he says.
Ask Geopper if he knows who Douglas is, and he'll swear that he does. Ask him why he spent the first three days of the Jib Academy referring to him as "Adam" and he'll grudgingly admit that, OK, maybe he wasn't sure at first. After all, Geopper was four years old when Douglas delivered skiing's seminal jib-specific twin-tip ski, Salomon's Teneighty, to consumers in 1998 But ask Geopper what he wants to be when he grows up, and he'll look at you like you just asked the single stupidest question he's ever heard. "A pro skier," he replies.
The Dude abides.