By: David Lesh
I have been involved with the ski industry since the beginning of Freeskiing. I am member number 12 on Newschoolers, got my first sponsor over a decade ago, began skiing professionally soon there after, and founded Virtika Outerwear in 2009 when I became frustrated with my sponsors at the time.
I started out skiing on super shitty, non parabolic (straight skis) on little 150 ft tall hills in Wisconsin when I was a kid. I subscribed to the very first ski mags, bent my tails up in boiling water, and learned 180's, 360's, and front flips around 1997. I began working at Play-It-Again Sports at age 15 and began learning about the sales side of the industry. Through Play-It-Again, I met a number of reps that worked for some of the bigger companies (K2, Salomon, etc). I began inquiring how one might go about "getting sponsored", what it took, and who to talk to. I very quickly realized I was a LONG ways off from ANYONE wanting to give me free gear.
Fast forward a decade or two. I have gotten paid to ski all over the world, been in a few movies, magazines, done a few big comps, know all the industry peeps, you get the idea. I have dealt with all kinds of sponsors over the years as an athlete, have talked to infinite pro skier friends about their sponsors (even helped negotiate a few deals), and am able to say that I feel I understand the athlete perspective pretty well.
Managing Virtika, I now find myself on the other side of that table. Our customer support reps get around 15-20 sponsorship requests a day. Yes, every day. Are we somehow special? No. These kids are sending the same emails to every company out there, just hoping for a lucky break. Most companies never look at those emails, and they certainly don't reply to them. At Virtika, we DO look through those videos, pics, resumes, and emails, and we even reply to each and every one. Why? Because when I was a kid sending those requests out, it would have stoked me out to hear back from a few companies so I knew all my hard work that I put into my yearly edits wasn't in vain.
Of these 15-20 sponsorship requests that we receive a day, our customer support reps sometimes forward me the best and worst ones for pure entertainment value, if nothing else. I am constantly amazed at these little gaper's desire to get sponsored. Doesn't anyone just want to ski for fun anymore? Yes, being a pro skier can be one of the most amazing, fun, fulfilling "jobs" in the world but you might be surprised by the reality that most pro skiers make under $20k a year. They risk their lives on a daily basis, travel year-round, work hard as hell, and can get treated like shit by the companies that supposedly support them.
Back to the point. If you're STILL dead set on getting sponsored and pursuing a life as a pro skier, this is meant to be some sort of guide to help you understand how to market yourself, make yourself attractive to a company, and manage some expectations.
1. If you just learned your first 360, ground your first rail, or did your first binding grab, please don't waste anyone's time by asking a company to sponsor you. Take your GoPro off your helmet, get baggier outerwear, mount your skis in the center, stop tucking your pants into your boots, and go out there and SKI! Have fun, get better, and don't worry about the rest.
2. If you actually ARE halfway decent and you can do most of the tricks you see the best skiers in the world doing, then that STILL doesn't mean that a company would want to sponsor you. No company in the world cares about what tricks you can do, how many rotations you can spin, or the fact that you learned to do a double cork ten before you taught yourself a stylish switch seven with a decent grab. I've got news for you, every kid out there is super good now. There are trampolines, foam pits, safe equipment (skis that stay on your feet are a huge help), water ramps, summer ski camps and ski academies, video review, private coaches, and lots of really good skiers leading the way, pushing the sport to new places and serving as a guide to what is possible.
3. Ok, so not only are you SUPER good and can do all the same tricks that most pros can, you also happen to have a bit of style. You control your arms and poles in all tricks (good "pole steeze" with & without poles), you're buttering, pressing, mixing up your grabs, spinning both ways (and on many different axes), and making it all look good. Well, you're still not there yet. Does your edit have urban, big mountain, park, pipe, various sized jumps, and an overall mix of all kinds of skiing? It's okay to excel in one or two areas of skiing, but few companies want to sponsor a park rat that can only hit rails.
4. All the above things should be bare minimums before ever even considering approaching companies about sponsorship. The real thing you need to ask yourself is "AM I MARKETABLE?" Basically, will a company be able to use me to make money? And this brings up some good questions:
First and foremost, what kind of companies should I be approaching?
That really depends on the company. You have to think of what kind of skier you are, and what kind of company would find you valuable. If you're a racer or mogul skier, then approaching a company like Virtika for an outerwear sponsorship isn't going to do you much good (yes, we get those all the time). If your strong suit is urban skiing, approaching a company that already has a ton of riders that ski urban might not be your ticket. Maybe they're looking for a big mountain or backcountry skier? Maybe they're looking for a competition skier?
Besides skiing, how do I make myself more marketable to potential sponsors?
Regardless of what company you ski for, or what kind of a skier you are, knowing the following will definitely help you out:
- You can only wear the gear that your sponsors make. If you are seen wearing a competitors gear, you're out the door. Done.
- You need to develop your social media and post high quality content. This includes Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, your own website, etc. The second you sign with a sponsor, you are a representative of that company 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If you post something dumb to your social media, your sponsor might get pissed. Make sure the kind of content you post is in line with your sponsor's company image.
- You will need to network to get to know other athletes, photographers and videographers so you can feed your sponsors lots of content. I would plan on coming up with at least 1-2 high quality photos/videos A DAY.
-You will need to travel all the time, with zero notice. You'll need to share beds, eat Ramen, stay in hostels, drag hundreds of pounds of gear across the world, help set up trade show booths, the list goes on and on.
- Have a personality. No one wants a robot representing them.
- Be prepared to get a summer job. Skiing won't get you through those summer months, at least at first.
- Be professional. You need to be punctual, reachable, flexible, and approachable.
Are there different kinds of skiers? What are the differences between them?
There are a few different types of skiers in the industry, each with their own marketability:
1. Comp Skier:
Think guys like Bobby Brown, Russ Henshaw, think Dew Tour, think Olympics, think X-Games, anything televised. If you're a super solid, consistent skier that can win comps then this might be the route for you. Being a comp skier means getting yourself onto podiums. This allows the companies you ski for to promote their company using the exposure from these comps (web, TV, photos, articles, interviews, etc). Having some unique style and tricks (think Henrik) and making sure your sponsor's products and logos are clearly visible are a must.
For the most part, comp skiers are the only ones that have a chance at making decent money, and it's usually because of the actual contest prize winnings. Back in the day, sponsors used to match whatever you would win in a comp. These days, the industry has less money, more good athletes, more events, and ZERO desire to shell out the big bucks necessary to match comp winnings. There are some exceptions to this of course.
Don't kid yourself, being a comp skier is HARD work. A select few comp skiers make the big bucks, but they are also the ones out there training EVERY day of the year. Tons of time in foam pits, water ramps, summer skiing, coaches, physical therapists, interviews, injuries, constant traveling, etc. Have you ever HAD to compete on a day when it's snowing sideways, the speed is slow, the three athletes ahead of you just tore their ACLs coming up short on the third jump, the cameras are rolling, and you HAVE to drop and throw dubs both directions? I wouldn't know personally about throwing dubs both directions, but I can tell you THAT SHIT SUCKS.
2. Photo/Video Skier.
Think Mike Hornbeck, Phil Casabon, the Stept or Nimbus crew, Pep Fujas, think most of the big mountain guys you see in the movies and magazine (and most of them compete in the World Tour and other big mountain comps as well). These guys are out there working just as hard as the comp skiers, but they're doing different shit. They're out there hiking lines in the backcountry, working on their sleds, building jumps, dodging cops, setting up winches, generators and lights at 4am, eating shit on concrete, or hitting the same feature 1,000 times until the photographer/videographer gets the perfect shot.
What if you don't fit into either of the above two categories? What if you preform decently well in comps and also want to pursue being a photo/video skier? What if you aren't the best in the world at either? What other ways can you provide value for a company? That's where a lot of other aspects, traits, and talents can come into play:
- Get involved in the industry. Tap into various forums and online communities (being on NS is a good start!). Get a feel for who "the customer" is. Go to industry events and schmooze some industry folk, stay up on the latest, educate yourself. If all else fails, get a job in the industry. At least you'll be surrounded by people who are all stoked on skiing.
- Learn some skills. Maybe you could help design clothing, graphics, skis, ads. Maybe you could help a company take photos of the other athletes. Learn to shoot and edit good quality video on professional equipment. Write a blog, learn about managing and growing social media accounts, grow your own social media accounts with good content.
- In the meantime, move to a ski town, get a night job so you can ski every day, meet the locals, learn the area, figure out what kind of skier you want to be, and enjoy being a ski bum (it's great fun).
- Educate yourself. There isn't a company on the planet that wants to sponsor a moron. Take a few college classes- you'll need the college education when you flush your pro skier dreams down the toilet ;). Drop the cocky attitude, travel when you can, and be open minded to life and any opportunity that may present itself. Avoid being a pot head, alcoholic, or using any toxic substance on a regular basis. I know, it's hard.
If all of these things are beginning to click for you, and you are still interested in reaching out to companies in an attempt to get sponsored, then I offer you the following advice:
- Do not ask for sponsorship on Instagram, NS, Facebook, or any other public forum.
- When you email a company, expect to get no response. Instead of emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, try to track down the contact info for the team manager, marketing director, etc. Getting to know people in the industry will help with this.
- Make sure to include ALL of the following the FIRST time you email a company:
- A sincere, short, concise, well written cover letter that is unique to whatever company you are sending it to. No one has time to read your 4 page life story. Talk about why you think you'll be able to make "whatever company" more money. Make sure to use PROPER GRAMMAR. Confusing "their", "there", and "they're" or "two", "too", and "to" is a deal breaker. Don't even think about creating a copy-and-paste letter that you send to every company under the sun. Worse yet, if your lazy ass DOES just create a copy-and-paste letter, you may want to make sure that you change the first sentence that says "I love Salomon skis and everything that you guys stand for" when sending your letter to K2. Even worse STILL, for the love of god, don't send an email out to 36 companies that has all 36 email addresses in the "to" field for all to see.
- A professional video that shows you, and ONLY you skiing. This is NOT a video that is shot on a GoPro by your mom. Make sure you carefully think about the music choice, the shots you use, how it's edited, etc. BE ORIGINAL!
- A resume. This needs to be professionally put together, elegantly designed, simple, concise, and also needs to have CORRECT GRAMMAR. List what contests you've placed in- nobody cares about your 16th place finish at your local bum-fuck ski hill spring jam. List what web exposure you have, how many views your edits get, and put a link to your edits in your resume. If your edits get less than a few thousand views online, you may want to have your sister stop filming with her iPhone for a while and just focus on skiing. List past sponsors and references (with contact info), coaching jobs, published content, what other industry involvement you have, blogs you write, content you've created, design work you've done, events you've helped organize or promote, etc.
- Professional pictures. In this digital age of social media, companies need to be able to market your image online. This means they need to know that you are capable of getting them high res, well lit, high quality photos that will show you using their gear (and looking good doing it I might add). They will want images for ads, web banners, Instagram, Facebook, e-mailers, print ads, bus stops, trade show booths, their company website, you name it. Maybe your dad's buddy is a photographer? Or you're decent at setting up a shot and can have your friend click the shutter? Do whatever it takes to get a handful of good photos of yourself rocking whatever gear you currently have.
Through all of this, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE keep in mind that there are a million kids out there that are better than you, younger, and have wealthy parents to support them for decades while they attempt to become pro skiers or work their way into the industry.
If by some miracle of god you actually ARE able to convince a company to give you a discount or even some free stuff, don't expect to get paid anytime soon. Re-read everything above, figure out some productive ways to add value to whatever companies you are skiing for, and then present your case in a clear and reasonable way. If you're lucky, you'll find a check in your mailbox from a ski sponsor. Now grab another bowl of cold Ramen, blow up your sleeping pad in the back of your parent's van, get to the parking lot early tomorrow to clip lift tickets, and make sure to ask that dumb Texan family for their left over fries in the cafeteria.