Sponsorships lift extreme sports to next level
Jeremy Carter of the U.S. performs an acrobatic stunt with his motorbike during the Asian X Games V in Kuala Lumpur in 2003. (AFP PHOTO/Ahmad YUSNI)
Published Sunday, August 31, 2014 11:12AM EDT
(WASHINGTON-AFP) - Erich Wegscheider is a man with a plan: to compete in 28 of the world's toughest cycling, mountaineering, triathlon and ultra-marathon events -- and find sponsors to foot the bills.
"It's not cheap. To do all these events is well beyond my means," said the California-based athlete as he prepared to tick the grueling 167-kilometre Leadville Trail mountain bike race in Colorado off his bucket list.
He's not alone. With extreme sports growing in popularity worldwide, more and more practitioners are partnering with corporate patrons to help cover the cost of their passion, if not make a living out of it.
In North America alone, brands are projected to spend $14.35 billion on sports sponsorship this year, up 4.9 per cent from 2013, according to sponsorship consultancy IEG in Chicago.
The lion's share of that bounty goes to professional teams and A-list mainstream athletes who can deliver huge numbers of fans to brands looking for high-volume exposure.
"But we're definitely seeing some of that money trickle down to action sports," IEG's Sponsorship Report senior editor William Chipps told AFP, although it remains "a very small sliver" of the overall sponsorship pie.
Red Bull is the 800-pound gorilla of extreme sports sponsorship.
It has backed hundreds of athletes in a variety of activities -- including Felix Baumgartner, who bore the energy drink's logo on his record-setting 24-mile skydive to Earth in 2012 -- as well as producing its own events.
"Fundamentally, they want to do cool things with their brand," said ice climber and paraglider Will Gadd, who credits Red Bull for enabling him to make a film about his 2006 expedition to climb icebergs drifting off Labrador, in his native Canada.
"The reality is that I would have gone and done it anyway, even without Red Bull's support, because it's what I wanted to do," said Gadd before setting off on his latest exploit -- paragliding the length of British Columbia through the Rocky Mountain Trench valley, again with Red Bull's support.
"If you're really good at what you do, that's not really enough. What you have to do, year after, year, is do a good job of representing a company to the public and to your core sport.
"If that comes naturally, then it's usually pretty easy."
Sponsors 'doing the legwork'
In the best-case scenario, a sponsored extreme sport athlete can earn "probably a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year," said Gadd, who personally gets much of his income from TV commercials and stunt work.
More often than not, the norm is sponsorship in kind instead of cash.
U.S. skydiver Taya Weiss considers herself "pretty lucky" to get her wingsuit, parachutes and harnesses from her sport's artisanal equipment manufacturers, which can't afford grand marketing budgets.
"If you want to get good at this, you really have to put your heart and soul into it, and a lot of your time -- and it's expensive," said Weiss, who reckons she carries $8,000 worth of gear when she wingsuits out of a plane.
Kris Mathis, founder of SponsorPitch.com, a matchmaking service for athletes and sponsors, said the idea of wearing a sponsor's logo and getting a check every month for doing so no longer applies.
"More and more, the successful sponsorship seekers that we are seeing... are putting in the effort to really think like a brand manager," and doing the legwork to find the right corporate partner, he said.
The counter-cultural streak that ran through extreme sports in the past has meanwhile waned in response to the phenomenal growth of major events like the annual X Games, which mark their 20th anniversary next year.
"There's less of a stigma attached to getting corporate dollars," said Georgetown University marketing professor Marlene Morris Towns.