Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Can You Afford to be Sponsored?

January. It's that time when contracts are sent out by various climbing-related manufacturers. In what may be a first, Beal (the French climbing company and no relation to me) posted a photo of British climber James Pearson actually signing a contract, a move that will almost inevitably be replicated throughout the industry. This echoes the practice of professional sports teams and companies throughout the world displaying athletes with contracts, while surrounded by logos, wearing gear etc. and marks one more step in the mainstreaming of climbing.
James Pearson signing with Beal
The significant difference is that in climbing you will rarely actually receive real money, at least when compared to sports such as football or basketball. Even very highly regarded climbing athletes such as Chris Webb-Parsons are not getting that much support, at least if this interview  at 8a.nu reflects his actual situation.

"But there is no glamour, not even a shoe sponsor, just very hard work and absolutely no financial support from his Australian federation.

'I'm in debt on my credit card right now due to the last WC season costing me so much money. I'm slowly paying off my debt now although as soon as the 2012 WC season starts the credit card will come out again. I have to pay for everything including my uniform to compete in, my IFSC license, my climbing association membership, competition entry, hotel, travel etc.... So it all adds up.'

This aspect of being a "professional" climber is one that is rarely if ever discussed. Climbing is a pursuit a lot like yacht racing or showing purebred dogs in that a substantial amount of personal and social capital is assumed to be on hand to cover the expected day-to-day expenses of participation. In other words, to even initially obtain, let alone maintain sponsorship, it is expected that an athlete will maintain a high profile in the sport, usually through travel and extended sojourns at fashionable climbing areas, participate in competitions (very expensive for travel, accommodation, and fees) and be available for other promotional responsibilities such as video shoots, shoe demos or climbing festivals. Such requirements are generally incompatible with genuinely remunerative employment of any kind, meaning that someone or something else is ultimately footing the bill for most if not all the professionals below the very thinnest sliver at the top. This is the simple reality of climbing today.

In other words, for every hundred dollars worth of "free" product, a climber may have to invest 10 to 20 times as much hard cash, maybe more, maybe less, to maintain the lifestyle required to obtain and keep that sponsorship. This of course is not counting the staggering opportunity cost of missed educational opportunities or actual gainful employment, costs that will eventually be counted against many aspiring "pros" when they realize they can no longer maintain elite participation in the sport or in the outdoor industry. As mentioned above, this hard reality is passed over in the media and rarely discussed in public by the athletes themselves. Kudos to Webb-Parsons for mentioning it.

This theme was on my mind in particular when I recently received an email from Moon Climbing informing me that I was being dropped from their team. Now for me, sponsorship is not a matter of financial necessity, it is a matter of my desire to help promote companies that I respect and whose products I personally use and recommend. But on reflection, I realized that looking back, the efforts that I made to fulfill my responsibilities towards the company in the end cost me more out of pocket than the value of the products themselves. Not to say that it wasn't nice to get some "free" gear, but that in the end, at best, I estimate the net financial value to me cashed out in negative terms. Would I do it again? It really depends on the company and its vision for the future. There were certainly some concerns with Moon that I should have heeded.

I understand that for a teenage climber with adequate familial financial resources and no particular obligation in the immediate future towards a career or other responsibilities, climbing sponsorships are great. And there are actual professional climbers out there, not many, but some. But it seems to me that a more public discussion of the actual costs involved in elite-level participation, especially with the increased media presence of sponsorship, as with Beal mentioned above, in concurrence with the rise in numbers of competitive youth teams, might be enlightening to aspiring athletes, their families, and the climbing community in general.


Peter Stokes said...

Moon Climbing's loss, mate...

Lee Cujes said...

Great post, Peter.

Anonymous said...

what happened with moon?

Peter Beal said...

Honestly no idea. Writing and publishing a book on bouldering with an internationally distributed publisher, appearing in a major climbing movie, climbing V12 at 47 (and much more) were apparently not enough to stay on. So it goes.

Daniel said...

Are there any numbers on how much the few true professional climbers actually make? I'm thinking about Chris Sharma or Dave Graham or Dean Potter. Those who are not only exceptional good at what they do but who are also well known and legends of the sport.

I seem to remember that Dean Potter received 50.000$ a year from Patagonia before he got dropped and another interview mentioned that he made a couple of hundred thousands over the years. Well, he may be an exception but I don't think that the few people at the top of the sport are poor. Any thoughts?

William said...

I don't know the full story, but this news would turn me away from supporting this company. I purchased a set of Moon holds for my 40 deg wall, before they had a US distributor. Which means they were very expensive. Im very pleased with these holds. I also purchased a moon board and to say the least not very happy with it. Im 50/50 with this company. After this news, they wont see my business anytime soon. It's they people they need to recognize who have helped make them who they are.

Micah Bryan Humphrey said...

I would be interested to see some figures as well. I find it hard to beleive that Sharma isn't pulling in at least a 6 figure salary with all of his sponosors combined (granted, its Sharma). Plus, all I hear about, so it seems, is the multiple trips Paul Robinson, Daniel Woods, Joe Kinder, Dave Graham, Sasha Digulian, etc. etc. go on. I guess the people in the list above are more exceptions to the rule than examples.
With the acquisition of 5.10 by Addidas it seems very plausible that 'athletes/climbers' will start to see their bills being paid. However, I'm not entirely sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing. It is nice to see James signing a contract though, I can remeber when he was broke living out of a small cupboard in his parents place.
And Peter, thanks for publishing thought provoking content on your blog, and sorry about Moon.

Anonymous said...

does moon have many us athletes on their roster? i am with william on this.

Arizona Teacher said...

I think that Climbing going or becoming more "mainstream," good or bad, is what will increase the amount a sponsored climbing athlete can make.

Let's face it, the market for climbing is very small compared to other mainstream sports. Without a large base of consumers, the money just isn't there.

I also think that climber often focus on climbing companies for sponsorship, but need to learn to branch out to other industries.

I too would like to see the numbers of the top guy. The Caldwell, Sharma, Hubber, many of which have brached out of the climbing bubble for financial sponsorship.

Andrew Kornylak said...

Well said Peter.

I will add that presence matters.

It does take some personal outlay to be a pro climber, but the most successful at getting sponsor support are the ones who climb at the top levels AND maintain a strong and positive presence for their sponsors, signing posters and books at the trade shows, appearing at competitions, and just generally being a good ambassador for the brands they represent. That attitude is rare, even among top climbers, probably because there is a perception (from both the climber and the sponsor) that there is nothing to be gained from that extra effort, which IMO is untrue.

Walt said...

IMO, top climbers don't sell much merchandise. Having a top lady or guy climbing in your shoes is more about prestige (and, to some extent, company presidents living vicariously through the athletes they sponsor) than it is about sales. There are certainly people who buy a pair of shoes because of an ad - but it's the picture of the shoes that probably gets them, or the quality of the photo/route. You could put any ripped guy/girl in the shot.

Of course, I can't prove any of this, but I have a lot of experience in a similarly low-budget sport (mountain bike racing) as both a sponsored rider and now as someone who gives away some product to young studs every once in a while. In my experience, the folks that buy product (ie, the folks with actual money) aren't the folks who read the magazines - they're the 45 year old successful accountants who think a bike that's 50 grams lighter is going to help them beat their buddies to the top of the hill. These people generally do not read magazines, attend trade shows, or interact on any regular basis with sponsored riders. Ask one of them who Kulhavy (current world champion) is, and 99% of them will have no idea, much less that he rides a Specialized.

I contend it's the same for climbing. Sponsorships are a money losing proposition for the sponsor in almost all cases, and that's the way it's always been. But the competition among climbers is fierce to be "sponsored" and that means that, indeed, the wages often are less than the cost of earning them.

Peter Beal said...

Thanks for the great comment. As I described it in the next post, my concern was not whether the companies got more than they gave but whether athletes got as good as they gave. Niche industries are not lucrative for anyone involved for the most part as you point out and sponsorships are pretty much pouring money down the drain on both sides. So it seems you had better be in it for the love of the game as much as anything else.

Walt said...

Peter -

Yes, I guess I was just rambling and/or reinforcing your point.

I do wonder what some of the young studs will think about this period of their lives (especially some of those who delayed/skipped going to college) in a decade or two. I'm guessing being a "pro" climber can easily condemn you to a *lifetime* of relative poverty in many cases - life isn't about money, but a severe lack of job prospects when you're 35 does tend to suck.

Peter Beal said...

Hi Walt, I didn't think it was rambling at all and I appreciate the input, especially coming from someone in a similar industry who knows what goes on. I agree with the "relative poverty" aspect. The job market is incredibly competitive now and any delay getting on board can be very costly down the road.

Mike Schneiter said...

Good stuff Peter.

It reminds me of the discussion I've had with others about high school athletes trying to get college scholarships. Many athletes (or their families) spend a small fortune to attend camps, participate on club teams and travel to various campuses, all in the pursuit of a scholarship to play their sport in college. In some of those cases their work probably pays off and they come out ahead. In a lot of cases, in our experience, they end up paying more in travel and other expenses than the scholarship ever pays out and it seems it would have been prudent to just save money for college and walk on somewhere to play their sport. Similar to climbing, it seems there is some "prestige" in having a scholarship. In running the same thing happens. I see folks spending a small fortune and considerable time for a handful of free shoes. I get the sense that for some people there is a coolness to using the word "sponsored."

its for your own good said...

this is a great post.
i am a prime example of exactly this (snowboarding). i blew off school and further education to pursue a dream, which was fun and rewarding in many ways, but ultimately didnt pan out or get me anywhere except starting "real" life 7 years late.
currently i run a high level competitive youth climbing team and have had to have this talk with many of our young boys and girls over the years. you bring up most of the points i have had to make. most of the kids and especially the parents who push for this have no idea what it actually means to be "sponsored" and how little it actually does for the company. thankfully most of them have taken my advice and respect what the old guy has to say about these things.