Friday, April 22, 2016

Why Sponsorship is such a Thing

A couple of web pieces came out recently on a topic that the print journals tend to eschew, namely the peculiar game of discussing who should be a sponsored climber. Andrew Bisharat asked what was up with media and “professional climbers” when the hyped grade turns out to not be all that?

Another post by Georgie Abel, entitled “Confessions of A Spray Queen” appeared to claim that self-generated spray was just part of the cost of doing business and certainly a number of comments on Facebook seemed to agree. Indeed the dominant influence on climbing by marketing seems inevitable by all accounts, even desirable in the eyes of many.

And yet…  I would suggest that the reason the topics of grades spray and sponsorship are so touchy is that deep down we are well aware of the arbitrary and superficial discourse that surrounds the topic. That is to say, a motion is made to defer the decisions on remuneration to companies who hope to sell products because, hey, capitalism, and the people have spoken and apparently the people want young vibrant millenials in somewhat skimpy clothing clustering at the base of a boulder at Red Rock or Bishop. Or that we are all special and everyone has a story, whether it’s on a 5.8 or a 5.15, doesn’t matter, because community, and we’re all in this together, really, bound by inspiring words on Instagram. But in the end I would argue none of this really satisfies those who are serious about the sport of climbing.

So why not? I don't hear nearly as much speculation and controversy in other sports regarding who deserves support and why. Are other sports infested with the same sense of grievance and complaint regarding compensation? It's remarkable to see this especially in relation to such a small overall pie, a pie the slices of which remain an unknown quantity owing to nondisclosure clauses in sponsor contracts, again something unheard of in real professional sports.

I'd like to suggest a few issues that climbing presents when we decide about "athlete" support, questions that are endemic to the sport if not actually unique to it. I apologize for the quote marks around "athletes" but I feel it's appropriate given the Greek etymology of the word which specifically refers to contests.

1. There is no fixed objective standard to any achievement in climbing.  Grades? At best a variable quality, grades rise up and wither away, changing from week to week, place to place, person to person. There is simply no compelling way to prove who the best climbers actually are and who is logically deserving of support. In the context of other professional sports this is insane. To succeed in major league baseball, football, etc, you must perform in public at an agreed-upon level against similarly able competitors. In climbing there is no such requirement nor are there organizations who determine who is eligible to compete in sanctioned events that would truly decide who is worthy of support. In climbing you can do what you want and if it appeals to the right set of people you can actually get paid. Crazy but true. Which leads to #2

2. There are no actual teams or governing bodies that have a set standard regarding compensation or support in relation to performance. Did you hear about The North Face "team" tryouts? Me neither. The word team is thrown around a lot but are they actual teams? No, in large part because of #1. Nobody in the climbing media would dare call out a company for sponsoring an unworthy athlete or speculate who would get cut from a "team" the way regular sports journos do. And since there is no way to determine who or what a valuable player actually is, everyone is defaulting to commercial justification for sponsorship.

3. The standard for sponsorship is increasingly social-media-oriented, which is to say presence on the big three SM platforms; Facebook, Instagram, and... well I forget, but it sure isn't Twitter. Anyway this creates big problems for people who are good at climbing but not so good at marketing. Some reply, "Well that is the new reality, that "athletes" have to be good marketers, not just, in fact not even, good climbers, because what matters to sponsors is how many shoes or raincoats or whatever can be sold thanks to that 'athlete's' influence in social media." And hey anyone can count Instagram likes or #s of video plays and tell themselves that supporting a mediocre but high-profile athlete translates into ROI. But this rapidly degenerates into #4
Sly keeping it on the reals. We've all been there though. #legday

4. Image is becoming everything. Ironically, there was a time when real climbers derided commercial attempts to represent the sport either in entertainment or advertising. Cliffhanger, the notorious 1993 movie, its title a spoof on the serial thrillers of yesteryear became notorious for its failure to mesh together Hollywood action and the world of high-level climbing. None of the climbers involved, to my knowledge, looked upon their participation in the project as reflective of the actual sport. It was a highly remunerative job and that was pretty much it. Today real climbers actively court interest in their activities by any means necessary (American Ninja Warrior anyone?) including of course relentless social media updates, designed to induce FOMO in their followers. Whether anything is actually accomplished is increasingly beside the point. Which leads to 5...

5. Image has nothing to do with athletics. Or at least it shouldn't. But sponsorship clearly has a lot more to do with image than it should. And the problem with image (and therefore sponsorship) is that we know the qualities that go into a desirable image have a lot more to do with accidental qualities like innate charisma and appearance than they do with deliberate and therefore morally laudable effort and dedication and that unfortunately in too many instance image plays into easily marketable stereotypes, especially for young women. Obviously the marketing unicorn is the climber who has both attributes but there is little doubt that the benefit of the doubt will go not to the less-attractive achiever but to the lower-achieving attractive climber. And given the lack of structure or criteria for judging achievement outside of commercial viability, that is no surprise. Money talks and everything else walks.

So in a relatively anarchic world of unjudged and unjudgeable climbing "athletes" each doing his or her own thing, with no clear path to joining the ranks of the "pros" and of course nobody saying what the actual financial reward is for any of this, it is hardly surprising to find that there is controversy regarding who deserves what, especially as any compensation involved is relatively small and hardly adequate to support a truly "professional" status. The controversy is enhanced by images of said "athletes" hard at work leading a fairly laid-back life that consists primarily, if we read Instagram correctly, of climbing what they want, where they want, when they want and how they want.

Takin' Care of Business and workin' overtime

This is not the life led by athletes in major actual professional sports. Those actual athletes lead high-pressure lives with relentless practice and travel schedules often with serious risk of degenerative disease as in the NFL, always in the public eye and always with significant risks for non-renewal owing to poor performance. To get to this place, such real athletes have endured years if not decades of specializing in their sports, beating significant odds and a host of competitors to get there. Their compensation is not just a matter of public record; it is a critical aspect of their identity. We may decry their often extraordinary salaries but we rarely dispute that they have worked remarkably hard to get there. But there is no way to get an NFL contract merely by looking good or keep said contract by having many thousands of Instagram followers. Yes lucrative endorsements may follow a winning athlete who has sufficient charisma but in real sports, charisma is never enough. You must win and win convincingly or face the risk of getting cut. And because such a thing does not exist in climbing, we wonder about the score and who is keeping it.