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September 2017

High Flying Brand Ambassadors

Sponsoring athletes makes a lot of sense for both resorts and the talent, especially when the relationship is managed well.

Written by David Meeker | 0 comment
Loon Mountain athlete Mike Ravelson developing content for use on social media and, ultimately, magazine articles. Loon Mountain athlete Mike Ravelson developing content for use on social media and, ultimately, magazine articles. Cole Martin

Ski areas choose to support talented skiers and riders for many of the same reasons major brands choose to pay professional athletes to endorse their products. In each case, the relationship can be mutually beneficial—the company wants to align itself with a quality brand ambassador, and the athlete gets a place to ride and be a star, along with other perks.

And it need not cost an arm and a leg. Resorts don’t need Peyton Manning, multi-million dollar contracts, and national TV campaigns. Arrangements between resorts and athletes are often as simple as a season pass in return for social media content. Yet the value of these partnerships can be priceless.

While I was in marketing at Mount Snow, Vt., my involvement with our team of sponsored athletes was eye-opening. We managed valuable partnerships with Olympic medalists, influential local talent, and up-and-coming amateur athletes—and learned interesting lessons along the way. It made me wonder how other operations handle athlete relationships, and what kind of value those relationships had.

In my experience, choosing the right athletes, managing the relationships, and supporting their efforts can have a huge return. Conversely, choosing the wrong athletes and not paying attention to their conduct and production can be a detriment to your brand. It’s not surprising that folks involved with sponsored athletes at other ski areas share these sentiments, and find success in a variety of different approaches.

Choose Great People
The best skier or rider isn’t always going to be the best representative of your brand. Ability is certainly paramount, but there are many other considerations when deciding who will fly your resort’s flag. All your resort ambassadors should have a strong character, but especially athletes, because they are also influencers. The influence they wield is a major part of their value.

“My biggest thing when selecting riders/skiers to the team is making sure they ‘get it,’” says Pat Morgan, director of freestyle terrain at Jack Frost Big Boulder, Pa. “I’m looking for the athletes who are well-rounded, the ones who know the value in basic fundamentals like please, thank you, eye contact, and a handshake.”

sep17 high flying 01 02Big Boulder Park athletes Ari Morrone (left) and Ryan Keglovics (right) play starring roles in the resort’s marketing and social media content—a primary benefit for resorts that sponsor athletes. But to get here, the athletes have to be good people, too. “I’m looking for the athletes who are well-rounded, the ones who know the value in basic fundamentals like please, thank you, eye contact, and a handshake,” says Pat Morgan, director of freestyle terrain at Jack Frost Big Boulder, Pa.

He likes to see the athletes volunteer their time at resort food drives, or help with event registration and judging, in addition to developing content. That applies to all 14 team members, who range from a handful of amateur skiers and riders to notable pros like Miles Fallon and Ryan Stevenson.

Mount Snow marketing director Thad Quimby expects the resort’s 10-person team “to be professional and respectful on-mountain, to others in the industry, to kids, on social media, everywhere.” In choosing whom to sponsor, he says it’s a two-way street: “Most importantly, we look for partnerships where we’re both aligned on how we want to be represented.”

At Loon Mountain, N.H., marketing manager Kevin Bell looks for “talent with a good attitude” when choosing athletes to affiliate with. “Whenever we ask someone new to come onboard, we have a sit-down and discussion about our expectations. It’s more about how you conduct yourself. There’s really no wiggle room there. Be good, be nice,” he says.

A Necessary Connection
Talent and character are two of the primary qualities a sponsored skier or rider should have. A genuine, legitimate connection to your mountain is another. It’s easy to become enamored with a name and hop on the bandwagon of an athlete whose notoriety, you hope, will pay dividends. But if that athlete has no history with your resort, and his or her only allegiance is tied to a paycheck, it can backfire.

For instance, when I was at Mount Snow we decided to sponsor an up-and-coming freeskier named Nick Goepper after he competed in the Mount Snow Open (now Carinthia Open) a couple times in his early teens. Starting in 2012-429, he signed a contract with us and we paid him a few thousand bucks in return for calling Carinthia his “home mountain,” in addition to repping the brand and participating in a couple photo shoots during the season. He went on to win X Games gold that year, and in 2014 he won a bronze medal in slopestyle at the Winter Olympics.

Our relationship resulted in some great exposure, and it may have seemed like we hit the jackpot. But Nick grew up in Indiana, and learned to ski at Perfect North Slopes. Throughout the Olympic broadcasts, that was the narrative. So Perfect North, deservingly, was getting all the love without paying Nick a dime. Totally understandable, but tough to swallow nonetheless.

sep17 high flying 04After Mount Snow local and sponsored athlete Devin Logan won silver at the 2014 Olympics, the resort held “Devin Day at Mount Logan.” In addition to a parade and an awards presentation, Mount Snow turned into Mount Logan for the day, including all signage, trail maps, the website, a Facebook page, and more.Worse, our avid followers on Carinthia’s social media channels started calling us out. They asked why we were paying so much attention to this outsider from Indiana who is never at the mountain, and not giving more love to members of the team who actually had a connection to Carinthia and Mount Snow—including West Dover local and Olympic silver medalist Devin Logan.

Nick is a great kid with strong character, and is one of the best freeskiers in the world. However, the relationship actually had a negative impact on our credibility with the core who frequent Carinthia Parks. He understood why we parted ways after the 2013-14 season, and we learned a valuable lesson.

That organic connection is key. About two years ago, Seven Springs partnered with legendary freeskier Tom Wallisch to represent the resort. In this case, a strong connection was already in place. Wallisch grew up in Pittsburgh, a little more than an hour northwest of Seven Springs. He spent time honing his skills in the resort’s acclaimed parks before moving west after high school. “I think the more organic and authentic the partnership, the better,” says Seven Springs marketing director Alex Moser.

sep17 high flying 03Seven Springs recently partnered with freeskier Tom Wallisch to represent the resort. He grew up in nearby Pittsburgh and honed his skills at Seven Springs as a youngster, so Wallisch has an authentic connection to the mountain—an all-important factor when partnering with any athlete.Seven Springs compensates Wallisch $10,000-$15,000 a year, and the return is significant. “Partnering with an athlete like Tom Wallisch gives us some additional, somewhat organic exposure all around the country,” says Moser. “This partnership will help us grow the sport in the region and inspire a new generation of freeskiers to discover a lifelong passion.”

At Bear Mountain in SoCal, marketing director Clayton Shoemaker is flush with talented snowboarders who frequent the parks, so a connection to the resort usually isn’t an issue when choosing who to sponsor—it’s the athletes’ connection to Bear’s followers that is important. “It’s not always about who has a triple-cork, but more about who is relevant to your audience,” he says. “Who makes your park/product look good? Who is a standup athlete that represents your brand to the best of his or her ability?” That’s an important consideration across the board.

Managing Expectations
Depending on the program, some resorts contract athletes, especially if there’s a monetary arrangement. Others simply have a verbal understanding of what is expected in terms of conduct, content, and what the resort provides in return.

“Sometimes, partnerships with athletes can get more complicated based on what the athlete needs from us, and what we expect from the athlete in return,” says Quimby. “When the relationship gets more complicated, a contract can help keep everyone aligned on expectations, deliverables and deadlines.”

Deliverables vary by athlete, but certain requirements are universal, like being good brand ambassadors. For tangibles, Quimby says athletes are expected to place branded stickers on equipment, mention Mount Snow and Carinthia in a defined number of relevant social media posts, and participate in resort photo shoots.

With a roster of high-profile pro riders, Bear Mountain has all of them sign contracts, so “we can stay on track with what needs to be delivered throughout the season,” says Shoemaker. “We want them to be very successful, and maximize any additional exposure.”

At Big Boulder, too, all of the team members sign an agreement. Morgan admits it isn’t necessarily legally binding, but serves as an acknowledgement of the partnership: “A pass and product exchange for content, all the while conducting yourself in a positive manner, both online and while on snow, regardless of the location,” he says.

Loon takes a more passive approach. “We don’t say ‘you need to produce one clip a month, two photos a week, sticker on your board, blah blah blah,’” says Bell. “We look at our team as the ultimate in authenticity. They want to talk Loon and run Loon hoodies, and we never ask them to.”

Content Is King
According to a study by Cisco, video accounted for 73 percent of internet traffic in 2016. That’s why—whether it’s a defined amount, or a casual understanding that it’s part of the deal—developing content is the primary benefit of having a talented stable of athletes representing your brand. They’re a resource. Part of their job is to make your on-hill product look good. That is, assuming the person filming and editing has skills.

Bear Mountain has been featuring its sponsored athletes, and other riders who come through, in its “Sunday in the Park” video series for several years. Some episodes have hundreds of thousands of views, largely because of the quality riding put down by its team, which includes names like Scott Stevens and Joe Sexton. As a result, the series helped solidify Bear as a leader in the terrain park world.

But well-known, top-tier athletes like Bear’s aren’t necessary to create quality content. Plus, when an athlete gets big, his or her time is usually strained and they aren’t around as much, limiting their participation in branded content. Thankfully, every other sponsored skier and rider is way more talented than the average guest. And since these talented athletes are at the mountain all the time, they can be your biggest asset.
Even though they’re not household names, core athletes are still influencers with strong credibility. Guys like Shaun Murphy, Max Lyons, and Lupe Hagearty, who all represent Carinthia Parks, each have thousands of followers on social media, and are synonymous with their home mountain—largely because of their regular appearances for many years in resort videos, photos, and competitions.

In addition to creating hype through social media content, athletes can be called upon to help with other marketing content, too. At Seven Springs, that’s made an impact. “One of the biggest benefits [to having a team] I have seen over the years is in our marketing materials,” says Joel Rerko, Seven Springs director of mountain ops, who helps manage the team. “We have quality photos in all of our resort promotional materials. It’s very hard to acquire quality photos and video for this unless you have a pool of good riders.”

Especially on powder days, he says. “If we didn’t have this team, it’s less likely anyone is going to give up their powder day to hike a small area of woods making one left turn for three hours to get a good photo.”

It Takes Work
Even without contracts, monetary arrangements, or content requirements, maintaining a roster of athlete brand ambassadors requires time and attention. Bell says at Loon, for him, it’s relatively easy, because from a marketing perspective the athletes post their own content and the resort simply shares it. But for that to happen in a timely fashion, he admits, “there are flurries of texts, late-night Google Drive uploads and downloads—standard chaos.”

For resorts with more formal programs, like Bear, Shoemaker says, “Done right, it’s very time consuming.” He says the constant communication with the team all season, arranging shoots at the resort, travel and lodging plans, and laying out payment schedules can be a full-time job. Quimby agrees, noting, “It’s a lot of work to maintain athlete sponsorships, but done right, everyone benefits.”

Paperwork and communication aside, when something big happens with one of your athletes, recognizing and capitalizing on it takes work, too. After Mount Snow local and sponsored athlete Devin Logan won silver in slopestyle at the 2014 Olympics, we immediately started planning a celebration at the mountain—but not just any standard party.

March 22, 2014, was “Devin Day at Mount Logan.” It included a parade through town, an awards presentation by state and local dignitaries, and an autograph signing. That was the easy part. The rest: Mount Snow signage was replaced with the new “Mount Logan” logo, we had Mount Logan trail maps printed, created, started a Mount Logan Facebook page, and even created a menu item in her honor (and to her specifications) called the Devin Burger (two beef patties, VT cheddar, bacon, and jalepenos). It was a tremendous undertaking, but well worth it to honor a hometown hero—and also to benefit from the flurry of media attention that followed.

In general, athlete “sponsorships” aren’t a financial burden. Most of the time, it involves giving them a free season pass, some branded gear, and perhaps money to cover entry into competitions. These, as well as large monetary sponsorships, have a dramatic return on investment.

At the root of it, athlete sponsorships “create/foster an identity that you’d be hard-pressed to ever cultivate through any form of traditional advertising and marketing,” says Morgan. “These riders help to provide a relatable identity for all who interact with your resort.”