New York Times: At X Games, Battle for Sponsors Is Also Fierce
In snowboarding, they call this the Olympic hangover year. And for Torah Bright, a gold medalist in snowboard halfpipe at the Vancouver Games and a Mormon who does not drink, it has been a time to nurse ailments.
Torah Bright, who won a gold medal in snowboard halfpipe at the Vancouver Games after a series of concussions, is the face of the women’s apparel brand Roxy.
Bright, 24, a native of Australia, has been dealing with a sore neck and symptoms from a series of concussions she sustained last season here at the Winter X Games and in the run-up to the Olympics. Until two weeks ago, she had not been in a halfpipe since last season, and she will probably not compete in the women’s superpipe qualifying at Buttermilk Mountain on Saturday night in favor of slopestyle Sunday. Instead, she has been cruising in backcountry powder around Breckenridge, Colo., and her home in Park City, Utah, in an effort “to get the stoke factor back.”
Gretchen Bleiler, a member of the United States snowboard team at the Olympics last year, said, “It’s just exhausting, the Olympic year, and I kind of think everyone needs a little break after it.”
On Saturday morning, Bleiler will compete in superpipe preliminaries at the Winter X Games, where she has won four gold medals, the last in 2010.
But if performance in the pipe has been dialed back a bit this season, the competition for top talent by sponsors has turned ever more intense. In the weeks leading up to the Winter X Games, every day seems to bring yet another news release announcing a new endorsement deal, an escalating sideshow to the athletic spectacle.
Last week, Roxy, a women’s outdoor apparel brand, sent out a release that it had signed Bright to its biggest deal ever. Some blue-chip athletes in the X Games have made as much as $1 million a year in endorsements. This week, an announcement said that Target had signed the 15-year-old freeskier Torin Yater-Wallace, the youngest competitor at the Winter X Games. Yater-Wallace finished second in the ski superpipe final Friday.
On Thursday, an injury during snowboard superpipe practice knocked Iouri Podladtchikov out of competition, the same day word got around that he had signed with the board sports apparel brand Quiksilver, owners of Roxy. Podladtchikov, 22, competed for Switzerland at the Vancouver Games and won a silver medal in superpipe at the 2010 Winter X Games. He injured his left shoulder while attempting a Cab 720 degree spin (two rotations).
Perhaps the biggest and most puzzling commercial announcement this week has been the partnership between BF Goodrich Tires and the two-time Olympic gold medalist Shaun White, who will attempt to win his fourth halfpipe title at the Winter X Games on Sunday. White, 24, and his red locks will be featured in a series of webisodes in which he is taught to drive high-performance cars.
“It’s a huge opportunity to activate their sponsorship with their athletes,” Steve Astephen, principal of action sports/lifestyle at Wasserman Media Group, the agency that brokered the Bright and Podladtchikov deals, said about the brand activity surrounding the Winter X Games. “It’s the same with the Olympics.”
This week, another of Astephen’s clients, the Summer X Games star Travis Pastrana, will begin his Nascar career. Pastrana, a dominant freestyle motocross competitor, will make his Nascar debut this weekend at Toyota Speedway in Irwindale, Calif., in a partnership with Michael Waltrip.
“In ’98 when I did this, everyone sort of laughed,” Astephen said about his role as an action sports agent. But in the past five years, he has watched as more mainstream brands show increasing interest in the athletes who compete at the X Games.
In 2002, Target sponsored White, who now has his own clothing line with the retailer.
“I don’t blame the other brands for their gut reaction to be ‘Huh, what’s going on?’ ” said Troy Michels, a marketing executive for Target. “The master plan is to help the athlete in a way they want to be helped, and if they come up with ideas like Shaun White did, it might happen for them.”
Bright’s relationship with Roxy, a company that discovered her at age 13, is structured similarly. “Torah is the face of our brand,” said Danielle Beck, vice president for marketing at Roxy. “She’s not just a snowboarder.”
Bright will feature prominently in Roxy advertisements and will continue to design her own line of clothing, Beck said.
Bleiler has a similar relationship with Oakley.
Astephen said such perks were part of the increasing competition for blue-chip athletes.
As an example, he cited how one of his clients, the 22-year-old Australian surfer Julian Wilson, who had been with Quiksilver, recently signed with Nike 6.0. A day later, Quiksilver introduced the four-time women’s surfing champion Stephanie Gilmore as a global ambassador for the brand. Gilmore had been with the surf-apparel company Rip Curl.
“There are some endemic companies that fight it,” Astephen said about the growing influence of mainstream brands. “There are certain sports that are anti-Nike, anti-Target.”
As the battle of the brands proceeds in the background, the women’s field will gather Saturday morning for the superpipe elimination. And 16 competitors will be reduced to 6.
“From what I’ve seen, the atmosphere has definitely changed up there,” Bleiler said about what was once a collegial environment. “I remember when I was first competing, it was very supportive. Everyone was excited and cheering each other on. I think it’s gotten a little more serious. But that’s only natural with what’s on the line right now.”
Still, Bleiler allowed that “it’s still very supportive.”
My best friends are some of my biggest competitors,” she said.
Not so with the brands competing for athlete endorsements, according to Astephen.
“They all hate each other,” he said. “They all want to win.”
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