Branding the Herd

posted by dpm on 03/20/2012


I just did an interview with Alex Johnson and we briefly touched on the subject of what it means to be a professional climber. I’ve always looked up to Alex as a great role model for young climbers and a good example of how pro athletes should present themselves. Having the opportunity to chat with my heroes has been a favorite part of my job here at DPM. It’s also given me a more clear picture on how much work they have to do to ‘make it’ as a pro.  

A lot of these pros work with us and we pay as fairly as we can for their work, whether it's writing, photos, or videos. The other day I got an email from one of these pros wondering essentially, "Where his money's at?" He'd just spent his last couple hundred bucks to buy a plane ticket to a national competition that he had a good chance of winning. Now he was broke and didn't have any money to eat. I thought to myself, "You've got to be kidding me. This guy (one of the best climbers in the world) has to buy his own plane ticket to go to a media-saturated competition where he'll be representing the companies that sponsor him? And after doing so he doesn't have a dime to his name?" It didn't make sense. I wondered if they made Dale Earnhardt buy his own plane ticket to Daytona. I imagine not.

Sponsored driver Dale Earnhardt passes blue-haired grannies on the interstate on his way to Daytona. Tradin' paint, turnin' left!

Reflecting on this incident, initially, raised my concern with how sponsors treat their athletes. But instead of launching into a whiny tirade of entitlement I had to ask the question; "What do sponsors get from their athletes and why should they offer them money?" So I started looking into how sponsorships work and, oddly enough, I came across two other sports that are also sponsorship based. Y'all guessed it right, bass fishing and Nascar! Woooo!

These two pursuits seem quite far removed from the sport of rock climbing but the financial parallels can't be ignored. Of course, what does have to be overlooked is the outrageous difference in the popularity of these sports. Nascar and bass fishing are huge while rock climbing is barely considered a sport. In fact, I can look out the window of the West Virginia-based DPM headquarters and see a bass boat with a Bud Light fishing team logo on it.

So here we have Dale Earnhardt, driving circles around the track at Daytona and his car is littered with logos; primarily Goodwrench, which paid $350,000 to $500,000 per race as a primary sponsor. The series is about forty races. Do the math and you'll find out that the company finds that having their name on his car is extremely valuable to them. Earnhardt's car is a speeding billboard, drilling the name of their company into the Bud Light-softened brains of Americans.  

Sponsored Nascar driver Jeff Gordon. Jeff is clearly sponsored by Sunoco, Pepsi, National Guard, Quaker State, Hendrick Motor Sports, Tyvek, Dupont, Goodyear, and bitchin' flames on his sleeves. 

The same goes for bass fishing. Those pro fishermen are out there covered in logos all across their fishing vests. The center chest logo costs a sponsor about 100 grand for the year which comes with some complimentary ad space on the boat, just like my neighbor has. This is just for the primary sponsor. If all you can afford is 12,000 a year, you can buy a tiny 3" patch somewhere near the bottom.

Now again, we have to remember that this is a far-fetched comparison because of the size of the sports. Fishing is big, climbing is small. But it pains me to see a 300 pound good ol' boy make as much from one tiny patch on his logo-littered XXL vest as a world class climbing athlete. Another difference here is that the dollar amount a pro climber makes per year is not readily available for viewing on the internet. We can assume that the Sharma's of the world (which is basically just Sharma) make a decent enough salary to survive on and maybe even thrive on. I’m also going to guess that Sharma doesn’t make nearly as much as pro snowboarder Shaun White who had his own half pipe built on a mountain top and gets helicoptered up to it every time he wants to go practice.

Sponsored snowboarder Shaun White is a multimillionaire. 

The second tier climbers, which includes athletes that climb 5.14d and V14 and receive a large amount of media coverage, see a lot less. I’ve talked with a few that might make a few thousand a year from combined multiple sponsors (maybe ten grand or so) and others that get free product and nothing more. It’s hard to lay down hard facts because people don’t really like to talk about how much money they make and I’m not paparazzi enough to ask. The take home point is that there is very little money to be made for climbing athletes unless you represent the 1% of pro climbers; the guy at the very top.

BMX winners, all logoed out with their cute little handlebar trophies. 

It's easy to point a finger at the sponsors and place blame in their lap but there isn't fault on anyone's part to be found in this discussion. From a sponsor’s perspective, they have to look at an athlete as a billboard. Then they have to determine "How many Bud Lights are we going to sell by putting our logo on this boat?" This makes it difficult because it's a number that is impossible to substantiate. To make it relevant to the climbing world, let's look at shoes; the one piece of gear all climbers use (except for Chris Sierzant who is oddly sponsored by La Sportiva, yet never seems to wear them.)

Chris Sierzant at Boat Rock, Georgia. Somebody get this guy a logo vest and a shoe sponsor!

For all topics of controversy I turn to DPM’s resident online troll Suburban Wankster for a devil’s advocate stance. Wankster wonders, "How many pairs of shoes are these guys really going to sell?" Sharma has certainly sold some Evolves but as I trickle down the hierarchy of ability it becomes increasingly difficult to match the pro athlete to their sponsor. I just don't know, and I'm immersed in the world of climbing media. Are pro athletes really fulfilling their job as a 'walking billboard'?

This points to the undeniable lack of a middle class in the world of professional climbing. The top 1% are going to see 90%1 of the money because they are actually recognizable and the products they promote are associated with the athlete. Nike didn’t name a shoe after the guys that played next to Michael Jordan on the basketball court even though in the grand scheme of the sport, Jordan was just barely better than his teammates. The industry recognizes this and puts the money where they feel it’s warranted; with the 1%.

The rest of that marketing budget goes to grassroots sponsorship programs which offer the most bang for the buck. Say I'm a shoe company and I have to choose between two athletes to sponsor:

Candidate 1: Joe Bayou. Joe is the head route setter at Swamp Thing Climbing Gym in Tidewater, Louisiana. He took a trip to Arkansas once where he was able to climb 5.10d outdoors and boulder V4. Regardless, he is by far the strongest climber at his gym. Everyone looks up to him. He is the coach of the youth team and is the only person that can offer a belay test. Joe is super nice, psyched on climbing and would love to talk to you about gear. If you offer him three pairs of free shoes per year he will be infinitely psyched and will spread the word about how good the product is to everyone he encounters. This comes at a cost of about 150 dollars to the company.

Candidate 2: Brian Bloc. Brian is sick strong. He lives in his car most of the year. In the summer he buckles down and works as a wild land firefighter to make enough money to make it through another season on the road. This past winter in Hueco he got the 462nd ascent of Full Monty (V12) but he thought it was soft and said so on his 8a scorecard. He said it again on his blog. Brian is wicked cool too. He's so cool that he usually only talks to other cool people at the crag. These people are sponsored too and already get free shoes so there is no chance that Brian can influence their decisions as a consumer. Brian is so cool that he occasionally spots Daniel Woods and Daniel knows him well enough to know that he should say hi every time he sees him, but he can't remember Brian's name and now it's too awkward to ask. Brian wants six pairs of free shoes per year cause he climbs a lot. If he likes them he'll wear them all the time. If not, he'll wear them to warm up and then buy a pair of send-shoes from another company that he only breaks out for the projy. Sponsoring Brian already costs the company twice as much as Joe and now Brian is asking for a salary so he can focus more on climbing and maybe send a V13 next year?

Kelly Slater is the Chris Sharma of surfing. He's sponsored by Fosters, the coolest sponsor I came across in my research. 

The answer to which 'athlete' deserves sponsorship is a no-brainer for most. Wankster's answer is, "Neither! Drop all the athletes from their teams and lower the shoe price for the consumer." Wankster points to the sudden, across-the-board, increase of approximately 20% for high-end shoes from any company. The kind of shoe that the pros wear on 5.15 or V.15 are now firmly priced above the 150 dollar mark. Why this happened so quickly and consistently from all companies is a mystery to me. Regardless of why, Wankster raised a good point. If you're the first company to drop the price of your high end shoe, won't you sell the most? And if that's the case, is your sponsored athlete doing his job at all? Is the consumer more affected by price, fit, and performance or will they do anything to get into the shoe that their hero is wearing? If the former is true, then even a moderate salary for a sponsored athlete is a waste of marketing budget.

Catch a fish, get more rich! That's my motto!

Which comes full circle on one point. If the average climber can't match a sponsor with their athlete then something is not working right. Pick a recognizable athlete at random in your mind and see if you can pick out what brand of shoe they wear. If you can't, either the athlete or the sponsor is failing. It's likely a combination of both.

At the very foundation of how a sponsorship works is the branding of the athlete. Just like a head of steer that is unmistakably marked as belonging to someone, the athlete should be unmistakably branded as representing a company. At least, this is how it works in these other sponsorship-based sports seen in the photos above.

And it’s not just the athletes themselves that rely on sponsorship to sustain their lifestyle. The entire competition climbing world is at the mercy of sponsorships from corporations. If a competition can’t show a company that branding their event will benefit their business then they certainly won’t shell out the thousands of dollars to sponsor the comp. It makes me think back to last summer’s Outdoor Retailer trade show when the annual UBC bouldering comp was cancelled. Organizers issued a press release that stated, “Due to a budget shortfall, the UBC event scheduled for the OR Summer Market in Salt Lake City has been cancelled. (edit) …this time we just couldn’t rally the industry support to pull it off in 2011. 

Competitions are the one place where an athlete can be seen by a lot of people. It’s a prime opportunity for sponsors to show off their team, especially if they’re out there winning the comp in company product, plastered in company logos. That seems to happen a lot more in Europe than it does in the States though. American’s haven’t really embraced the logo look but do we really want them to?

Podium montage showing Americans top and bottom with some World Cup Europeans in the middle. Top to bottom: ABS Nationals 2005, World Cup Puurs 2009, ABS Nationals 2008

Wankster’s final take on it is, “Climbing as a profession or a business is a joke.” I’d like to think he’s wrong because I truly love climbing and I’d like to see world-class athletes make a living at what they love to do. I do hear the plight of the pro climber. There isn’t much money to be made in the sport and I think it’s a shame that a few extremely talented athletes have given up pursuing it as a profession; instead seeing it as a dead end road. Unfortunately, the only way to put more money in the pockets of the pros is for them to increase their value to potential sponsors. If it’s not going to be a joke then someone is going to have to take sponsorship seriously and I’m not sure that’s what anyone wants. After all, a truly professional branded athlete takes on a far different appearance than what we are used to.     

The future of climbing or just another cheeseburger?

1. Made up statistics.

All photos courtesy of the internet:

Jeff Gordon:, Shaun White:, BMX winners:, Chris Sierzant:, Kelly Slater top:, Kelly Slater bottom:, Bass fisherman top:, Bass fisherman bottom:, Podium top and bottom:, Podium middle:, Cow: