Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Local athletes struggle to keep and find sponsorship

Slowing economy complicates funding

Express Staff Writer

Endurance athlete Rebecca Rusch, sponsored by Specialized and Red Bull, rides hard in the 2008 Cowbell Challenge. Express courtesy photo.

The economic crisis has Rebecca Rusch worried.

Although Rusch, an "ultra-endurance" athlete and world champion of the 24-hour bike racing scene, is still sponsored by Specialized and Red Bull, she has noticed that few companies are taking on new athletes.

"I think a lot are just taking the cream of the crop, keeping the people that will give them the most bang for the buck," said Rusch, a Ketchum resident.

In response, Rusch is working harder than ever to market herself.

"What I have been focusing on this year and last year are ways to make me look more appealing," she said.

That means more promotional events, posting race reports online, appearing at bike shops and handing out Red Bull products. Rusch owes her business savvy to her background in marketing and business, but also her desire to keep her job as a professional athlete.

"Instead of just taking the paycheck, I'm trying to be more a part of the company and send them ideas," Rusch said. "I try to look at it as a business and say, 'OK, airfare is more expensive, what can I do to provide them more for their money?' And that is just, I think, sort of smart business."

For those beginning their professional athletic careers, sponsorship is even less secure. One such group is the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation's Cross Country Olympic Development Team.

"It is always, in the best of times, a challenge to help them secure the funding and the sponsorship that they need to be able to keep racing and make it on the national team," said Rick Kapala, the foundation's cross-country program director.

Kapala said a typical ski racer spends about $20,000 per year on training and competitions. To complicate matters, he or she often has to train 20 to 30 hours each week, which makes working a full-time job next to impossible.

"It is really hard to have a full-time job and train," Kapala said. "How do they pay for the car insurance or the rent?"

Cross-country racing is also, he adds, not trendy.

"A lot of marketing and sponsoring is about what is hip, about selling stuff," Kapala said. "[Cross-country] is not the cool thing or the new thing or the hip thing, so the problem is how does that figure into somebody's marketing?"

Yet even practitioners of the newer and cooler snow sports are struggling. Ketchum native Taan Robrahn has set his sights on making the Australian national team in snowboard cross, a relatively new sport to the industry.

"I thought after the Olympics (in 2006 when snowboard cross debuted), getting sponsorship would be no problem because it was so popular," Robrahn said. "But companies are shying away from boarder cross."

Robrahn is pretty much self-funded. He works in antique restoration and gives snowboard lessons for Sun Valley Co. in the winter.

"I'm lucky I have a credit card because it is pretty much my biggest sponsor," Robrahn said

Nick Hanscom, an alpine skier and Ketchum native, is in a similar boat.

"It has been really tough to get clothing and equipment sponsors," he said. "Everyone I've talked to, all the ski companies, the majority of them are downsizing and they are holding on to their really, really big-name athletes and dropping everyone else."

But it is not just the companies that are cutting back. Even members of the U.S. team are short on funding.

Hailey native Graham Watanabe, a member of the U.S. team for snowboard cross, acknowledged that despite being on the A team, he is not fully funded for the season.

"I am getting a majority of my season paid for as far as traveling and lodging, but we are running out of money come March," Watanabe said.

But, Watanabe said, money is not really what it is about.

"You can't get to this level and not try to make a living out of it," he said. "But anyone who says they are doing it to make money, they are either lying or in it for the wrong reasons. It is a glory life and a lucky position to be in."

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